Thousands of years ago, as humans migrated and spread across the terrestrial landscapes of our planet, the methods and modes of transportation diversified with each challenge faced by these early explorers. Driven not by fame or fortune, but instead by necessity, our early ancestors traveled deep into the cold white expanses of Asia and North America, following large packs of animals rich in fat and thick furs. As the snow drifted deeper, and the winds grew sharper, a relationship formed between humans and another highly intelligent and cooperative pack animal, the wolf.
The history of this relationship is vague and uncertain, however, the outcome is clear to anyone who as ever owned or interacted with the only animal ever granted status as man’s ‘best friend.’ From the northern Grey Wolf, a breed of dog was bred into existence that was highly devoted, sturdy, strong, and tireless. Fastened to a rudimentary sled along with a team of other dogs, these animals would pull their human companions for many miles for a fee of raw meat and a place in the pack. Thus, Dog Sledding was born.
The term ‘mushing,’ as it’s often referred to, derives from the French word ‘marcher’ which means to walk. This was the command that French colonials used to order their team of dogs to begin moving. From it’s pre-historic roots, both the dogs and the activity itself have changed significantly. Used heavily in the North American fur trade of colonial times, and the gold rush of Alaska and the Canadian Rockies, mushing spread and diversified. Different regions sported a variety of breeds, from the massive Alaskan Malamute that pulled freight loads, to the stark white Samoyed that was also used in the summer for sheep herding. Each breed had a unique set of characteristics specialized to the needs of their region of origin. Similar to the dogs themselves, the organization of dog sledding teams varied as well. In most of Canada and the Northern United States, the dogs were fastened double file onto a single cable called the gang line that would pull the sled in a narrow formation down wooded trails cut through dense Boreal forests. In the wide open tundras of Siberia, Greenland, and the northern reaches of Canada, dogs were each attached to the sled with a single line, and spread out in a wide fan formation that more evenly distributed the weight. Though the means and methods were varied, the purpose of driving a team of dogs across vast landscapes of snow and ice was never lost.
Today, with the rapid progress of motorized transportation, the utility of dog sledding has diminished, however the spirit remains in both the people who have experienced the power of a dog team, and the dogs who never lost their desire to run and pull. Across the world, Mushing has developed into a highly competitive sport that is both brutal and genial, where your competition is the ceaseless arctic wind, and your team is comprised of the most loving and devoted companions you may ever know.
Though the activity today is mainly sport, there are still pockets of the world where the most efficient mode of transportation in the winter, is by dog team. Far north in Greenland, Nunavut, Alaska, and Siberia, the price of gasoline is too expensive to justify the use of snowmobiles for longer commutes, and thus teams of dogs are still utilized as transportation in these communities. Arguably the most famous use of of dog teams came in 1925 when the conditions that winter were so harsh in Alaska, that neither ships, trains, nor aircraft could deliver a priceless cargo of anti-toxin to a remote town struck with Diphtheria, an illness fatal to children. A relay of dog teams delivered the medicine over one thousand miles from Nenana, Alaska to Nome, Alaska in just five days, saving many young lives. The event today is memorialized by a statue in Central Park, New York, as well as a one thousand mile race held every year in Alaska called the Iditarod that comes to completion in the same remote town of Nome.
Now, despite the romantic history of dog sledding and the ways in which it has affected the world of people, arguably the most incredible part of this story are the dogs that have made it all possible. Indeed, many a sled dog has endured the harshest conditions ever known to exist on the planet, and still carried on diligently to fulfill their duty. Though dog sledding in its most original form has all but died out, the indomitable spirit of the sled dog lives on in each canine bred for such a purpose. For the past several months, I have been immersed in their world, caring for twenty three Alaskan Huskies bent on doing what they do best. Throughout the experience, I have been taken by each one’s ability to both love what they do, and to look after me in return. As we glide quietly through the deep snows of the Boreal North, there have been good days and there definitely have been harder days, yet these canine companions of ours never fail to carry myself and my spirit forward with compassion and intent.
For me, dog sledding has been in dedication to them, to their heritage, and to the spirit of what they embody. Though the work is hard and the nights of winter are long, when I walk out to greet each one in the morning, eyes glinting, and tails wagging, I know just what they hope to do that day. What they were born to do. And we run.
The content of this post is a collection of oral traditions gathered by myself from a number of fellow Mushers, as well as my own personal experience. It only reflects my narrow understanding of the culture and it’s history, and is in no way exhaustive or objective. As are most cultures, dog sledding is far too complex to be summarized in one post, and I urge anyone interested in the subject to do their own research, or even seek out a dog sledding experience of their own!