When I was a kid, we didn't have a mini-van. But we had a team of dogs. And I can remember us kids piling into my brother's Gerry's dog sled for trips out to the delta. I wrote an homage to the "trapper's toboggan" and was rewarded with a runner-up prize in a writing contest. I thought I'd share it with you, along with a photo of an old time "trapper's toboggan" from the collection of Father Rene Fumoleau, an oblate priest who dedicated his life to serving the north.
The world has become a series of disposable items, one after another. Take for example the trapper’s toboggan. The trapper’s toboggan used to be a staple in every family in the North. It was made of three oak boards, curled at the front, and bolted together, to make a 12-foot long toboggan. It had a canvas carry-all where you could store your supplies, or your entire family. Back then, dog teams were the primary form of winter transport. Even Santa use to arrive by dogsled, standing behind the lazy-back waving at all the excited kids. Don’t tell my own kids, but my dad, their daduk, Victor Allen, was the first Santa in Inuvik in 1958. Rumour has it though, his dogs were afraid of all the people lined up in along the street and refused to run. Aunty Agnes Semmler used to love telling that story. If you don’t know Agnes Semmler, Google her.
Snowmobiles, or “skidoos” as they are commonly referred to, eventually replaced dog teams, and riding the lazy-back became the training ground for many young men, yours truly included. My first real test of riding the toboggan was one winter in Grade 6 when my brother Gerry took me hunting caribou with two of his friends in the Richardson Mountains. This was going to be the trip that proved my mastery of the toboggan.
It was early spring and the sun was starting to melt the snow. So the temperature was mild, compared to the brutally cold winters we had back then. I remember leaving Aklavik in the early morning. I was groggy but excited to go hunting with my brother. I was attending sixth grade in Aklavik with my grandparents. My mom had sent along Gerry’s old caribou-skin coat that was made for him by our Jijuu (the Gwi’chin word for grandmother) in Old Crow. She was actually my mother’s grandmother, but we called her Jijuu anyway. My mom’s name was Bertha Allen. She is an Order of Canada recipient by the way, but that’s another story.
Gerry is eight years older than me. And if you have a younger brother, well that’s just a ticket to entertainment. I guess he wanted to toughen me up for the first part of the trip, so he gunned it through bush trails on the way to the mountain. I knew that if I dumped the sled, I might lose some privileges later, like maybe driving the skidoo later. So I hung on for dear life. And good thing, cause it was like riding a bull in a rodeo.
I’ve never rodeo’d but I think I qualified for the Calgary Stampede that day, ‘cause Gerry was trying will all his might to dump me. I know ‘cause he kept looking back with an evil grin every few minutes to see if I was still on. I wasn’t going to let him get me this time. I’d had 12 years of torture already under my belt, and I wasn’t going to let him get me.
At this point, it would do some good to let you know my mom used to sell Avon products. And I awoke more than one morning with either lipstick or eye shadow on when I looked in the mirror. So I was used to being a kid brother.
While riding the toboggan, you acquire the moves of a boxer; ducking low hanging branches, leaning hard left on a tight curve, digging a frozen mukluk into the snow to brake, and riding the bumps like a downhill skier. By the time we stopped for a break, I was sweating with that caribou-skin parka on. I had to lie in the snow to catch my breath. I knew this was just a warm-up for my brother. So I took the chance to do a few windmills with my arms and leg stretches. I could see Gerry smiling as he pinned the throttle again when we took off.
The long climb up the foothills was nothing short of awesome. I’d never been up there before, and my little Grade 6 mind was getting blown wide open. The snow was so white, and the mountains were nothing short of majestic. Gerry slowed down, and we coasted all the way up to a little cabin where we spent the night. My older cousin Noel and Gerry’s fellow RCMP officer Glen were with us. My mom sent me a five-star eider down and I got busy snoring while Gerry, Glen, and Noel stayed up late telling stories.
The next morning was hunt day. We took off just as the sun was starting to shine. This time we had no load in the toboggan, which made it much lighter and bouncier. Especially when we spotted caribou tracks. There are tussocks on the tundra and the wind had swept any snow from the top of the mountain. Riding the tussocks was another lesson in itself. The head of the toboggan was slamming into them and jerking me forward every time. I learned to absorb the shock and ride it, like riding a wave.
