SLED RX: THE DEADLIEST CARGO

I have been repairing other people’s sleds for the last 20 plus years and indeed have several dollars for every time someone started off with “I was just giving a ride to some people and ’this’ happened”, this being everything from the runners up.

As mushers we are often called upon to give rides to our non-mushing friends or friends of our non-mushing friends. Sound familiar? And let’s face it, we usually say yes. It is so important for us in the mushing community to show people just how much fun mushing is and how happy the dogs are doing it. But at the same time we need to make sure that we do it safely. I remember the distress I felt as I watched two friends of friends roll out of the sled and into the overflow on Goldstream Creek one February.

Luckily, no one was hurt and they thought it great fun and still talk of their “adventure” as the highlight of their trip to Alaska. I made a couple mistakes that set up that tumble before I hooked a dog to the sled. First of all they wanted a ride in a photogenic sled rather than one with a lot of plastic and aluminum. So we ended up on a five-foot basket sled, about the regular 21” wide. Second in my case I saw how large they were and added more dogs to run with 10.

So down the trail goes over 400 lbs. in the elevated basket and when we hit the slight side-dip on the creek, over we went. Once that heavy load, on that high center of gravity, started tipping there was no stopping it. For a long time I was able divert these rides to other mushers so the thought of hauling people around had not really been on my mind to much except in the steady stream of sleds broken up with passengers in them. Then a few years ago I built some sleds for a glacier tour company.

In the conversations I was having with the company’s owner, the weight of the passengers was often a concern. Well, let’s just say that people haven’t gotten any skinnier in the last few years and hauling a great deal of weight continues to be the main issue with tour sleds.Then this last year I was lucky enough to build a sled for a musher who has a good sense for a lot of older ways of doing things. I was given certain traditional parameters to work within and a lot of leeway to be creative. The result was a traditional basket sled, 12’ runners, 10′ by 2′ basket. The runners are 2½” wide capped off with ¼” by 3″ steel. Building this sled and viewing photographs of old sleds helped me to revisit the day when sleds were built to haul serious weight and put it into perspective about carrying passengers today.

First let’s talk about how much weight mushers usually carry in a sled. Even when I go camping for a week my sled will maybe start out at 250-300 lbs. at the most. This weight is lashed in tight to the bag and sled so it doesn’t shift as I go down the trail. Now if I replace that load with two passengers the weight could easily reach 350-400 lbs. and this load would not be strapped in tight and would shift. In talking to tour operators they speak of often putting 500-600 lbs. in a sled, not counting the driver.

There are few mushers that are still moving these kinds of weights on a regular basis so I see some broken sleds from the fact that the musher has little or no experience with that kind of weight in a sled. Putting that kind of weight in a sled changes all the dynamics of the sled and its handling ability. If you combine that with a lot of dogs and things happening quickly out on the trail it is a recipe for disaster.So what’s a musher to do? Thinking about it ahead of time is the first step. If you are giving a ride in a basket sled remember that you will have a high, heavy center of gravity. Older basket sleds were often 2-4 inches wider than most of today’s sleds and could control more weight with the wider stance. The problem with using these old-style sleds is that passengers need to slide back from the front of the sled because of the high sides (Photo 1).

That type of maneuver is easy for younger, fit passengers but tough for the overweight or elderly. Large, wide passenger sleds (Photo 2) are fine if you have a lot of open area to work with because you will find they do not turn easily. If you give a lot of rides building something like this could help. Just start with a rigid toboggan frame and add seating.If you are using a narrower sled remember that it will quickly react to any kind of side-dip or bump and you must be prepared if any of these features are in the trail. If you can, try to run on a flat open trail. Regular basket sleds also often load from the front of the sled and the passengers then slide back between the stanchions.

This is where basket slats are often broken by being stepped on. I recommend taking something and putting it in the bottom of your bag or on the slats themselves (Photo 3). A thin piece of plywood, plastic, dried moose or caribou hides, or heavy carpet all work well to help distribute the weight out for passengers or heavy objects like chainsaws. Keep in mind that people often just want to experience mushing, not go on an expedition. Keep your ride relatively short and try to limit the number of dogs to just what is needed to move down the trail. If you end up going 3-4 mph that will be fast enough for them.

Of course the easiest way to give a ride is in a toboggan style sled. Toboggans are generally built to handle more weight and keep it at a lower center of gravity. Old couch cushions work great for setting passengers on (Photo 4) and you can even put two in the rear of the sled so the back person can see over the front. Be careful about setting the rear passenger too high because you will find yourself tipping over easier.No matter what type of sled you are giving a ride with, you can help avoid damaging your sled by trying to take pressure off the back of the runners as you go down the trail. Lift your weight onto the driving bow as you go over moguls or up and down creek banks and try not to jerk it too hard.

Run and kick a bit more than you normally might. Your sled is not invulnerable, so do not treat like it is.Finally, be realistic about the sled’s cargo carrying capabilities. Don’t take that 20 year old Moody or Risdon and drop some 300 lb. chunk of humanity in it. Tell people that you are not set up to give rides and pass them on to someone who is. As I mentioned earlier, educating non-mushers is a very important aspect for the future of our lifestyle. Just make sure that it is a positive experience for your sled too.