Three Little Boys, Three Dogs and Three Generations…Kibbee Lake and Back
I’ve travelled to and from Kibbee Lake many times, in summer and winter. Kibbee is part of the Bowron Chain of Lakes, a world class canoeing destination located in the Cariboo Mountains in British Columbia’s Central Interior. Campsite #1 along with a small shelter cabin is located at Kibbee, which is at the end of a 2.4 km. portage trail beginning at the Bowron Lake Provincial Park headquarters.
Kibbee now appears on maps as a separate lake from it’s neighbour, Thompson Lake although originally the two lakes together were known as Beaver Lake If you look closely it appears that the two lakes are actually just separated by a very large and very old beaver dam. Kibbee Lake, along with the creek draining it and running into Bowron Lake is named after Frank Kibbee, a larger-than-life Bowron trapper, big game outfitter and the Bowron Game Reserve’s first game warden. Thompson Lake is named after_Roy and Norman Thompson, brothers and WWI veterans who established a marten and fisher fur farm on a high bench overlooking the lake. They also ran a trapline to the north and east of their homestead.
The week of March 25, 2019. We were in the midst of a hot weather deluge that had impacted all of western and northern North America in an extreme way. Temperatures of +15C during the day, barely freezing at night triggered talk of global warming. While this warmth, which was coming on the heels of a somewhat miserable winter was somehow welcome, it was also putting an end to many end-of-winter plans. Sled dog races were being drastically modified, ice castles were melting, northern winter ice roads were disappearing.
My son Tyler and I had first discussed making a trip out on the Chain about two weeks earlier, at the tail end of a real (-30C) cold snap. “This is really the time we should be going, especially if we were interested in making it around the Chain” he said, “but we can’t do that now because of commitments. Would you be interested in a day trip, just going out to Kibbee and back during the Spring Break, I’ll ski and you take a dog team, the three boys could ride with you?” Tyler had planted the seed.
In fact as Tyler and I were having this talk, a couple of friends had just set out to hike around the Chain. Using snowshoes they completed the 120 km. trip in 7 days with very few problems. From tracks left in the snow they knew they weren’t the first ones to tackle the Chain this winter, in fact they met two fellows who had turned around at Lynx Creek on Isaac Lake and were heading back to the trailhead. Our friends camped in shelter cabins and cook shelters. It stayed cold, the temperature during the nights stayed below -20C. When they reached the Cariboo River there was open water. They remembered a damaged canoe they had passed on the bank of the Isaac River and so retrieved it and miraculously also came up with two usable paddles. Despite a large split in the canoe, it floated. They paddled down the Cariboo River to a point just before Lanezi Lake where it was possible to once again start snowshoeing. They spent the night in the ‘chalet’ at Turner Creek. After a good sleep they completed a marathon hike the next day all the way to Pat’s Point where they stayed in the shelter cabin that had been built in the 1960’s by brothers-in-law Vince Halverson and Sid Dannhauer and their families. They made it back to their vehicle the next day, following a trail through the Bowron Slough left by a skier who had travelled out to the Paul Pavich Bowron River cabin and back.
I kept thinking about the possible trip out to Kibbee Lake. I really wanted to make this trip for several reasons. It would be a first for my grandsons (aged 3, 6 and 8) and I. Before this I had never taken them more than a few hundred metres in a dog sled. It would also be a wonderful experience to share with my son, one of the finest outdoorsmen that I know. I also knew, although I didn’t really want to think about it, that after raising and running sled dogs for 47 years, this just might be my very last opportunity to run them. My kennel was down to 5 dogs, all about the same age. One of them, Tulugak, was the last remaining dog that I had bred and raised. The other four, Wells, Gray, Ace and Cela were all dogs I had acquired from other mushers. At age 8+ years, as far as working dogs go, they were now close to being past their prime.
It hadn’t been a great winter at all. It all started during the summer when my incredible lead dog Pitsiark had a recurrence of cancer and was humanely euthanized. She was most of my team, a once-in-a-lifetime dog, a totally reliable gee haw leader, she always wanted to go, she commanded the respect of all of the other dogs, she had an amazing temperament…oh how I miss her.
I ran the remaining dogs a fair bit in the fall, using the ATV, which gives me quite a bit of control over the team. I had always run Ace double lead with Pitsi and hoped that he might step up to the plate as a single leader. It turned out that he is a pretty decent lead dog, but not if he is leading on his own. He knows his commands, he is eager to run, but if up front on his own he likes to sniff every bit of animal scat and to pee on every tree. This never happened when he was running with Pitsiark, she wouldn’t tolerate it. My only option with the dogs that I had to work with was to run Tulugak with Ace. Tulu had never run lead before, for her whole mushing life she had run swing, directly behind her sister Pitsi, a position where her movement was restricted not just by the fact that Pitsiark would not tolerate it if Tulugak didn’t keep her line tight, but her movements were also restricted by both the tugline and the neckline that fastened her to the main gangline. It turned out that she had also learned all of the commands, and knows them well, she is also a pretty athletic agile dog. I thought (with fingers crossed) that she and Ace just might make a great pair. But Tulugak has always had a chip on her shoulder, and she likes to fight.
