Dryland Mushing Basics

Cooler temperatures in the Fall mean sled dog teams can start to train on dry land. Mushers with large teams use ATV’s instead of sleds while mushers with smaller teams use a variety of rigs also referred to as gigs. These rigs are unique to working sled dog teams and many people when seeing them transported on a trailer might ask what it is. It is quite common for us to pull up to a stop light with my rig on our trailer and have someone next to us roll down their car window and ask us what that “thing” is. So in an effort to answer that question and others that come up in talking about dryland mushing, my husband Kevin has written up a guest Blog Post about my dryland rig and equipment. To get a glimpse of what a musher with a large team uses check out my Blog Post: First Run of the Season With A Glitch.

Dryland Mushing

by Kevin Powers

There’s a common misperception among non-mushers that the Head Musher and I spend most of our time setting fire to sheds. Or maybe I should say that I spend most of my time setting fire to sheds. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I spend a good deal of time eating and telling stories, in addition to setting fire to sheds.

But the Head Musher, of course, is all about running sled dogs. Well, that and trying to convince me to eat hummus. She’d prefer to run the dogs on snow but most of the time there is no snow on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. So, we head north in search of snow. This weekend we headed north to Tow Hill, Pennsylvania. There’s no snow here either. I blame Al Gore for this. Had he been able to convince people to put carbon credits in a lock box we wouldn’t be in this pickle.

So, most often, we train on dry land with a three-wheeled cart called a “Fritz” which apparently is named after former Vice-President Fritz Mondale, although I may be wrong about this. More about Fritz, the cart, in a minute. If you want to know more about Fritz Mondale, you’ll just have to Google him.

When you arrive at your mushing destination, the very first thing that happens is a “picket line” is set out. This is a steel line thirty feet long, secured at both ends, that has points along its length to which dogs can be attached by their collar. In the pictures below are the two gizmos that secure the ends of the picket line. There are three large spikes that secure each of these gizmos to mother earth.
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If you are really lucky, you’ll have one or more dogs helping you out as you set up the picket line. This will turn a routine a ten-minute task into one lasting about forty-five minutes. In the picture below, Cree and Aura are helping our friend Carolyn set up one end of the line.

There’s a dog-gene that’s called the “Position-your-nose-between-a-person’s- eyes-and-what-he’s-trying-to-do” gene. So, for example, if you are trying to read a newspaper, the dog will jump up on the couch, sit right next to you, and put his nose in one of two places: a) on the bridge of your nose so that his nostrils look to be about the size of 40-gallon drums and blot out all light, or b) directly on the article you are trying to read such that all you can see is the page number in the upper right hand corner. In the dog’s world, this falls under the title “How to help someone read a newspaper.”

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Once the dust clears, this is what the dogs look like when they are out on the picket line. From front to back that’s Kodiak, Chinook, Fenway, Aura, and Cree.
It’s not a coincidence that Kodiak is gazing to the right while all the other dogs are gazing to the left. Kodiak marches to a different drummer.

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The next thing that happens is the dogs are hydrated i.e., given water spiked with tuna fish. They keep a watchful eye on the preparation. You don’t want to utter the word “tuna” if you are standing between the dogs and a water bowl. In fact, you don’t even want to spell t-u-n-a lest you start a husky stampede.

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While this is going on the Fritz is being set up. In the picture below you can see the Fritz with its “cart bag” attached. The cart bag is used to carry water, a first aid kit, a small tool kit, and ultimately could be used to transport an injured dog back to the trail head, if necessary.

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The Fritz has a handle-bar that provides a moderate amount of steering. It also has brakes. In fact it has two different kinds of brakes:

There are left and right hand brakes that the musher uses to slow down and stop the cart. In this context “stop” sometimes means “lock up the wheels and hope the dogs get tired of dragging you”.

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In addition, a “digger brake” elevates the back wheels and impales itself into the ground when the musher deploys it. This allows the musher to secure the sled and get off it if the need arises.

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There’s one last piece of equipment that secures the cart to any stationery object. It’s called a “snub line”. It’s generally used at the beginning of a run when the dogs are at their most energetic. It’s a six foot nylon cord that attaches to the cart and any stationery object. It has a spring device that allows the musher, with one hand, to release the cord and let the team run.

In the picture below you can see the snub line attached to our trailer and the cart. The cart will be moved away from the trailer the length of the snub line until the snub line is taut. This will hold the cart in place while the dogs are being tied out to the gang line.

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Speaking of “gang line”, it’s the line that connects the dogs to the cart and is laid out directly in front of the cart awaiting the dogs.

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The next part is a little tricky and fraught with peril. The musher needs to move the dogs from the picket line to the gang line one at a time. The first dog that gets moved is the “lead dog”, so named because the dog responds to key commands, one of which is “Line out!”

Let’s just pause here a moment and think about what’s going on. If the musher moves the lead dog from the picket line to the gang line, the musher then has to leave the lead dog alone on the gang line and return to the picket line for the second dog. The lead dog then has three options: 1) stay in place until the musher returns, 2) Take off down the trail (the snub line prevents this from happening), or 3) follow the musher back to the picket line to get the next dog.

If you guessed that the dog instinctively will follow the musher back to the picket line, you guessed right. So, the musher heads back to the picket line fat, dumb, and happy while the lead dog quietly follows her. The musher unties the second dog from the picket line and turns to head back to the gang line and runs into the lead dog that has followed her. No problem. Well, maybe no problem, if she can grab a dog with each hand and take them both back to the proper position.

But, when she goes to fetch the third dog and the same thing happens, she is in trouble. Do you know why basketball teams virtually always score on a three-on-two fast break? Well, the mushing equivalent of this is a musher trying to deal with a three-on-one fast break by Siberian huskies. In a heartbeat, the musher and three dogs are hopelessly tangled in a fifteen-foot gangline desperately trying to appear as though everything is fine.

So the bottom line in the seemingly simple effort to tie dogs to a gang line is: The lead dog must stay in the proper position and must keep the gang line taut while the musher sets out the remainder of the team. The picture below on the left shows Aura doing exactly that while she watches the Head Musher fetch Cree. In the picture on the right you can see her hind legs pushing straight back as she keeps the line taut.

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So, how do you teach a lead dog to keep the line taut? You put her in her harness and tie the back of the harness to a stationary object. You then walk around in front of her and say “Aura, line out!” and pull her toward you on a leash. You then drop the leash and walk behind her. If she follows you, you pull her back into position and say “Aura, Line out!”. You repeat this until she gets it right and then praise her effusively and give her a treat. It might take a while but as Sam Snead once said to a golfer who complained that he couldn’t hit a 7-iron: “You need to get a bucket of golf balls and hit 7-irons!” Doing anything well requires diligent, repetitive practice. But, just like it’s great to see a magnificent 7-iron shot fly toward the pin against a blue sky, it’s great to see a lead dog keep the line perfectly straight while a musher ties out the rest of the team.

And, of course, the ultimate objective is: a smooth run, five smiling dogs and a smiling musher.

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‘Till next time,

The One-Man Pit Crew

3 Comments
  1. Wher can I purchase “The Claw” having troubles finding suitable ground stakes for picket line. Thanks.

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