At this point, Gerry stopped and untied the toboggan. I said, “What the heck, are you gonna leave me here?” They were close to the herd, there was going to be some excessive speed, and he didn’t want to damage the sled, or me, so he left me there—but not before giving me an old .303 rifle in case the caribou came past me. I’d never shot anything bigger than a .410 shotgun at that point and a .303 didn’t sound like too much fun. I was scared of the kick. So he loaded it and put my mitt inside my caribou skin parka to soften the blow. I could barely lift it but I aimed it at a rock a hundred yards away and fired. The recoil knocked me on my ass, and Gerry said, “Good enough,” and took off. They were gone for quite a while, and I entertained myself by sliding down a hill on my caribou-skin parka.
He came back a while later and picked me up.
They killed a few caribou over the hill somewhere. When we got there, he opened up the caribou and took a cupful of blood and offered me a drink. He told me old Jijii (grandfather) Chief Peter Moses used to have a good drink of blood when he killed a caribou. I was used to drinking Kool Aid so I passed. It was thick and red and he took a little sip from a tin cup. I think he was BS-ing me cause he turned away when he drank it and I didn’t see any blood on his lips when he turned around. He made a smacking sound and said it was really good and that I should try it. I just crunched my nose, which is the universal Inuit word for “no.”
Anyway, we made it back to Aklavik in one piece and they left for Inuvik. I carried on my year in Aklavik, making weekend trapping trips with my grandpa and his dog team. His little eight-foot toboggan was a piece of cake after riding through the mountains with my brother.
As the years went on, we got better and better at riding the toboggan. Heck, we used to even light cigarettes, with matches, as we stood behind the toboggan. It was a badge of honour to take off your mitts, hold them under your arm, dig in your shirt pocket, pull out your pack, dig in your jeans for matches, crouch backwards, and light a cigarette while going 20 miles an hour, with a windchill factor of -40, over frozen snow drifts. I truly believe it could become an Olympic sport.
Learning how to deal with the cold while standing on the back of the toboggan was another trick too. I would wait until we hit a portage, an overland trail, then I would run behind the toboggan to generate some heat. Or clap my hands and swing my arms while riding. Or running on the spot; anything to generate heat. It’s a good thing we always had wolf or bearskin mitts, ‘cause we used the fur to melt the ice on our eyelashes, or to thaw a frozen cheek. Even trapping muskrats in March was cold. It still used to hit -40 and we had to trap despite the weather. If there was a lot of push-ups (muskrat houses) on the lakes, it meant a lot of stopping and starting, which was always welcome. But the best part was stopping for lunch.
My dad would make a huge fire and melt sugar snow for tea. Then we would melt a spoonful of butter in a big tin mug filled with steaming tea, with two big spoons of sugar, then crumble hard tack biscuits in the mug. It was the best when your hands were freezing. My mom always packed two or three big frying pan bannock in our grub box, plus a can of Klik and a can of sweet mandarin oranges. There was no other place on earth I would rather have been than lying on spruce boughs and having that feast of food.
Eventually, people began to replace the toboggans with fibreglass tub sleighs. The tub sleighs could haul a little more and were cheaper too. Plus they had a metal hitch which saved on a lot of smashed tail-lights when the toboggans would smash into them. Riding in a tub sleigh was often difficult as they were usually loaded to the brim with no room to spare. So people began to buy more skidoos. The sight of someone riding behind a skidoo on a toboggan began to become a thing of the past. Soon, you were considered “poor” if you still rode behind a toboggan. And before you knew it, the trapper’s toboggan had all but vanished.
When I moved my family to the Yukon, I wanted to find a toboggan so my kids could have that same experience I did. So I found one on the Internet and had it shipped up all the way from Minnesota. It was 15 feet long and four boards wide. It was a monster of a toboggan by Northern standards. Especially with its big metal hitch. I ordered a custom-made carry-all from an awning shop in
Edmonton and made a lazy-back with handles. It was a thing of beauty when I look back on it. Our kids were still small, two and four, but that didn’t stop them from wanting to ride on the back of the toboggan. So with my wife’s blessing, we loaded up the toboggan with a grub box and blankets, hitched it up to the skidoo, and took it on its maiden voyage. Hayden was four, and when he saw his mom standing on the back of the toboggan, he wanted to ride it too. So Jennifer tucked him between her and the lazy-back. But he kept hitting her until she let him ride it by himself. He must have inherited the toboggan-riding gene from me, ‘cause he held on through the trail and then some. Juniper was just two, but her eyeballs were glued to her brother and the big smile he had on his face. So after a couple of temper tantrums, it was her turn. She could barely walk let alone ride behind a toboggan. But again the old toboggan riding genes kicked in and she was riding like an old pro in no time. She could barely see over the lazy-back. I eventually sold it when we decided to move to Alberta.
If you ever see anyone riding behind a skidoo on a toboggan, cherish the moment and think about all the trappers who went before you. Take a picture and put it on your Facebook.