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Thread: Novelist needs background info on sled dogs

  1. #1
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    Default Novelist needs background info on sled dogs

    Hi all,

    Iím writing my third dystopian SciFi and need a bit background info on how far one can go with sled dogs (and how fast). Hereís the setup:

    Two people (young, healthy, good at hunting and surviving crappy situations) need to go from the Carpathian mountains all the way to Svalbard. The trip begins in December (some time in the far future). Climate disruption caused the melting of poles decades ago, and the weather is very unstable with extreme freezing, thawing, rain, and snow events. So this one is a cold winter and the Barents Sea is frozen. The two have to cross 1000km of sea ice, the journey is a total of 5000km (one way only).

    Screenshot 2015-04-09 20.47.05.jpg


    There will be a lot of big game to hunt (moose, reindeer, European buffalo, muskox, etc) but most of them are lean - which means they have to kill a lot to supply enough calories for the dogs. I'm planning with two dog teams (twelve dogs each) and 250kg of supplies and gear per sled. What average speed could they maintain during this journey? Would two people and 24 dogs be able to travel 5000km in 3 months? The sticky sea ice will slow them down as far as I know, so would they have to wait for summer to return to the continent by boat/ship? Iím calculating the ice cover to be more or less stable until April/May.
    If I race the dogs, they might need up to 10,00 calories a day (???), which equals about 2.6 kg of lean meat per dog per day (I think). The question is if that works for 5000km (2500 miles, approximately)? Iím sure it doesnít, but then I only have a well-trained Border Collie who never pulled a thing in his life.

    I'm happy about any and all feedback.
    Thanks much!
    Annelie





  2. #2

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    I'm not a mushing expert but do know that sled dogs running many miles in the cold need lots of fat, e.g. frozen salmon. The distance seems doable but those sure are heavy sleds, assuming the 250 kg does not include the humans' weight. Very hard to maneuver such heavy sleds unless there is a well broken trail, which I'm guessing there wouldn't be. They would need to have lots of fuel along -- or reliable sources of wood -- to thaw/cook the dog and human food, and to melt snow for hydration (dogs need a lot of water when they are working that hard). Also, regardless of climate change, it will be quite dark during your characters' trip. How will they hunt enough to eat during the scant hours of daylight they'll have? Twenty-four dogs and two humans sounds like a ridiculous number of stomachs to feed, unless your plan is to have the people resort to killing, and maybe eating, the dogs, a la Shackleton expedition.

    Good that you are asking, though, as many of us get tired of novels where the author clearly has no clue how ridiculous their scenarios are!

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    Yeah, I'm worried about the calories needed for this trip. The whole climate change scenario worsens it and I still have to find out how polar animals might cope with completely ice-free summers and extremely hard winters (the conveyor belts are shut off due to fresh water input from the melted ice caps). All high-fat animals are water-bound (walrus, salmon) and practically unreachable in winter. I don't even know were all the seals, walruses, etc would go if the ice is more than a metre thick and reaching down past the Sweden. Ha! That reminds me! Thanks to climate change, I can let my protagonists take the direct route North to Svalbard (crossing Norway) which makes this trip half as long. But it's still a long and hard trip.

    You are correct, there's no broken trail. The 250kg is the maximum weight I thought the dogs could pull (without the humans), and most of that weight can be meat, fat, and lard/oil to melt water.

    As for the dogs: I thought they don't necessarily need food and water to be thawed?

