Trying out the Fan Hitch

Any dog team can run in a fan hitch—or so they say. Having admired the fluid movement of a team running in an evenly spread out fan more than once we finally decided it’s time to try it for ourselves. We gathered all the rope we could find around the yard, tied the harnesses to the lines and loaded the dogs on our dog bus. Our destination was only a twenty minute drive away: Lac la Ronge with its 550 square miles of ice, covered by only a few inches of snow. The conditions were perfect. Quincy and I picked our three most reliable gee-haw leaders to run out front, followed by three trail leaders and two steady wheel dogs. I felt the pleasant anticipation I usually do just before hooking up, but this time it was mixed with quite a bit of nervousness. Not only had we decided to run our dogs in a fan hitch, we were also going to try out a qamatik that was given to Quincy on his last adventure race in the Arctic. The 12′ qamatik is long enough that three people can sit comfortably on it, therefore we decided to invite our nephew Jadon to come along−as much for the fun as for an extra hand handling the dogs and the added weight on the sled. We both felt like rookies, looking at each other and waiting for the other one to take the initiative. “Maybe eight dogs are too many?” Quincy asked looking doubtfully at our arrangement of tied together ropes and lines. I confidently disagreed, but began to question my decision when Quincy and Jadon were each holding a dog by his collar and trying to coax a third one to stay in position while our nicely spread out fan became a tangled mess and I tried to fit in the last two dogs. After a short while of general excitement our main leaders got the idea that this was not a sniff-pee-and-run free walking trip. Pompey started lunging on his tug line. The other dogs followed his example and finally everyone appeared ready to go. When we pulled the hooks we nearly got thrown off the sled as it jumped forward. Before Africa knew what happened to her, she was run over by her team mates, fell behind the sled and was being dragged backwards, still sitting on her bum as she never got up and running. Africa is one of our more sensitive dogs, to word it positively. Any new situation causes her to curl her ears back, cower down and look at us as if we beat her three times daily, which, needless to say, we don’t, not even once. If you know Africa, you know it’s time for the mandatory belly rub, trying to reassure her that everything is just fine. But if you don’t have a brake on your sled and your team has just started a few seconds ago, the first objective is to get the snow hook to grip in a crack in the ice, frantically screaming ‘whoa,’ which, by the way, is not very reassuring for Africa, who is the only dog who actually obeys the command. When the snow hook gripped, the qamatik came to a sudden stop, which just about threw us off the sled (at least we didn’t have a handle bar to hit). We have a vow that 11-year old Africa only comes on runs with us if she gets enthusiastic and wants to go. Since we couldn’t determine any signs of enthusiasm, we untied her line and let her free-run behind us. Not having to drag Africa behind released the full power of the team. I never felt so utterly out of control with such a small team. Quincy and I clung on to the sled feeling somewhere between amazed and terrified about the strength of the team, while Jadon exclaimed with a big smile: “Wow, we are going really fast. This is fun!” The dogs seemed to have figured out within minutes what to do. While they first tried to dash off any which way, they now moved closer together. And closer yet. Bear’s tail went straight up into the air, Tobi’s hair stood up stiffly and even Frank, the most gentle dog in our team, let out a soft-spoken growl. “Quit that!” I commanded. While Frank obeyed, Bear started to snap and growl at the dogs left and right. I have seen Inuit dog mushers reel in a misbehaving or not pulling dog by its tug line and hold it short for a while so the dog has no other option but to focus on running if it doesn’t want to get run over by the qamatik. I thought about pulling Bear in, but his tug line was wound up with all the other lines in a six foot long mess. We would have needed an avid circus acrobat, preferably a tight rope walker to do the trick. Since there was none, we decided to go over to plan B. This included frantically screaming ‘whoa’ again, waiting for the hook to grab, quickly throwing Bear over to the outside of the fan, where hopefully he would feel less stressed and get moving again before the dogs had too much time to jump over and under each other causing the already shortened fan to become shorter yet. The plan worked excellently. For the most part anyway. Bear stopped growling and everyone was pulling again. Everyone except Happy, our little white female that got her name because she could wag her tail already before she could stand properly on four legs. She had used the distraction to climb on Jadon’s lap, happily trying to lick his face and, of course, wagging her tail. Although not too impressed from an obedience point of view, Happy still made us laugh. We pushed her off the qamatik and after bouncing along next to us for a while she joined the team again. Finally, we were cruising along just fine. I even started to relax, not for long though. “Where are we going?” I asked. “Wherever the dogs take us.” Sounded good to me. The dogs followed an old snowmobile trail where the hard packed snow resisted the spring melt. The trail made a bend around a point, sharp enough to send the qamatik skidding sideways and nearly bringing the puzzled dogs to a complete stop. They picked up their speed on command and ran full blast towards the shore. A horror vision appeared in front of my eyes and I yelled: “Quincy, are we heading for the portage?!” “No, it’s further south,” he reassured me. And then we both saw the opening in the trees indicating the portage: “Haw, haw, haw!” I commanded. “Haw!” Quincy yelled. The command leaders jumped off the trail, the trail leaders stayed on the trail and Happy came running back to the sled to check what the commotion was about. For a second it looked like nobody knew who to follow and the dogs ran from side to side, while we tried to encourage the right decisions: “Good boy, Frank!” “Haw, Cedric!” “Happy, tighten up!” Finally Pompey stepped out with such a determination that the dogs decided to follow him. The team swung around, just seconds away from the portage. Now, with no trail to follow we had to direct the dogs and to our great joy, the dogs listened to the commands immediately. When given a gee/haw command, the main leaders pulled over first, causing the fan to spread out wide and closing again when the remaining team followed. “This is fun!” Quincy and I smiled, but the smile from Jadon’s face was gone. In fact, the expression on his face, looked unsettling. “Um, I think I broke the sled” Jadon confessed, shifting his body so that we could see the broken crosspiece. “No sweat,” I said, “we got plenty of crosspieces left.” Quincy shook his head and pointed to the rope that tied all crosspieces together. The rope, meaning one continuous string, meaning furthermore if a crosspiece was missing, the rope would unravel like a hand knit wool jumper leaving us not with just a broken crosspiece, but no crosspieces at all. “Jadon, hold the pieces together and make sure they don’t slip out of the rope. We better head back as long as we still have a qamatik”.The dogs turned in a nice wide circle and after a couple of minutes the dog bus came in sight. The sled held out for the entire 5-minute way back. This was the shortest trip I have been on all season, but it surely wasn’t short with excitement. “Let’s hang the qamatik up on the wall and keep it as a souvenir.” Quincy suggested immediately after the trip. But I wasn’t ready to give up yet. In the coming season I would keep running the qamatik (without the fan though) and in the 2008 Hudson Bay Quest I would become the first musher to run a qamatik with a drag mat attached in the middle of the sled and to the surprise of my Inuit competitors, I finished the race without breaking my legs or the sled.Miriam Körner is a freelance writer and photographer and guides dog sledding and canoeing adventures for “Paws’n’Paddles Wilderness Tours”.


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