Back in the day, before petroleum products were common in the north, the dog team got us around. Remarked an old friend of mine who asked if I still remember those days, I reply yes, I do. Those dog team days were quite something, another time, another generation…
Most dogs were treated well, regardless of what you heard. Sure, you fed them slop most times, but when you look at what they ate, hmmm, scrap fish from the net, oats, blubber or left-over seal. You name it, it went into the slop, cooked in a huge cauldron by the wood pile.
The dogs would howl in anticipation, straining on their staked-down ropes, jumping and yelping wildly, it was chow time. After wolfing down (literally, some dogs were part wolf) everything, they would get hitched to the large sled and trek off for some serious firewood or lumber hauling.
On the way back from across the frozen river, we, playing on the banks of Fort George Island, would wait for the sled. Now the dogs whipped up to maximum power would barrel up the steep 70-foot slope. We’d all help make the sled up the final ridge, after hewing out footholds to help our moc-casined feet in the slippery steep trail, to pass time, waiting for the next team to cross the Fort George River.
Most dog teams were well-versed in where to go, having traversed thousands of kilometres on the average year, from community to community or camp to camp. Some team leaders were so smart, even the places to make a pot of tea on route would be stopped at certain times, even if there was no tea to be made. The driver, my grandfather, would have to “fake” the actions of making tea – in fast forward, if you can imagine that – to trick the lead dog into believing that it was now time to go on, back home, somewhat a little ahead of schedule, but at least tea time was not missed.
Although dog teams were high maintenance, keeping them fed for long journeys would depend on the skill of the driver to get more energy, from other animals en-route. One bad bleak winter, the community on one of the Belcher Islands was facing starvation. The hunt was bad and most people were succumbing slowly, in the cold of winter. The driver, again my grandfather, on a mail run from Moosonee to Port Harrison return with a tonne-and-a-half of mail, needed more food to continue with the mail run.
Quickly sizing up the situation, he rounded up the men with the most energy left and went to a nearby lake to set nets under the ice. This technology was unknown to these people at that time, as it required a long shaft of wood for the chisel, wood which is not around in abundance on the barren islands of the Belchers.
After chiseling up to the final inches of the shaft, they dismantled the sled and made an extension, and only after lying on their bellies did they break through the 10-foot ice.
Finally after making all the holes in the quickly freezing exposed water, the net was set and they waited. The first haul was plentiful, the net quickly reset and hauled back in with more fish. Apparently there were so many fish that the whole community was fed and the mail got to Port Harrison after all.
Dog teams played a major role in the north, working along side their drivers, delivering wood, mail, lumber, and were a valuable hunting partner. Try doing that with a skidoo.