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    It's about impossible to give you real numbers for your scenario, but here are some things to consider based off of probably the closest comparison. Consider the two longest dogsled races, the Yukon Quest and Iditarod. They are running approximately 1000 miles. Here are a few things to take note of when looking at your estimates:

    Distance: 1000 miles, your scenario is about 2.5 times that long
    Average speed: the race teams run around 7-10mph when they are running, not counting the rest times, Factoring in rest, they are averaging about 4.5mph for the fastest teams out there, noticeably slower for anything but the elite teams.
    Number of dogs: The race teams start with 16 dogs each (4 more than your scenario) and pretty much always have to drop dogs along the way because some get injured or just aren't as fast as the others. In your scenario, starting with fewer dogs and going much further, you wouldn't be able to afford dropping dogs along the way meaning you will be limited by the slowest dogs much more than in the races.
    Sled Weight: Your scenario with 250kg sleds is a much heavier sled than anything the race teams are pulling, meaning it will be harder on the dogs and much slower.

    Considering your scenario, teams will need to rest much more than in the race situation just due to the longer total distance. It's one thing if they can be done after 9-10 days, but they will need to be much more rested if they are expected to continue for a month or three. This will significantly extend the length of the trip and slow down the average speed. Tack on the heavier sleds and dealing with sick/injured dogs along the way and it just makes it longer.

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    Thank you anchskier! I plan to let the dogs rest frequently (for example, when the protagonists stalk game they'll not take the dogs with them), and 250kg per sled are the maximum weight (reached only when they killed big game). The main problem will be to find large animals with a high enough fat content, so the dogs and people don't burn more calories than they take up. However, this is a dystopian scenario and there will be plenty of dead people and dogs (some of which will end up on the plate).

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    If you really want proper background (I don't know how in depth you want your research to go.) you should definitely read Knud Rasmussen's account of his expedition across Northern North America In the 1920s Across Arctic America. He travelled18,000 miles with dogs and a couple Inuit. Most of the book is about Inuit culture, but there is plenty of information about an unsupported arctic dogsled expedition.

    There is also a movie, based on his auto-biography, but I haven't seen the movie so I don't know how accurate it is.

    The book is 415 pages. I highly recommend you get it. Knud is your archetype.

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    Oh, thank you! I'll read it! I'm skimming Scott's journals now, but he used ponies and kinda...screwed up.

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    Annelie, if plausibility is a goal then you are going to need a plot device such as an abandoned ship stuck in the ice or an abandoned oil platform in the north sea as an interim source of food or shelter. There would be NO land mammals on the frozen sea ice. Your protagonists will have to hunt seals or possibly have an epic showdown with a polar bear which could then be fed to the dogs (but not the liver) The problem with such a plot line is the dogs cannot haul the calories they need to complete the journey. You have to provide something.
    If cave men had been trophy hunters the Wooly Mammoth would be alive today

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    Hey Erik, yep, I want it plausible. Problem is - while reading the recent IPCC report I realise more and more that it's almost impossible to survive in the post climate disaster Arctic. Polar bears are extinct as are most seal species, reindeer/caribou will migrate or die off because their lichens diet isn't available anymore. The indigenous peoples who depend on seal and whale meat, and on reindeer herds, will have probably migrated, too. So...there's really no way to get up there without a ton of help. I use a few train lines running up to the most southern part of the Siberian permafrost (here, all train tracks sink, because: muck), but there are still more than a thousand kilometres to reach Svalbard. The protagonists could plan to get there but not return. They'll probably eat all dogs and the handful of their enemies they'll run into on the way.
    That scenario sounds more plausible, but HECK! This stories will be so awful that no one want to buy it. My usual...

