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Project: Impress Your Dog
Behavioral Notebook: Tiri's Magic Carpet
ISD News from Norway
In My Humble Opinion: Cause and Effect
Janice Howls: The Spitz Group
Featured Inuit Dog Owner: Jim Ryder
Hudson's Bay Adventure
Book Review: Running North
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Jim Ryder's team in a unique hitch, © Ryder photo
Hudson Bay Adventure:
Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, Polar Bear capital of the World. Madeline Island is a long way from Hudson Bay, the stomping grounds of the Big White Bear.
This is a story about my dog sled trip from Churchill, southeast to Hudson Bay, south along the coast to the Nelson River, west along an old abandoned railroad bed to my dog truck parked at Gillam, Manitoba.
Lake Superior and the forest trails of Madeline Island provide a good training ground for sled dogs whose owner is anticipating arctic dogsled travel! Our training on Lake Superior included many ice road crossings (several of those crossings were made during winter storms). Sometimes because of the blowing snow, only a few of the ice road trees could be seen (about forty-five trees lined the ice road this year, between Madeline Island and Bayfield). Our training also included many moon lit trips on Lake Superior and the forested trail on Madeline Island.
The idea was to get as many different experiences under our feet/paws as possible. One training run that really paid off was going from the town park to the state park (on Madeline Island) on the trail along the ridge of the lagoon. The many wooden bridges, thin ice and open water the dogs had to cross would prove of value on this trip.
On the morning of March 19, 1999 the ice road was in it's last hours. That morning I crossed by car three times to get my supplies over to the main land and into my dog truck. One last time I needed to harness my dogs to their sled and cross the ice from Madeline Island to Bayfield. After loading the dogs, equipment and sled onto my dog truck, we were headed North. I had parked my heavy dog truck on the mainland two weeks earlier in anticipation of the ice road deteriorating.
The ultimate destination, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada! By dog truck to Gillam was the first leg of the trip. Gillam, Manitoba is located at the end of the road north of Winnipeg. Once we reached Gillam it was time for a box car ride, the second leg of the journey. Dogs, equipment and my sled in a box car for eight hours with the door wide open proved to be good transition time. The train ride was slow and cold. Outside the scenery was slowly changing from a boreal forest to a bleak frozen tundra as we neared Churchill. My partners on this trip, Brian Frederickson and Kelly Murphy, were in the other box car with their dogs, sled and equipment.
Nine dogs were chosen for my team: Spike, my lead dog; Etah and Tor, in point position; Fawn and Retread, next; Kimo, Nuuk, Thule and Baxter, were four abreast, in a fan hitch, at wheel position. Five of the nine were less than one and a half years old. These were the puppies born on Madeline Island in November of 1997. They all had names by the time they were seven days old. I held each one of them when they were just hours old talking to them and breathing on them to imprint and bond with them. At four weeks they were on the sled in a portable kennel going down the trail with the big dogs. Soon (8-10 weeks old) they were following the sled, running for miles, hearing the commands, gee, haw, on by, whoa...! Near the end of winter they would run loose with the big dogs, in front of the sled. Their instinct was strong and the young dogs knew what they were doing. By the time the snow left that year they had traveled over a hundred miles on Lake Superior and through the forest trails of Madeline Island. Yet I wondered, would they measure up? Could they pull the sled (I had by far the largest sled and the heaviest)? How would they do day after day pulling my loaded sled for over three hundred miles?
Practice was over, this was for real.
From Churchill we would travel south-easterly fifty miles+ to the coast of Hudson Bay. Once we reach the Bay our plan was to follow the coast south one hundred fifty+ miles to Port Nelson, a ghost town with many buildings still standing but no residents. Finally we would travel on an old abandon rail road grade west seventy-five miles+ to Gillam, where our dog trucks would be waiting to take us home.
Parks Canada would not allow fire arms to be taken on this trip. I asked what we should do for bear protection. The park ranger informed me one of his staff members had trapped and hunted extensively in the area we were about to travel through. Further explaining, because we had dogs the bears would have nothing to do with us and that they (the polar bears) would give us a wide berth if we were any where near them. If there was an encounter I was told to let two dogs loose, and "they will know what to do" Polar bear protection was the only training I was not able to provide for my dogs!!!
We left Churchill around eleven a.m. after sleeping in the box cars the previous night. This would be the third and final leg of our journey, Churchill to Gillam by dog team. There was a strong cold wind that blew all night making the box car a good place to sleep, out of the wind at least. The next twelve nights would be spent in our tents camping out on the ice/trail. My dogs had not had any exercise for five days and were very anxious to get moving. Many of the local folks stopped by to greet us, find out where we were from, what our destination was and wish us good luck.
Would my dogs pull, could my dogs pull my heavy sled??? The dogs had no problem pulling the sled. We surged out of Churchill with a very strong attitude. After all, we were near the end of the season. The dogs and I were in very good physical and mental shape. The quietness of the trail with the dogs pulling unceasingly hour after hour, mile after mile, ushers in a spiritual element. This may take an hour or two, sometimes a day or two. With body, mind and spirit in tune, add to that the dogs silent, forward energy, time and distance no longer matter. This is as close as I can get to answering the question "Why do you do this?"
