I am often contacted about both new and traditional materials to build dogsleds. And indeed one of the benefits of building and especially repairing so many different sleds is gaining broad insight into materials and techniques that do and do not work. The other advantage I have is living in an area that, given the snow conditions the last few years, is a true test track with extremely rough conditions that abuse sleds. Alaskans, especially those in the Bush, are great improvisers when it comes to keeping their sleds going and indeed are following the true tradition of sled building. Most of the changes that have occurred over the millennium have been the offshoot of the scavenger’s skill. All it took was for an individual to look at a piece of driftwood, old metal barrel staves, or a scrap of high-density plastic and perceive an untended use. I remember having a customer in the early 80’s who brought in a large toboggan for some new runners. While we were chatting I flipped the sled over and was surprised to see, on the bed bottom, the name of a mining town north of Fairbanks printed in reflective white lettering on a familiar green background. “They were replacing this one and I managed to get my hands on it,” was the straight-faced explanation I got. It was impressive that the inevitable bullet holes found in most Alaskan road signs seemed to remarkably line up exactly where the bolt holes were. But the end product was a very tough toboggan. It was the same for the people who were trying to find a usable aluminum runner. Over the years they ran through the different grades and shapes of aluminum with fillings and reinforcements until someone noticed a certain extruded product that was used in airplane construction: Put a bend on one end, add some plastic and toggle nuts, and you’re off on your merry sled building way.Another thing to realize is that in Alaska and Canada the dogsled is still used in a lot of places as an everyday tool that is an integral part of the lifestyle. And as such, these sleds are subject to the wear and breakage that occurs naturally when using them. It’s in the way these sleds are maintained that new ideas are born. A good example of this arrived in my shop this last season. This sled had started life as a Tim White Long Toboggan. When the runners broke, they were replaced with a pair of Matrix aluminum ones. Then, after adding some plywood sides and bottom, someone tied a pair of wooden runners with a never before seen plastic sheath to the metal runners (Photo 1). My addition to this masterpiece was adding a strip of 3/8” UHMW to the bottom of the runners, replacing a QCR rail system (Photo 2). I must admit that this was the first metal/wood/plastic hybrid runner system I’ve seen but I doubt it will be the last.That’s why if your thinking of building an “old style” or “traditional style” sled you need to determine if what you want is a replica that uses certain materials and techniques or a sled using modern methods and materials. A good example was a 12’ freight sled I finished last year. It looks like an old style sled and I used twisted wire to provide the loops for tying the stanchions to the runners, but I used nylon line for the ties and all the knotwork on the sled (Photo 3). As it was there were 40 hours of tying on that sled, but had I used babiche I could easily have tripled that. And at that I would have ended up with a sled that would have reached a point where the tension would be great, but also one that the ties would wear and degrade faster than nylon, no matter how much maintenance is done. Babiche is a great example of an item that has a lot of romantic cache among sled builders but in reality is miserable to use, difficult to maintain and provides tasty opportunities for dogs and porcupines to chew on. I’ve seen babiche not just from the traditional caribou source but also moose, musk ox, seal and beaver. The reason these were used is because there was simply no alternative at the time that was available and it was one of the local resources that could be used to tie a sled together. When modern cords and ropes became available in the remote areas, the art of making babiche went by the wayside as has its use.I recently received a photo from a village school showing off their “traditional toboggan sled” that they had offered up for raffle. It was an almost exact copy of one of my copies of a Tim White toboggan. Traditions can be slippery things when new materials get mixed in and examined through the eyes of a certain age group. Toboggan style sleds have been around a long time and in various forms. In the Interior of Alaska the Natives and early trappers used a narrow sled made of two wide boards that had been steam bent up in the front, with a pair of runners on the bottom, and moosehide sides. One of the replacements for this was, remarkably enough, plywood in the early years of the 20th century. Photo 4 shows a “state of the art” collapsible sled made with plywood that was used for mail delivery in the Nome area in the early 30’s.Traditional sled building has been, for the most part, a study in opportunity. When people needed to move larger objects they would cut trees that were growing on the sides of steep hills that had a natural curve at the base. Flatten them out on the bottom and lash some crosspieces and you had a freight sled. And because sled building has changed so much in the last 40 years the list of tradition setters has grown as people take materials and shape them in new and more efficient ways. The list includes people who have left us, like Ed Moody and Ed Hall, and the ones who are still kicking around, such as Tim White, Bernie Willis, Charlie Boulding, Jeff King, Hans Gatt and Jim Miller. Now as you start to build your own sled take heed of what’s been done by others, but at the same time don’t be afraid to try something new. If you have a sled you should treat it like a canvas that you paint to your mushing satisfaction. As long as you’re not threatening the integrity of the sled, it’s fair game. A lot of times things may not work out quite like you wanted, but you shouldn’t be discouraged from trying something else. Maybe next issue I’ll write about my three runner sled experiment as an example. The final test for most of us occurs when we’re bouncing down a trail and the temperature is -40F to -50F. Materials are literally in a make-it or break-it situation. A good example of a material we thought had potential was titanium, but most of the time when it has been used it has proven to be brittle and breaks. So go steal some ideas, come up with some new ones and look around you and see uses for whatever is available. Until next time, happy mushing thoughts.Tip of the issue: If you have steel runners, take a belt sander with an 80 to 120 grit belt and buff them in the late fall, making sure to run down the runner, not across it. Wipe a light oil (3-1) on it to keep it from rusting and elevate it off the ground. •David Klumb has been making dog sleds in Fairbanks, Alaska since 1980. David and his wife Joanne ran the 2006 Serum Run. For more information on Laughing Husky dog sleds, visit www.laughinghusky.com.
Dog scootering involves having your dog(s) pull you on a wheeled scooter whilst attached via