My dogs are Canadian Inuit Dogs. I could go on for pages about these incredible animals, saying nothing but wonderful things in the process. These dogs are not a breed, they are what is known as an aboriginal landrace. Like all landraces, the Inuit dog evolved in a particular environment (the Arctic, which happens to be one of the harshest environments on the planet) and in the process adapted in a manner that enables them to survive in this environment. Their thick double coat, their incredibly compact and tough feet, their voracious appetites, their ability to work for long periods on very little food, essentially their ability to thrive in an environment that allows only the fittest to survive. With humans these dogs display an even, warm temperament. With each other, particularly between dogs of the same sex, often the gloves are off and the fight is on. The reason for this is pretty basic. If these dogs could talk it would sound something like “….if I am dominant over you, then I will stand a better chance of getting my fair portion and maybe even all of the food. More importantly I will also stand a better chance of passing on my blood lines to the next generation. In other words I will survive.”
It became obvious in the fall when running the dogs with the ATV that Tulu was going to be a problem. She saw the only other female in the kennel as her competition and she became her target, poor Cela. I very quickly realized that as long as Tulu had the freedom of being the lead dog, she could and would run anywhere she wished, even if it meant turning around and heading right into the middle of the dog team where Cela was running. Ace would try valiantly to keep her on track and to keep the lead dog lines tight, but if Tulu chose to pick a fight, and if I didn’t see it coming in time to intervene, the end was often chaos. This wasn’t much fun and things got even worse once I switched to running the dogs on the sled in deep snow where I had even less control over the team if and when Tulu chose not to listen.
I wasn’t running my dogs as much as I would like, I found that even the thought of a possible dog fight triggered my anxiety. Like I said, it hadn’t been a great winter at all so when Tyler suggested the trip out to Kibbee, Lake my first response was to apologize and to state that I didn’t think that it would be possible. I couldn’t believe that these words were actually coming out of my mouth. I realize now that I had become really affected by Tulu’s fighting. Also at the time, three of the dogs experienced potentially life threatening problems. Within a three week period, Gray developed a huge abscess on his jaw that required minor surgery and medication. Ace developed Masticatory Myositis which was the cause of a condition known as Trismus or the inability of poor Ace to open his mouth and which required special feeding and treatment with an anti inflammatory drug. As if this wasn’t enough, Tulugak developed gastric torsion that required emergency but successful treatment.
Throughout all of this I kept thinking about the reasons that I would like to go on this little trip to Kibbee Lake and became determined to do my part to make it happen A few days later I let Tyler know that I would like to see the trip to Kibbee take place and that I would like to be part of it.
Historically Inuit families only maintained a very small number of dogs and there was good reason for this. Both the dogs and the Inuit ate almost exactly the same thing, meat and essentially every part of the animal whether a marine mammal like a seal, walrus or even a whale or a land mammal like a caribou, muskox or bear and of course both humans and dogs eat fish. The Inuit were hunter gatherers. Obtaining food for survival was their priority. If it came down to having enough food for his family or for his dogs, the Inuk hunter would of course feed his family and himself first. It also meant that two or possibly three dogs was the maximum number that one Inuk hunter with a family could support.
As hunter-gatherers, the Inuit were nomads, they had to move with the seasons, following the migration patterns of the wild animals in order to be able to hunt successfully, in order to survive. Moving for the Inuit family meant loading everything they owned and needed for that particular season on to the komatik (sled) and together, along with their two or three sled dogs the hunter and his wife and possibly the older children would pull the komatik to the spot where they knew they would find food. The younger children as well as the elders would ride on the komatik along with the caribou skins that were required for shelter, the hunting and cooking tools, and possibly a little food. There was no real concept of travelling fast or of reaching a pre-determined destination in a specific period of time. If the season made pulling a komatik impossible, the Inuit Dogs became pack animals and carried about a third of their body weight on their backs. Wherever the Inuk hunter found himself with his family and with their belongings, was the place that they all called home. Everything they needed to survive was right there with them. This was to change.