Snow cover on the ground was hard packed for the first few hours making travel easy for the dogs as the sled glided along with less effort. Later that first day the trail to the coast became more and more difficult to see. During the night the wind had blown a heavy dusting of snow across the trail erasing it in many places. Not to worry! We had good dogs, maps, compasses and our GPSs!!!
Our camp site the first night out was on one of the many nameless ponds on the tundra. Each night the routine is the same. First, the dogs are staked out. The dogs have their harnesses taken off before they are staked out. The stake out line is a long cable with very short (one foot long) chains attached every seven feet or so. Each end of the cable is connected to an ice screw that is screwed into the ice about eight inches. Next, put the tent up, place the sleeping bag, food, cook stove, camp light, candles, head light and other STUFF inside the tent for the night. Dry commercial dog food and frozen meat are fed to the dogs once a day, at night. Dinner is a one pot meal of pasta or rice, meat and vegetables. Meat is either chicken, fish or red meat. Mixed vegetables are used each night. For drink there is hot chocolate, hot tang or tea. After dinner it's read or write a bit then lights out and sleep.
Mornings start with a hot breakfast in the tent. Oatmeal or Red River and hot drink. Sausage links and toast. The menu changes little. One, two quart thermos bottle is filled with hot drink every morning to be used through out the day as needed. After breakfast it's: pack the sled, string out the gang line, secure the sled with the ice hook and/or snub line, harness the dogs and hook them up to the sled. Lastly the ice screws are unscrewed from their solid grip, the stake out line is rolled up and lashed near the front of the sled for easy finding. It will be the first piece of equipment I reach for at the end of the day. The dogs are very eager and ready to head out for the day, the hook and/or snub lines are released at the same time I call to the dogs "READY HIKE!" We are off with a surge of raw strength and power. The dogs run as fast as they can for almost a mile before they settle into their gait that will carry us along at a steady 4 to 7 miles per hour.
All my concerns about the dogs’ performance are put to rest! Hour after hour mile after mile the dogs pull our heavy load at a steady pace. We stop for lunch which consists of nuts, candy bars, dry fruit, maybe a sandwich and of course the ever-present, hot drink. The dogs rest at lunch time knowing we have not stopped for the day. After lunch we usually take one more short break in the afternoon before we quit traveling for the day.
The daily routine is followed without much variation. When we reached Hudson Bay our thoughts turned to polar bears. That night we staked our dogs in three parallel lines and placed our two tents between the dogs. Each night I would sleep in my tent alone while Brian and Kelly shared a larger tent. With the dogs staked on either side of our tents we felt safe, should a polar bear discover we were there. Sleep came easy, morning always brought a sense of excitement, thinking about what the day might hold in store for us.
That morning after traveling for about an hour, my dogs started to run at a brisk pace. At first I didn't think much about it but soon this unusual behavior would make plenty of sense! Brian, Kelly and I would sometimes get strung out with our teams miles from each other. I left camp last that morning, putting me a few miles behind the others right from the start. Because of the brisk pace my dogs had settled into, I would soon be within talking distance of the others. Brian had stopped and was pointing out to the open water. I had stopped my team and could hear him shouting "POLAR BEAR! POLAR BEAR! POLAR BEAR!!!" My dogs had smelled the bear long before I had any notion a bear was anywhere near us, thus the reason for the brisk pace moments before. With my binoculars I could bring him up real close. He was walking majestically, very slowly giving us a wide berth. He knew exactly where we were. As he would slowly turn his head and look straight at us he would raise his nose sniffing, checking us out. Then I noticed he would turn toward the camp site we had just left and sniff, no doubt picking up the scent and smells from the dog food, people food and other aromas we left behind.
Watching a polar bear in the wild, on his turf, with no gun and seventy miles from the nearest person/building gave me a real sense of being alive. My awareness was heightened but it was apparent the bear wanted no part of us/dogs! I marveled while watching the big white bear thinking to myself how free and strong he looked. As we started out down the trail again, Kelly turned to me, with a smile, and said "I'm glad I'm not last!" I smiled and waved back.
We would soon be treated to more insights into our polar bear experience. A few miles down the trail we came upon the foot prints of the bear we had just seen. His tracks were coming straight up the trail we were going down, but then turned abruptly, ninety degrees and veered off toward the open water. This bear had smelled our camp, and was making a bee line for it, then either saw us or could smell our presence, and went off the trail to go around us long before we had a clue he was even there. I'm sure more than one bear saw us but this was the only bear we would see.
