The Outdoorsman: Dog musher’s knot not so foolproof

By Chuck Carpenter

In the early 1960’s my family was living in Alaska. My dad was trapping for a living and the first winter he traveled around a lot on a pair of snowshoes. By the second year he had a dog team. He bought 7 trained sled dogs, harnesses, dog sled, and towropes. After a few weeks of extra hard work and lots of determination, he had the ole dogs working fairly well. We started raising sled dog pups as soon as we could and it wasn’t long until we had plenty of dogs for a couple of dog teams.

As often as we could, my brothers or I would go along on the trapline with our own dog team. Ole Dad would always have lots more dogs on his team than we would have. He would usually have 10 or 12 dogs, and we would follow along behind his team with our sled and 4 or 5 dogs. Dad had a reason for this. In case we crashed, got throwed off, tipped over, or lost our team or whatever else might happen to us greenhorn mushers, the dogs would just keep on going on up the trail, following his team and he could catch them and tie them up. We would then go huffing and puffing up the trail until we would find the dog team tied to a tree. As time went on, we had less and less trouble and hardly ever lost our team.

Years before we moved to Alaska, folks had been coming to Alaska looking for oil. They made a number of dirt roads for moving machinery around. The roads grew back in with trees and brush and became just narrow trails that went on for miles. These trails made great roads for dog teams. They were used by all kinds of wild animals.

My dad used some of these trails to run a trapline. One such trail was near where we lived. He would take the dog team down the road from our house. The road forked and the one to the right went into town and the old trail went left. After about a mile, the trail left the flat and switch backed in a big arc and up to a ridge.

One Saturday he asked if I would like to go dog sledding. It only took a second for me to agree and we were soon harnessing dogs. We had a great day out on the trail and were headed home late that afternoon. Just before we come to the switchback and before coming to the road, my dad pulled his team over and waited for me. I pulled up beside him and he said, “I want to show you something. Dog mushers needs to know how to tie up their team. This here is what they call a dog musher’s knot.”

I watched as he took the tie down at the back of the sled and made a wrap around a small tree. He then made a loop and pulled it between the wrap and the tree, then threw a half hitch around the loop. “There now,” he smiled, “them ole dogs can pull as hard as they want and it will hold them. Then all you have to do is pull off the half hitch and pull the tail of the rope and you’re off!” I pulled my team over and tied them the same way.

Dad needed a couple of poles for a project he was working on at home. He grabbed the axe and we started trudging through the snow that was close to 4 feet deep to cut down the poles. We didn’t put on our snowshoes because we was just going a few feet. I plowed through the snow behind Dad.

He started to chop one of the small poles when we heard something in the direction of the dog teams. When we turned around, Dad’s dog team was loose and headed for home. “Catch them dogs,” he yelled, “they will run forever.” I ran through the deep snow as fast as I could as Dad’s runaway dog team continued down the trail. Dad decided to go straight down the hill and hit the trail at the other side of the switchback. Before I went around the corner, I looked back and poor ole Dad was going fast as he could with snow up above his belt.

I went around the first corner and there was Dad’s team. The sled had tipped over because of the sharp corner and the weight on the sled. It had slid off the trail and was stuck in the brush. I tied up my team and went over to his. I tied up the sled then tipped it upright. I loaded everything back in the sled. I looked up the hill where Dad should have been but saw no sign of him yet. I sat down on the sled and waited and waited. I was starting to get worried he might have fallen down and hurt himself or something. Finally I heard this huffing and puffing up the hill. Here comes poor ole Dad with his hat in his hand, red in the face and sweating like crazy. It was below zero, too.

He waded through the snow and looked over toward me and wiped his brow with his sleeve. “PHHEEEWWW, sure glad you caught them,” he puffed. He staggered over to the sled and set down beside me and wiped his brow again. I looked over at him, smiled, and asked, “Hey, Dad, one more time before I forget, will you show me that Famous Dog Mushers Knot again?” “Oh, shut UP!” he snorted.

Chuck Carpenter likes to hunt, fish and trap. He worked on a farm as a boy; then, as an adult, he took a job with the Department of Interior’s Animal Damage Control, now called USDA Wildlife Services. He ultimately became a district supervisor. He retired in 2011.

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