We’ve talked a little bit about how the toboggan has evolved in Northern Canada from a hand hauling sleigh to a dog sled and then to a towing sled for snow machines. The best I can find on when wooden toboggans first came on the scene is approximately the time when Hudson’s Bay Co. began trading fur in Canada. That makes pretty good sense when you consider that would likely have been about when the first flat sawn wooden boards became available.
In those days, above 60 degrees, babiche was the fastener of choice. Babiche is leather cord cut from caribou hide. First the hide is tanned and then beginning in the center of the tanned skin a knife cut is made. With a sharp knife the cut continues in a slightly enlarging circle, around and around the center of the hide. Depending on how heavy of cord one wanted would determine how close together this circling cut would be. If one wanted 1/8” cord the knife would follow outside the last cut 1/8”. If one wanted ¼” cord the knife would follow outside the last cut ¼”…like that around and around the hide until one reaches the outside edge of the hide. The result is one long cord or babiche from one hide. From this desirable lengths are cut for a particular purpose.
The first toboggans were made of two or three bent boards. The bending process was taking the individual board and boiling it in water to soften it up. Then the boiled tip of the board was wedged between two trees and carefully bent. Perhaps one board would have been boiled again and again until the desired curl was accomplished.
Once the boards were bent they would be held together by spaced wooden slats or crosspieces on top and across the width of the toboggan. Holes were bored through the crosspiece and the toboggan board and babiche was used to lash the two together.
Babiche is tough stuff and wears pretty well against the snow in a snowshoe trail. I can imagine from time to time a piece would wear thin or snag and break but it probably was a rare occurrence. So replacing a missing or a torn piece of babiche was likely just general maintenance for the hunter…or his wife.
These first wooden toboggans where a big improvement in winter sledding replacing the traditional sleds made from caribou hide. The wooden toboggans had backbone and would bridge the ever present undulations of the ground unlike the skin sleds that would slump in and out of every hole or low spot in the trail. Heavy loads on a skin sled moved with much less effort on the wooden toboggan. It was for this reason wooden toboggans spread across northern Canada below the tree line.
I can only imagine the reactions of those first aboriginal hunters when they first unloaded their caribou skin sled unto their first wooden toboggan and took off down the snowshoe trail. These were highly skilled outdoorsmen, remarkable survivalists, and masters of their environment. They spoke a different language but if one could have overheard their conversation it most likely would have been something like; “this thing is fricken awesome!”