Hudson Bay is a body of salt water and has a tide of about four feet. The ice we were on was 6+ feet thick. We were traveling close to shore (about the third day out) and came upon a large area that had recently froze. The run off from the melting snow on the shore flooded the old ice. The top inch and a half was ice, under that was six to eight inches of water then beneath that, solid ice. As we ran the dogs over this thin ice their weight and that of the sled would cause cracks to run out on either side of us and in front of the sled, at the same time we would sink three to four inches. It was like running on rubber ice! Occasionally a dog or two would break through the thin ice. Although they didn't like the thin ice and breaking though into the cold water, they knew what to expect. My Madeline Island/Lake Superior training was paying off.
The flat, stark bleakness of Hudson Bay was slowly giving way to a few small trees and some rolling hills as we neared the mouth of the Nelson River. I had seen pictures of the pier at Port Nelson It was large enough to carry a freight train. I smiled to myself as the Port Nelson pier first came into view. This was the first sign of anything man made that we had seen in many days. Checking my global position system (GPS) I discovered the pier was eleven miles down the coast. Off to the east the open water was only about fifty yards away. I was running the dogs just off shore, between the shore line and the open water. Ice bergs as big as houses could be seen out in the bay for miles around. One particular iceberg looked just like an ore ship (reminding me of the ore ships on Lake Superior), very long with a pilot house on one end.
Port Nelson was a welcome sight. This was our first planned one day rest stop. The dogs needed a rest, they had run flawlessly for nine days in a row. I felt trail tired and a little beat up myself. Standing on the back of my sled for miles and miles, hour after hour, each day, occasionally running along side, had taken its toll. Although I had lost thirteen pounds I felt in great shape. A whole day to rest, yes!
The first order of business on my day off was to change my gang line from an open ice modified fan hitch to a shorter tandem style. The rest of the day was spent checking and rechecking equipment and supplies. A little exploring was in order and then relax for the final push. We had seventy-five plus miles of trail to run and we would be back to our dog trucks.
Although we were three camps from the end of our journey we had two concerns. First, the many creeks and rivers we had to cross. Would they be frozen, would the ice be thick enough for us to cross? If they were open, would they be to deep/wide to cross? Second, the snow cover on the a section of the trail called The Burns. We knew some sections of The Burns had no snow at all. But just how serious this would be for us, we had no way of knowing.
The largest river we had to cross was froze solid and had a steep bank on the other side. A long gentle incline brought us down to the shoreline which proved to be a good camp site, before venturing up that steep bank just across the river. In the morning our dogs would be fresh with lots of spirit and drive. Well rested dogs were just what was needed to get up the river bank on the other side. The bank was over forty feet high and very steep. The dogs bolted out across the river and attacked the steep grade with renewed power. After stopping the team half way up for pictures, I gave the old command... "ready, hike" and they dug in and charged the rest of the way up without stopping.
The Burns proved to be a challenge, with about eighty percent snow cover for eight miles. The snowless parts of the trail were covered with a thick layer of moss in many places which kept the runners from grinding down. For sure pulling the sled on the snowless patches was harder for the dogs but the snow seemed to be in the right places at the right time for them to keep up their pace and not get discouraged.
While leading our threesome on the final leg of our adventure, I came abruptly upon a swollen creek about twenty-five feet across. The water appeared to be about four feet deep in the middle. With my lead dog at the edge of the water, I walked up beside him to survey the situation. Down stream about fifty feet I spotted a couple of long skinny pine trees laying into the water about two thirds of the way across the creek. Without hesitating I went down stream toward the shaky pine bridge, with Spike (my lead dog) at my side. The rest of the team followed pulling the heavy sled though and across the water. The training here on the Island was paying dividends.
One last memorable event that made me proud of my dogs came as I crested a hill and could see a that a primitive bridge was stretch across a small creek at the bottom of this long decent. The bridge was made up of two by fours laid crosswise on two stringers that went from one side of the bank to the other. This bridge had no sides on it. I rode my brake slightly all the way down the hill. My lead dog approached with caution and never wavered but kept to the center of the bridge, the entire team crossed with confidence. This was a direct result of the training on the many primitive bridges here on the Island trails.
By this time the dogs seemed to know we were near the end of our journey! But how could they? I was very proud of the way the dogs performed. They improved with each mile, with each hour on the trail.
The trail came out where our trucks were parked, Sun Dance Creek! We had one of the locals move our trucks from the train depot to Sun Dance Creek, the end of trail for us. We were sun tanned and trail hardened but what a trip. The solitude of the journey is what appeals to me. Each musher is on his own, often out of sight of the others, yet we come together each night to camp and rest, ready to hit the trail the next day to see what we can explore around the next bend or over the next hill. Whether it's Hudson Bay or Lake Superior the call to go and explore in the winter with my dogs is a strong one.
Remember "Dream big... and follow your dreams."
Do you think you might like take a dog sled trip and mush
your own team? Give me a call 715-747-2000.
Jim Ryder appears on the cover of the December 1999 issue of Wisconsin Trails magazine. His story, entitled O'er Frozen Waters, can be found on page 34 along with more photographs from this adventure. Jim lives on Madeline Island year round. Winter population 180. Summer population 2000+. Madeline Island is 14+miles long and 2+miles wide. It is the only inhabited island of the Apostle Islands (Wisconsin).