It’s a common question for mushers. We stopped at Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore’s place for a visit in August. We joked about how mushers usually answer that question. Most mushers won’t admit to the actual number of dogs and after a while it’s just a lot of dogs. Does the exact number really matter?
But lets say you’re fixin’ to build an honest to goodness team of working sled dogs to haul wood, hunt caribou, run a trapline, take your family ice fishing, and just generally travel the winter landscape. Then how many dogs do you need? I need 8 adults to do all these things. My dogs are between 60 and 70 pounds. Not the biggest dogs on the trail, but a long way from the smallest. With a team averaging 65 pounds I can do all the things mentioned above and don’t have to work all that hard myself. In the beginning I did all those things with 5 or 6 dogs, but I was putting in a lot of miles in my Steiger mukluks running beside the sled. Suppose you could subtract a few dogs if they were big 80 and 90 pounders.
A couple generations ago they used 2, 3, or 4 dogs, but the people were generally part of the team instead of the cargo. An elderly woman in Koliganek in the late 70’s explained to my father-in-law how her first husband and her would travel all around Southwest Alaska. The dogs hauled the load while the people walked beside. My wife’s apa (pronounced uppu meaning grandfather) told me his 5 dog team could haul 2 moose in a sled. That’s quite a statement. But you must remember he was likely running beside and as well as pushing the sled.
Today’s mushers are way way lazier then those old men and women. That includes yours truly. I like an 8 dog team, but sometimes use 10 and rarely 12. More than that is overkill for most tasks. Remember, working dogs are pullers and 8 hard pullers are a huge force. I can load my wood hauling sled to the handle bow and 12 dogs will get that thing moving at a fast lope. Dangerous. Too much weight moving too fast. 8 dogs can handle the same load at a safer pace. 10 and 12 dog teams are more appropriate for long hauls, big trips requiring sustained pulling for a few days in row.
The most important determinate as to your kennel size should always be the dogs. What is best for the dogs? Don’t ever stop asking yourself that question. Mitch Seavey wrote a book with many fun quotes, but one rises above the rest. Mitch instructs, “Don’t own more dogs then you can afford to feed the best food.” It’s way too easy to get in over your head when you start building your dream team. It takes discipline and creativity. Ultimately it’s the bond with your dogs that will guide you down the trail and keep you looking out the window for snow each fall. I find those bonds easier to develop with fewer dogs.
So how many dogs do I have? 20. I hear you through the computer screen, “I thought you said you only need 8!” Most of those 20 are pups and yearlings and I’ll be looking to find good homes for a few dogs here shortly. But you’re right, it only takes 8 of my dogs to constitute a formidable wood hauling squad. Let’s just say I’m looking beyond a load of wood at this point.