Museum at Central, Alaska shows early dog sled development
The Circle District Historical Society Museum in Central, Alaska houses several lovely old dog sleds, including some that would be familiar to most Alaskans—“basket” sleds with runners. But one different type of sled, what could be described as a flat-sterned snow-canoe, caught my eye. About 11 feet long and only 18 inches wide, it has an upturned front end like a toboggan, is flat-bottomed, has form-fitted canvas sides, a canvas covering over its prow, and a backboard with back-sweeping handles. The drawing shows this freight-style toboggan as it would have looked at the beginning of the 1900s.
This is what Canadian fur traders called a “cariole,” developed from the traditional Indian toboggan for the needs of the “voyageurs,” and businesses like the Hudson’s Bay Company. Toboggans, used by Indians throughout the boreal forest stretching across the northern regions of North America, were ideally suited for winter travel through deep powder snow. At their simplest, they were long narrow pieces of birch bark with wooden cross-pieces, lashed together with babiche (lacings made from sinew or rawhide), much as Jack London described in “White Fang.” The prow of the toboggan was curved back (to deflect snow) and lashed into place. Light in weight—these sleds essentially floated on top of the snow, and were narrow so they would fit within the track of a man on snowshoes.
As the sleds developed, wooden planks replaced the birch bark. Birch and ash were commonly used—the prows steamed and bent into shape. Early fur traders took the basic toboggan and refined the design to meet their needs, adding a backboard and rawhide or canvas sides so the sled could carry additional cargo, and introducing dogs to pull the sleds. In the more “civilized” areas of Canada a covering was often added to the front half of the cariole so passengers could ride more comfortably.
The Hudson’s Bay Company carried this sled design across Canada and into Alaska, establishing a trading post in 1846 at Fort Yukon. Throughout Canada, local inhabitants adapted the cariole design to their own needs.
Thomas Swan, a musher in Two Rivers, Alaska, and local authority on toboggan-style sleds, told me that it was here in Alaska that the two basic types of dogsleds: toboggans and basket sleds, began to influence each other.
The Russian-American Company had established a trading post at Nulato (on the Lower Yukon River) in 1839. Its employees pushed further up the Yukon River on seasonal trading trips, and were well-aware of the British presence at Fort Yukon. The Russians used Siberian-influenced basket sleds for winter excursions, so it was there on the middle Yukon that the two sled-building traditions met.
However, it wasn’t until after the popularization of mushing by arctic explorers such as Fridtjof Nansen and Robert Peary (who used Inuit-influenced basket sleds) and the North American gold rushes at the end of the 19th century that basket sleds began to overtake toboggan-type sleds in popularity.
Westerners pushing into Interior Alaska and the Klondike established regular winter trails frequented by freighters and mail carriers. On these packed trails, sleds with runners were faster and could haul more than flat-bottomed toboggans. Soon people began racing basket sleds.
Toboggans were still superior off established trails and in deep snow, so remained useful. Hudson Stuck (Episcopal Archdeacon for Alaska) mentioned in his book Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled, that in the early 1900s many Indians still used toboggans. Toboggan-style sleds have seen resurgence in popularity by subsistence users and recreationists since the 1960s, although the cariole design is all but lost.