There are many classic images of an Inuk on a large komatik being pulled by 10 – 15 gorgeous Inuit Dogs harnessed in a fan hitch, travelling over the sea ice, often with an iceberg as a backdrop. These images are actually of very recent origin, probably beginning with the 1940’s. This is the era when the traditional life of the Inuit began to change dramatically, and not necessarily for the better. This is the period when the trapping economy exploded, particularly the demand for white (Arctic) fox pelts. This was the period when the fur trade reached its zenith and trading posts run by large trading companies like the Hudson’s Bay Company or Reveillon Frères as well as by independent traders, sprang up throughout the North. This was also the beginning of the period when Inuit were enticed/forced to move into settlements, it was the beginning of the end of the Inuit hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and as time has sadly shown, it was ultimately the beginning of the demise of the Inuit Dog.
In order to trap more furs, the Inuit had to travel over much longer traplines and this required more and more dogs. The furs in turn were traded at the trading post for processed food, canned goods, flour, sugar, coffee and tea, jam and honey, pasta, oatmeal, and rice. The Inuit hunter spent more and more time trapping and less time hunting. More of the wild game that he did hunt was used to feed the bigger dog team while his family’s diet became more and more dependent on the food available from the trading post.
For the Kibbee trip I decided to use only three dogs, Tulugak, Wells and Gray. I will never forget the first hook-up for these three. We were at the trailhead at Bowron, because of the anticipated narrow trail I planned to run the dogs in single file with Tulu in lead, then big red Wells followed by Gray (who is grey). [ By the way, can you guess just which provincial park in British Columbia I obtained Wells and Gray from?] The dogs were hooked into the single file gangline and Tulu immediately turned around and made her way to the back of the team while Tyler and I stood back and watched. She was looking for a fight but there was no-one to fight with. That strong survival instinct was still present but there was no reason for her to beat up either Wells or Gray who could one day be the father of her puppies and would therefore ensure that her bloodline would continue. She sniffed the two males and they sniffed back and soon she took her place at the front of the team and that was that. The dogs were great and I felt very relieved!
The plan was to make a dry run without any children out to Kibbee and back on the Monday, just to see if the trip was do-able, and if so we would do the real thing with the kids on the Wednesday. Folks had obviously been skiing and snowshoeing out to Kibbee over the winter so there was a somewhat narrow trail with a solid base. The dogs in single file had no problems, Tyler set a wicked pace skiing in front of the team. We ‘pulled the hook’ at about 10:30 a.m., the day was starting to get warm but it had frozen that night so we weren’t really sinking in. The sun was shining brightly, it was a lovely day, soon we abandoned hat and gloves. At the end of the portage trail, at the spot where in the summer you put the canoe into the water for the very first time, there is a little drop-off onto the lake. There were several trails out on the lake to choose from, there was none of the dreaded overflow that is the nemesis of so many groups that try to ski around the Chain in the winter, the dogs did really well, it was bright, warm and very pleasant.
We made it to Campsite #1 and the cabin very quickly. I staked out the dogs in some trees and we just sat in the sun on a wooden bench that was almost buried in snow, we soaked in the warmth as we ate our lunch and watched as a butterfly came to land on the handlebar of the dog sled. There was no question that in two days we would travel out with the children.
Everyone was excited in anticipation of this adventure. Nana made a lunch fit for Hannibal’s army. The dogs knew the drill, having just completed the trip two days earlier. I chose to use a bit shorter sled than I had used on Monday, the narrow trail made it very difficult to turn a longer sled in the middle of the trail. We chose to move the starting time ahead by an hour to take advantage of the cooler morning temperatures. It had rained since Monday and we feared that the trail might have softened significantly.
Our local ski hill, Troll Resort, is located on the way to Bowron Lake. This winter, the owners experimented with a small trailer park (complete with two tiny homes) for regular skiers who would like to park their mobile homes at the resort for the winter. My son had access to an unused school bus and had arranged for it to be part of this winter auto court. As it was Spring Break for the children, they had gone skiing on Tuesday and spending the night in the bus was part of the adventure. I met them at the bus at 8:00 a.m. sharp. There was a lot of excitement in the air.
We arrived at the Bowron trailhead by 9:00 a.m. It was warmer than we had hoped and the trail had definitely softened over the past two days. We knew the routine, I got the dogs and sled ready while Tyler got the kids ready. For the children it was snowsuits all around. These incredible pieces of childrens’ winter clothing were irreplaceable when it came to a child’s active winter lifestyle. But they are also well named…toaster suits.
I let Tyler organize just where the kids should go. We started off with 3 year old Garnet and 6 year old Eli in the sled, with 8 year old Logan riding on the left hand runner, with me on the right hand runner. The kids in the sled were sitting on a foamy, Logan and I were able to pedal with our ‘outside’ leg, the one that wasn’t standing on the runner. Tyler was equipped with his back country skis and skins and he skied in front of the dog sled. The dogs were great!
