When We Had Sled Dogs

17 June 2019

When We Had Sled Dogs: A Story from the Trapline
by Ida Tremblay and Miriam Körner
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95 ISBN 978-1-988783-39-0

Searching for a book that’s educational, Woodland Cree/English bilingual, and specifically Saskatchewan? If you’d also appreciate that the story be packaged in a beautifully-illustrated hardcover, then When We Had Sled Dogs: A Story from the Trapline, should fill your desires.

This upbeat and colourful book was inspired by the life of La Ronge, SK Elder Ida Tremblay, who shared her memories of “growing up following the seasonal cycle of trapline life” with Miriam Körner. Körner – also from La Ronge – wrote and illustrated the book, which, sadly, Tremblay never got to see, as she died shortly before it was published.

During the summer, while Tremblay’s father worked as a fishing guide, the rest of the family camped at McKenzie End, close to La Ronge. Before winter froze the lake, Ida’s family would canoe for five or six days to their cabin on the Churchill River and tend the trapline until spring.

Körner’s had the privilege of accompanying Tremblay “up north and back to the past,” and thus veracity is maintained through first-hand observation – at least of place – as well as through Tremblay’s reminiscences. The reliance on sled dogs, which “summer” on Dog Island and are retrieved in canoe as the family paddles across immense Lac La Ronge to the cabin, is a critical element. Imagine these canoes loaded with excited children, anxious dogs, and staples like “flour, sugar and tea”.

When the Tremblay’s arrived after the labour-intensive journey, the first order of business was to portage – and not just once. Then there was “wood to be cut, cranberries to be picked, rabbits to be snared,” and cabin repairs. Körner’s young characters don’t complain; they also find time to play with the numerous Husky-looking puppies. We see Tremblay’s father – in his fringed and beaded buckskin coat and fur-trimmed mittens and mukluks – load the dogs and sled with needlepoint Christmas gifts for family, and furs to trade for food back in town.

Körner’s adept at the small, authentic details in her lively, watercolour illustrations. Each page warrants a long look, and children will enjoy the dogs featured throughout. Can they count all the dogs in the book? What other animals do they recognize? Adults might also ask a young audience how the artist demonstrates that the seasons are changing, discuss then and now differences, and point out culturally significant experiences, ie: for Christmas, Ida’s sister receives a sewing kit. Sewing would’ve been seen as an integral skill within a culture where creating one’s own warm clothing could be a matter of survival.

As we speed toward ever more advanced technologies and transportation systems, to urban centers, and into lives lived at breakneck speed, it’s important that these records of traditional ways be preserved. Congratulations to writer-illustrator Miriam Körner for once again spotlighting a critical part of Saskatchewan’s history and people. (Another of her titles is L’il Shadd: A Story of Ujima, also byYNWP.) And thank you Ida Tremblay, for the vivid memories and beautiful teachings.


No Comments

Comments are closed.