Native Winter Sleigh
An era in Canadian winter travel has recently passed. Just a few generations ago the hand-pulled o-daw-ban served as the chief form of winter freight conveyance in the forested regions of Canada. Originating with the North American Indian, these sleighs predate the arrival of Europeans by untold centuries. Today as a commercial transport device, the o-daw-ban is virtually replaced by motor vehicles, aircraft and the snowmobile. Authentic examples have become nearly as rare as the large birch bark ra-bes-ka trade canoes which formed the basis for summer commerce and communication in the early days of our country.
Probably the most significant role for the o-daw-ban was its use for transport by native people who lived off the land by hunting and trapping. Before the advent of the snowmobile some form of this device was almost as necessary as snowshoes. The designs that were developed have subsequently been modified by the introduction of European technology, particularly nails, screws and wire. Likewise several changes came about as a result of the more widespread use of dog teams for hauling around the turn of the century. For the purpose of this discussion, we shall focus exclusively on the most common hand-drawn models in their aboriginal form.
Two basic native o-daw-ban designs have evolved through centuries of development. The first and most important was a design that could be pulled behind a snowshoer breaking a fresh trail in deep, untracked powder snow as would be the case for mid-winter hunting and trapping. This o-daw-ban had to be extremely narrow for easy hauling, yet possess enough surface area to support a heavy load in the soft snow of a fresh snowshoe track. For these conditions, the North American Indian perfected the na-bug-o-daw-ban or "flat" sleigh. The children's-hill sliding toboggan bears some resemblance to the na-bug-o-daw-ban. However, several dozen important design features are lacking (front taper, rear taper, thin flexible planking, narrow width of 14-inches) making hill sliding models most unsuitable for hauling on a fresh snowshoe trail. Like the birch-bark canoe, the na-bug-o-daw-ban at its finest, was a mastery of both functional and artistic form.
When travel conditions permitted, a second and more efficient class of o-daw-ban could be used, which the Ojibwa called o-kad-o-daw-ban or "legged" sleigh. These sleighs were different from na-bug-o-daw-ban in that they consisted of two narrow widely-spaced runners with an elevated carrying bed usually supported by cross bars and raves connected to the runners by vertical legs or staunchions. When these sleighs were used for hauling canoes over frozen lakes in late spring, a low carrying bed was preferred and thus the staunchions could be built as projections of the runners rather than separate members mortised to the runners.
The narrow runners of all designs of o-kad-o-daw-ban will quickly bog down following a fresh snowshoe track in deep powder snow. However, for well-packed and frozen trail surfaces, narrow runners make the o-kad-o-daw-ban easy to pull even with heavy loads. For this reason, o-kad-o-daw-ban were primarily used in the early winter with its shallow snow depths or in the spring when thaws had melted the surface of the snow to form a crust strong enough to support the runners. During mid-winter o-kad-o-daw-ban were often confined to well-packed tracks in the immediate vicinity of winter camps where they could be used for hauling firewood, fresh evergreen boughs and water.
In the winter on a lesser scale, the o-daw-ban played an equivalent role to the birch bark trade canoe. Once freeze-up came the voyageur and coureur de bois certainly did not hibernate. One important task was the visitation of outlying Indian camps to induce native trappers to come to the post and trade. These snowshoe trips often lasted several weeks requiring o-daw-ban to transport the necessary provisions.
In some areas when fur trade competition was keen, o-daw-ban were also used to carry trade goods directly to the Indian camps. Preoccupied by trapping and hunting, this convenient "door to door" service all but eliminated any incentive for native trappers to trade at opposition posts before spring break-up. Not only did the trappers benefit from trade goods brought by o-daw-ban at a time when they were most needed, but the voyageurs were often able to secure the bulk of the returns from the fall trapping, which accounted for most of the yearly fur production. The furs were usually transported to the post by o-daw-ban on the return trip.
Extreme competition greatly increased winter visitations and, in some instances, prompted trading companies to upgrade winter snowshoe trails for regular o-daw-ban freighting to Indian winter camps. These trails were known as bibon-o-meekina (bon-ka-nah in Temagami). Trail improvements on the most important routes included marking the optimal alignment, clearing this route of fallen timber and brushing slush holes with evergreen boughs. Small open creeks would be bridged and sometimes log and brush fill was used to smooth out the worst of the rough spots to permit the hauling of heavy loads. Bibon-o-meekina radiating from the former Hudson's Bay Company's (HBC) Bear Island Post on Lake Temagami, Ontario, upgraded by a colorful employee named Petrant in the 1800s, serve as an excellent example of what could be accomplished. Some of these still exist (e.g. the portage west of Cattle Is. between L. Temagami and Gull Lake, though damaged in the 1977 fire) providing evidence of the former days of o-daw-ban freighting by the Hudson's Bay Company. (These trails were upgraded by the HBC in the face of competition from other traders.)
Despite an inferior freight capacity compared to trade canoes, o-daw-ban were sometimes used to transport supplies along canoe routes to trading posts. A recent example was the provisioning of the HBC's Marten's Falls Post on the Albany River from Nakina, Ontario, shortly after the turn of the century. To save time and avoid being caught by freeze-up, the last canoe brigade for the season usually cached half its load on a long portage to be retrieved by a fleet of o-daw-ban in the winter.