All right, Let’s go! It was slow going but we were moving well. Logan caught on to the pedalling right away. I was working hard, the shorter sled didn’t have the same kind of floatation on the soft snow as the longer sled would have. I generally whistle to the dogs to encourage them to move along and soon there were four different whistling sounds floating through the air coming from each of the four riders on the sled. The trick was to stay in the middle of the trail, where the hard pack was. The dogs did fine, running in single file they were each able to pick their way right down the middle of the packed trail. The loaded sled on the other hand was another story. If it veered to one side of the trail it almost immediately was grabbed by the soft snow which in turn caused the sled to veer right off the trail, often into a tree well. It was a lot of effort to get it back on to the trail. Soon Logan chose to run behind the sled, he was fantastic. Eli and Garnet encouraged the dogs along, and soon I heard this three year old high pitched voice imitating mine….”alright pups let’s go, let’s go”.
The toaster suits soon became ‘roaster suits’….it was getting hot. “I’m sweating, it’s too hot, how much longer, can’t we go faster – I want to go faster, let’s go pups, when are we going to be there, this is the longest hike ever”. The two oldest boys took turns walking behind and riding on the sled. They were careful to make sure their little brother was o.k. It is primarily an uphill journey from the start to Kibbee Lake…in hindsight, it actually was going really well.
When we got to the lake, of course the trail was perfectly flat. To heck with following the safety of the shoreline, let’s take the shortest route over the ice. The sled moved smoothly, there was no suggestion of danger, but as each set of human and canine feet (along with the sled and ski runners) passed over the route, the overflow became more and more evident. The dogs loved it, the pulling was easy, the overflow was not a problem for their feet and I suspect it was also cooler for them as well.
I didn’t really have to give the dogs much thought, they were doing their job and doing it well. “let’s go pups”. Tulugak was wonderful, last Monday and today were the very first times that she had ever run single lead without any hint that she was going to fight. I’m not saying for one minute that she is as great a sled dog as her late sister Pitsiark, but she was sure doing well today. As for the provincial park brothers, they were steady and powerful. That image of the Inuit family with mother and father ‘in harness’ along with the two or three family Inuit dogs, all pulling the heavily loaded komatik to new hunting grounds flashed through my mind. Was this really what it must have been like? These were the same dogs, these would be the same spring conditions, but I’m not sure if those toaster suits were anything like the caribou skin clothing that the Inuit children of 70+ years ago would have been wearing.
Before too long we were at campsite #1, Kibbee Lake. The children became quite excited when they saw the orange #1 marker sign. Both Logan and Eli had been to this place before. For Logan it was in the winter, he was just a few months old and his parents had made an overnight trip out to this spot on skis. He was also here when he was two years old, on that occasion his parents completed an epic 14 day canoe trip around the Chain when in addition to Logan, little Eli was also in the canoe. The plan for that trip was simple, you paddled when the children were sleeping and stopped when they were awake and needed attention. The canoe that was being used at that time was a big 20 footer, complete with a covered nursery and a jolly jumper (to be used on dry land only).
Today the dogs were staked out in the same place as Monday, the children sat on the same bench that Tyler and I had used two days earlier. They stripped down to their ‘fuzzies’, taking off those roaster suits. The sun was warm, the sandwiches were delicious (Nana had made each boy’s favourite) along with some treats and juice and once again the butterfly landed on the handlebar of the sled. We had brought a special gift, a pair of hand dipped candles and these were placed inside the cabin, hopefully for someone to use.
After about an hour it was time to start the return journey. Everything was done in reverse. On the lake the overflow had now filled our incoming tracks, the going was good but the conditions were now quite wet. All three boys were riding comfortably in the sled, the dogs were working really well. Once off the lake there was a longish initial uphill and things slowed down. As the trail got softer it became more and more difficult to steer the sled which seemed to be continually drawn into tree wells. Logan helped out by hiking behind the sled until we reached the height of land. On the predominant downhill sections everyone was riding and we made great time. Before we knew it we were back at the truck, but not before one more little adventure.
Just after passing the Park Registration Centre Tyler called back “skiers ahead”. Sure enough, three or four men (it all happened in a blur) were heading toward us. They were on skis, each was pulling a fully loaded pulka. We exchanged greetings as we passed, almost without stopping. They were on their way around the whole Chain, we shared information about the conditions we had experienced, mentioned about our friends who had completed the circuit a few weeks earlier, said “Good Luck” and as both groups moved on we silently wished them well. (Note: I later learned that this group was from Kamloops and that they did indeed successfully make it around the Chain….good for them!)
Once back to the truck the children were feeling cold and they stripped out of their wet clothes. We turned on the engine and heater and essentially transformed the truck into a sauna. It took about a half hour to load the equipment into the dog trailer and the dogs into their dog boxes and to be on our way, just as raindrops appeared on the windshield.