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    Quote Originally Posted by Annelie View Post
    Hey Erik, yep, I want it plausible. Problem is - while reading the recent IPCC report I realise more and more that it's almost impossible to survive in the post climate disaster Arctic. Polar bears are extinct as are most seal species, reindeer/caribou will migrate or die off because their lichens diet isn't available anymore. The indigenous peoples who depend on seal and whale meat, and on reindeer herds, will have probably migrated, too. So...there's really no way to get up there without a ton of help. I use a few train lines running up to the most southern part of the Siberian permafrost (here, all train tracks sink, because: muck), but there are still more than a thousand kilometres to reach Svalbard. The protagonists could plan to get there but not return. They'll probably eat all dogs and the handful of their enemies they'll run into on the way.
    That scenario sounds more plausible, but HECK! This stories will be so awful that no one want to buy it. My usual...
    It's not as hopeless as you might think. You or I couldn't do it, but you get to grant your characters great skill, great resiliency and great luck. I think that you will find that the extent of sea ice allows your anti-heroes to travel on sea ice into mid-June which is after the seabirds show up. You may need a lightweight boat to get from sea ice to shore to harvest birds and eggs, and to fish near shore. Hop from Bpolshevik Island to Franz Joseph Land to Svarlbard. That area is rich with fish and marine mammals, and you only have to do about 350 miles at a time to go from land mass to land mass. 350 miles should take your heroes about 10 days, meaning each dog might need 50 lb of lean meat. But, dogs can fatten up on land and fast on the ice to some extent, and you aren't limited to lean meat. Perhaps 25 lb of fatty meat per dog is enough. Or less.

    So. Do the trip in the spring. Teach your heroes to paddle a mile or more to shore when the ice pack gets blown offshore. They need to beach sein for fish. Hunt walruses and seals. Gather migratory bird eggs.

    Maybe I'm missing something, but I just don't see a need to cross 2,500 miles. Use the islands near the coast to your benefit.

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    Also, if climate changes such that polar bears and seals go extinct, something will migrate north and fill that niche.

    I think that you might be overly pessimistic about the ability for marine mammals to survive near the northern islands, and I am sure you are overly pessimistic about the ability for ungulates to survive in Siberia. If caribou can't make it, moose will take their place. If moose can't make it, deer will move in.

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    I think there'll be plenty of animals wherever humans disappeared. As for adaptation: The problem with that is that mammals usually have annual mating cycles. With climate change, the atmosphere will not only get warmer, the weather will be more unstable, screwing with the annual mating cycles of some animals in various environments such as the arctic. If seasons are erratic here, it get's much harder to adapt. If, for example, the pole were ice-free most months of the year and for 9 years out of 10 (I have to make it difficult for my protagonists and give them a very hard winter to deal with) all animals that now live in the warmer, greener north will have a very hard time. I doubt that in such a scenario, my protagonists will find enough game. But I might be wrong here. I guess one can always eat wolves and wild dogs that forage on died and frozen moose and deer carcasses.

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    Quote Originally Posted by HikerDan View Post
    Hop from Bpolshevik Island to Franz Joseph Land to Svarlbard.
    That would be a detour of 4000 kilometres. But I might make them take that route for the way back (if I let them survive and get back at all).
    Bird eggs are a great idea, but then they have to wait for spring. I need them to travel in winter. And that trip has to be difficult as hell. The worse the better
    (that's why I fail at writing romance novels)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Annelie View Post
    I think there'll be plenty of animals wherever humans disappeared. As for adaptation: The problem with that is that mammals usually have annual mating cycles. With climate change, the atmosphere will not only get warmer, the weather will be more unstable, screwing with the annual mating cycles of some animals in various environments such as the arctic. If seasons are erratic here, it get's much harder to adapt. If, for example, the pole were ice-free most months of the year and for 9 years out of 10 (I have to make it difficult for my protagonists and give them a very hard winter to deal with) all animals that now live in the warmer, greener north will have a very hard time. I doubt that in such a scenario, my protagonists will find enough game. But I might be wrong here. I guess one can always eat wolves and wild dogs that forage on died and frozen moose and deer carcasses.
    I haven't read the entire thread, so pardon if this has been addressed or if I am misunderstanding. That said, a few comments concerning authenticity / believability:

    1. Never assume that animals will be abundant where humans are absent. In this land (Alaska), with a few minor exceptions, humans do not exist in enough numbers to have an appreciable effect on game populations. Some of this has to do with access. We hunt these animals, but only in fringe areas of their habitat. Most of their range consists of areas where only a helicopter can land (and those are strictly prohibited for hunting purposes). A case could be made for overhunting our formerly large wood bison herds, but I don't think anyone would question that environmental factors play a much bigger role than human predation. Natural predators are an equally great contributor, and recent history in Alaska supports this. We just came off of a huge predator problem in the Susitna Valley and points west, where wolves and bears were systematically wiping our moose out. Predator control measures turned that situation around.

