Oxymorons

Microsoft Works.

An excitable Lithuanian.

Steering a dogsled.

For stand-up comedians, one well-worn oxymoron is “military intelligence.”

A few more of the European national stereotypes variety:

English gourmet foods

German politeness

Italian/French government

I was thinking only of Italian government as an illustrative example when I suddenly remembered the famous saying of Charles de Gaulle, “How can you govern a  country with 246 varieties of cheese?”

If I stepped on your toes with some of these, I intended to. Overall, any typical list of representative oxymora leads to the conclusion that like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder.

Why is steering a dogsled an oxymoron?

How’s that working out for you? Where did you expect the sled to go? The dogs are going one way; would you like the sled to steer in a different direction?

The best steering and handling sled should follow the dogs with the least effort from the driver.  A sled that needs to be steered, even if it responds very well, is a big pain in the ass.

Take a Danler Sled or similar Euro design… Please!

(“Take my wife… please” was a line from comedian Henny Yongman, one of the popular performers of that era on the Borscht Belt circuit, the Jewish Alps or Catskill Mountain resorts north of New York City. The first time I heard the term Jewish Alps I was making my way to subway station in New York to get to the Grand Central train station with a stack of wooden cross country skis on my shoulder around 1968 during a heavy snowfall that paralyzed the streets. A man called out in heavy accent, “Where ya tink ya go, da Jewish Alps?”)

Take my Danler sled… please. Unfortunately it handles just like skiing, and steering a sled cannot be the same as skiing.

In skiing you put your weight on the downhill (for a side hill) or outside (for a turn) ski, bring the uphill or inside ski in next to it, and lean into the hill or into a turn. But the skis/runners of a sled are not movable. If you do lean into a turn you are putting your weight on the inside runner and often over-steering. Consequently, on a tight turn with a responsive skiing-like sled, the musher has the choice to lean in, cutting the corner too close and possibly hitting the tree, fence, sign, or other obstacle ahead in or beside the trail; or lean out, off balance to risk being thrown off the sled. Icy trails can be frightening for similar reasons.

Turnabout is fair play, so the saying goes: Man Bites Dog, Noodle Eats Danler! The Noodle Sled was an ultra-flexible sled built with plastic and aluminum in the early 1990s. Joe Runyan used one for several years; he says they were great on mogul trails. Does anyone have photos?

Some sled builders and mushers came to the conclusion that the so-called sled steering systems using lines and pulleys attaching the bridle to the driving bow, pulling the bridle to one side or the other as you move the driving bow, although ingenious and elegant engineering, are overkill. Notwithstanding, ingenious features can always serve a purpose in sales and marketing to justify a higher price.

The exception where this type of amplified steering can be helpful is the freight or tourist transport sled, where the heavy load makes ordinary sleds unresponsive. The first big toboggan sleds that I built around 40 years ago had an  8 foot (250 cm) long plastic toboggan bed but the tail of the runners was barely big enough to stand on. These sleds could be steered like a canoe, by moving the rear of the sled sideways to point in the direction you wanted to go. Long ago basket style freight sleds were steered from the front with a “gee pole” that gave leverage to the driver who either ran along in front of the sled behind the wheel dogs or rode a “ouija board” in the same position. Now my mind is groping for a memory of something Ross Saunderson did in the North American Championships… was it a kind of mini-sled between the tails of the runners to stand on at the road crossings so the plastic on the sled runners would not get roughed up?

Another issue, though not so much about steering, is the optimum width of the runners or skis. If you believe cross country skis are comparable to dogsled runners, remember that for sliding and load bearing, in XC skiing your weight is usually on one or the other and not on both. So the  equivalent load bearing sled runner would be half the width of a ski, not the same width.

With mid and long distance mushers, the other problem is that an overly steerable and responsive sled on a typical uneven, rough, or winding trail requires constant attention for hours. If you end up with a sore neck and shoulders at the end of the day, blame your sled.

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