Monday, January 18, 2010

Breaking trail

Have you broken
trail on snowshoes? mushed your huskies up the river,
Dared the unknown, led the way, and clutched the prize?

(Robert Service, "bard of the Yukon")
Well, yes and no, Robert. No clutching of prizes, I'm afraid. But I have broken trail on snowshoes. That's what I'm doing below, though you can't see it because Mazunte and Solan were more interesting than some dude in snowshoes filming himself.

In deep snow, it's hard for dogs to break trail on their own. Motivation has little to do with this, it's mostly a question of physics. So a musher has to walk ahead on snowshoes, trampling the snow down. I've let the dogs loose here because we weren't really going anywhere, just fooling around.

Skis are no good for this. You need to slap the air out of the snow in an area preferably at least as wide as the sled.

The idea of breaking trail by hand, or rather, by foot, seems horrific to many. What on earth is the point of mushing if it's going to be that slow. Why not use a snowmobile. And so on. Indeed, most mushers train on trails that have been made with snowmobiles, even the Iditarod teams follow machined trails.

Which makes one wonder: How did they go about mushing before snowmobiles came along? Some, notably the Inuit, lived on windswept plains or next to frozen sea. American Indians would travel on frozen rivers. The people they wanted to see lived by the river anyway. Trappers would have established trap lines, and after breaking the trail some times in the beginning of the season would have compacted the snow enough to let the dogs break trail most of the time afterwards. I can't imagine anybody who lived in forests felt entitled to zip along in any direction at any speed. Sledding with dogs was compared to packing gear on you own, it was not compared to jumping on a Cessna or zooming along on a snowmobile. Mushing seemed pretty darned fast, even if you had to break trail on your own.

One of my options is traveling on the logging roads. This is fast and fun, but after a dry spell the snow on the road gets really hard and dogs aren't made for that. There are also ski tracks, but skiers can be awfully militant and very possessive. Another option is stuffing the dogs in a car and driving for hundreds of miles to highland plateaus where the wind has pounded the snow into a perfect, hard surface. Every competitive musher does this, and most recreational ones too. I'm often invited to come along by well meaning people but it makes the vanity of keeping sled dogs just too obvious for me. I like the conceit that my little team is like a truck or a row boat, not a surf board or a jet ski. I like imagining that the dogs and I use each other to go on trips and discover the world, in stead of using the world to go on trips.

Quite the moralist, me.


Kimberly Aardal said...

It sounds like a good life and I really like what you said about the dogs and you using each other to explore the world.

Oldfool said...

Enlightenment is not found through using physical things to lighten a task.
For you it's breaking a trail with snowshoes.
For me it's sweeping the dog packs back porch with a simple broom.
For some reason that simple task gives me peace and clears my mind.
But then you already know that.

一起吧 said...
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