    2. I would be careful in assuming that climate change would have much effect on the mating cycles of most animals. For example, most biologists I have studied assert that the moose rut is triggered by the season, as dictated by the position of the sun in relation to the earth. Weather / temperature has nothing to do with it. I would agree that significant climate change could conceivably impact bear denning timing and duration, and could potentially create a situation where denning was not necessary. We know, for example, that bears exit their dens even in mid-winter up here. This has been documented on Kodiak Island. Speculation is that melting snow floods out some dens, but I suspect that some bears just wake up and wander around a bit.

    Hope it helps!

    -Mike
    LOST CREEK COMPANY: Specializing in Alaska hunt consultation and planning for do-it-yourself hunts, fully outfitted hunts, and guided hunts.
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    Hi Michael,
    thank you for your response! When I talk about "more animals where humans are absent" I'm talking from a central European perspective. We would have many more wisents and wolves here if humans weren't that abundant and wouldn't need concrete buildings to live in. It's amazing what biodiversity developed where the East-West German border used to be and no one was allowed to go for decades.
    As for the rutting seasons: From the litte I know, they also depend on food availability and there we get into food web feedback effects. Just imagine the salmon up in North America doesn't spawn as it used to and potential effects on bears and people. (IPCC 2014: "If the timing of primary and secondary production is no longermatched to the timing of spawning or egg release, survival could be impacted, with cascading implications to higher trophic levels. This impactwould be exacerbated if shifts in timing occur rapidly.")
    But I'll definitely check on mating seasons of the larger animals in the arctic and if there are any data indicating changes indicted by climate change.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Annelie View Post
    ...I'll definitely check on mating seasons of the larger animals in the arctic and if there are any data indicating changes indicted by climate change.
    Keep in mind too, that with all the buzz about climate change and the resulting avalanche of folks wanting to capitalize on that (in terms of recognition or money- sometimes both), there is a LOT of junk science floating around out there.
    LOST CREEK COMPANY: Specializing in Alaska hunt consultation and planning for do-it-yourself hunts, fully outfitted hunts, and guided hunts.
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    I know. It's quite depressing how many ****ty papers are out there (in any field). I'm an environmental scientist for 20 years now and much in that job goes against my grain by now (that's why I'm quitting it). Sorry about my funny english (it seems weirder today than usual) - I'm not a native speaker.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Annelie View Post
    I know. It's quite depressing how many ****ty papers are out there (in any field). I'm an environmental scientist for 20 years now and much in that job goes against my grain by now (that's why I'm quitting it). Sorry about my funny english (it seems weirder today than usual) - I'm not a native speaker.
    Oh, I see. Didn't catch your background (that's what I get for not reading the whole thread, eh? I share your frustration about people who cannot seem to stick to straight science on this stuff. Speculation is great because it takes us to where we can start to make some qualified guesses, but it needs to be characterized as such. Unfortunately greed and / or the human ego often trumps good, solid work, and the masses end up falling for the latest sensation instead.
    LOST CREEK COMPANY: Specializing in Alaska hunt consultation and planning for do-it-yourself hunts, fully outfitted hunts, and guided hunts.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Michael Strahan View Post
    Oh, I see. Didn't catch your background (that's what I get for not reading the whole thread, eh?
    Ha! Don't worry. I don't think I mentioned it anywhere in that thread.
    The straight science thing is really difficult, because the academic culture promotes what looks cool/hot/sexy. No one wants to know all the things that don't work out the way we hypothesised they would.
    Also: scientists never solve problems, we only study them. And that bothers me big time.

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