Beargrease Primer #2 and Photo Essay: sleds and teams

Jan 28, 2017

Here’s the thing about dogsleds for racing: aside from the runners and the lightweight design, they’re not so much about “go” as they are about “stop.”

Race start, John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon 2011

And if you’ve ever seen sled dogs being harnessed up for a run, you know why. 

No wonder most mushers use a snub line to attach their rig to the dog truck or some other stationary object! 

Dogsleds

"Tracks" or "drag mats" can be fastened out of the way when not in use

This is called a “track” or “drag mat.”  Chances are, you’ll see mushers standing on it as their teams explode from the starting line. 

Double-claw brake

This is the brake.  They come in single or double-claw versions – this one is a double claw.

This is a snow hook.  Mushers use them on the trail to keep their excited dogs from taking off with the sled!

Snow hook

Insider information

Bill Olson, 2011; Jamie Nelson, 2017; Ann Stead, 2017

(Here’s a piece of inside information :  the KUMD sticker can be placed on the sled bag, but it’s more secure on the brush bow)

Rigging

The gangline is the main connection between the dogs and the sled, with the tuglines branching off from that

Now we get to the rigging: the gear used to attach the dogs to the sled.

The gangline is the main line to attach the dog team to the sled.

Branching off from that are the tug lines.  These are connected to the dogs’ harnesses so they can “tug” the sled.

Just as with horses, harnesses are called “tack.”  And just as with horses, one size – or style – does not fit all.  “Harnesses are like running shoes,” says Ann Stead.  “You have to find the right fit.”

Keeper gets his harness on

Putting it all together

The dogs closest to the sled are called “wheel” dogs. In that position, says Ann, you want bigger, stronger dogs, since the task of pulling the sled, maneuvering the sled (and hauling the musher around corners) falls to them first.  Many mushers will rotate dogs through the wheel position because it’s a tough job.

Liir (orange harness) and Jet (red harness) at wheel

Depending on the size of the team (and the musher you talk to) the next dogs up the line are “swing,” “point” or “team” dogs. Some mushers call the two dogs directly behind the leaders swing or point dogs and the rest team dogs; others refer to all the dogs between the leaders and wheel dogs as swing or point dogs. Whatever you call them, they are the team’s brawn, but must also have the smarts to guide the team in an arc when going around corners so everyone stays on the trail.

Jet (red harness) and Liir (orange harness) at wheel; Keeper at swing, Party (yellow harness) and Shine (red harness) at lead

The leaders take direction from the musher, and have to be smart and tough enough to handle the pressure of the entire team, but even-tempered enough not to fight with their teammates or other dogs they encounter on the trail.

Pass the Desitin

Mushers are in agreement that good feet are perhaps the most important quality in a good sled dog, so it’s not surprising that they pay particular attention to their dogs’ feet.

Ann Stead uses a protective “goop” on her dogs’ feet that contains (among other things) zinc oxide and Desitin.  For a race as long as the Beargrease, though, race director Jason Rice says booties are just a good insurance policy.  Although their pads are tough and resilient, he says, the webbing between a dog’s toes is fragile and can split and irritate easily when snow and ice get packed between their toes.

Shine gets some "goop" to protect her paws

No poodles? Seriously?

Not that long ago, the Iditarod adopted a rule restricting entrants to northern dog breeds with double coats.

The rule was adopted in the early 1990s after musher John Suter entered the 1988 competition with standard European poodles on his dogsled team. However, many of the poodles were dropped off at checkpoints due to frozen feet and hair-matting problems. 

- Angie McPherson, National Geographic; March 8, 2014, 5 Surprising Facts About the Iditarod Dog Sled Race

The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon rules say Only northern breed dogs will be permitted to enter the race. Northern breeds will be determined by the Rules Interpretation Committee,” but again, the idea is to make sure the dogs are suited to cold-weather racing.

Melvie, much happier in a knitting bag than she would have been on the trail

Double coated dogs have an undercoat of short hairs and a top coat of longer hairs called guard hairs. But Jason Rice says the coats of many double-coated northern breeds are even more ingenious.  The hair follicles actually amplify and funnel sun to their skin, which is why, for many dogs and mushers, part of their strategy is to rest during the day when the warmth feels good, and race at night when it’s a better temperature for running.

And what’s the ideal temperature for a happy sled dog?  Anywhere from -10 to 10 above is just perfect!  

(Written and photographed by Lisa Johnson)