Not all voyageurs were employed making rendezvous with native people at outlying winter camps or freighting supplies. A very select group were chosen for the task of winter communication between trading posts. It was their task to carry the official company correspondence, including news of changes in fur price, staff and trading strategies. As well they carried personal mail and small parcels sent by friends or relatives, coming often as far away as Europe. Voyageurs undertaking this type of work for the HBC were known as packeteers because they were responsible for transporting this winter mail packet.
Many round trip mail runs exceeded 500 miles requiring great strength and endurance. The packeteers hauling their o-daw-ban often faced the grueling task of breaking a fresh trail on snowshoes for virtually the whole route, as there existed no packed snowshoe trails between trading posts in those days.
Twenty miles was an average day's work. This rate of travel necessitated continuous labor from first light till darkness and travel during periods of extreme cold when the o-daw-ban were difficult to pull. Even worse, travel was occasionally necessary in thaw when little could be kept dry and heavy slush accumulated on tops of snowshoes, making for great misery and hardship.
In earlier times, overnight accommodation was obtained in the rudest of shelters, the o-buck-wan. This shelter consisted of a simple tarpaulin lean-to placed before a fire. To stay warm at night it was necessary to chop and haul into camp at least a half a chord of firewood BEFORE retiring. Rest was not without interruption as the fire would have to be re-stoked every few hours.
This class of voyageur hauled a light outfit to increase speed. Included were the barest of essentials: rifle, axe, knife, frying pan, pail, snare wire, spare babiche, flour, soda, sugar, beans, grease, tea, two blankets, one change of clothes, several pairs of mocassins, and tarpaulin, as well as the mail bag. Provisions were kept to a minimum as animals and birds were intended to be shot and snared en route. If game was sparse and the snares set overnight failed, starvation was a real possibility.
Unlike summer canoe brigades, these voyageurs often traveled for many weeks alone or with just a single partner. The routes they followed were the summer canoe routes, except for shortcuts or extended detours around weak ice. Breaking through ice and drowning was a common cause of death. A normal load was no more than 100 pounds, but under ideal conditions these voyageurs were capable of hauling 300 pounds all day on their o-daw-ban, which they referred to as traîneaux.
Feats of exceptional snowshoe and o-daw-ban prowess were rarely witnessed as few observers were capable of sustaining the rate of travel or enduring the hardships necessary to accompany the very best of these men. The voyageurs and Indians themselves had considerably more admiration for these heroic man-testing accomplishments than for the more mundane labor of the canoe brigade. Certainly the names of McKenzie, Batisse, Polson, McLaren and Bonin will be long remembered in this regard.
Some accomplishments of the older generation of voyageurs and coureur de bois border on the unbelievable, particularly those of Laguimonière. During the winter of 1815-16, Laguimonière traveled alone, approximately 2,000 miles from the Red River Settlement near present-day Winnipeg to Montreal, bringing news that the colony had been re-established and was in imminent peril at the hands of the North West Company. Contracted by Lord Selkirk to carry several letters back to the Red River Settlement, Laguimonière reached the western end of Lake Superior before being waylaid and robbed of them by Ottawa Indians, working in collusion with Charles Grant of the Fond du Lac Post of the North West Company. The accomplishment of even being able to make the initial journey in the winter without the aid of modern maps is considerable. Today the specific details of his route or, for that matter, the principal trans-Canada snowshoe and o-daw-ban route from Montreal to the west remain largely an unsolved mystery. Certainly open water and unsafe ice could not have permitted a precise following of the summer canoe route.
The utility of o-daw-ban eventually extended far beyond native hunting, trapping and the fur trade. In time, derivatives of the basic designs became standard equipment for timber cruisers, surveyors and game wardens working in the winter. O-daw-ban were ideally suited for non-mountainous terrain where networks of frozen waterways provided the principal travel routes. These level surfaces made the hauling of heavy freight much more practical than carrying it on one's back, particularly while snowshoeing. Modern technology, especially the gasoline engine, ended all of this.
Cree o-kad-o-daw-ban variation on Rupert River at winter camp in 1966. Photo: Heb Evans
Is there a future for the o-daw-ban apart from museums? As with the canoe, the author believes that their revival lies with recreationalists. At the wilderness cabin or cottage, the six-foot o-kad-o-daw-ban is ideal for drawing in the winter's firewood, either in the form of split cordwood or turns (long logs), or for a quiet day's outing, possibly to ice fish.
For the 'purist' winter camper, both the na-bug-o-daw-ban and o-kad-o-daw-ban can transport the traditional winter camping gear, such as the wood-burning kee-jab-ki-sigans and large canvas tents, which for years have provided a very high level of "indoor" comfort at the campsite, even in severely cold weather. With the o-daw-ban, the exploration of Canada's old snowshoe trails for sustained periods during mid-winter is feasible even for the most northerly woodlands. Apart from mountainous terrain, they are the most practical mode of transport in woodland areas prohibiting motorized snow vehicle travel. Every outdoor recreationalist should have one.
Long live the o-daw-ban and our Canadian tradition!
Published with the permission of the author. This is a revised version of a story originally published in the The Wilderness Canoeist (newsletter of the Wilderness Canoe Association), March 1979.
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