Canines in the Snow: A Look at Dog Sledding in Alaska

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Thanks to modern developments and convenience, you can easily ship a car to Alaska without having to even put on your shoes. However, transportation wasn’t always that easy, especially in the snowy state known as the Last Frontier. Before cars, trains, and planes, sled dogs were the best means of navigating the icy, treacherous terrain of Alaska. 

To pay homage to man’s best friend (and one of man’s best transportation helpers), let’s take a closer look at dog sledding in Alaska

A Brief History of Dog Sleds

For centuries, dogs have been companions to humans, helping us hunt, fish, and handle livestock. Dog sledding has been around for just as long, reportedly well before 1000 B.C. They were in wide use by Native Americans before being acquired by Russian traders in the mid-1800s.

The late 1800s through to the early 1900s is seen as the Era of the Sled Dog as the Alaskan Gold Rush brought renewed interest in the unique means of conveyance. Many gold mines and camps were only accessible via sled dogs in the winter, which meant that everything that needed transportation—doctors, mail, supplies, trade—had to move via sled dog. Even U.S. and Canadian police used sled dogs around mining cities.

The most significant use of sled dogs came in 1925 during the diphtheria epidemic in Nome, Alaska. Sled dog teams risked life and limb, tooth and tail, to transport diphtheria serums to Nome, saving the town and its surrounding communities.

These days, sled dogs are primarily used for racing and outdoor adventure, upholding the great tradition even in an age of cars, helicopters, and snowmobiles.

Dog Gone It

While the musher certainly plays an important role in the team, sled dogs are the ones really doing most of the work. Most sled dogs are Alaskan huskies, a mixed breed that’s not officially recognized by the AKC. These dogs are bred for their speed, endurance, loyalty, and thick coats that allow them to withstand the harsh temperatures of the Arctic.

The dog team consists of a maximum of 16 dogs. The team is separated into different hierarchies based on skill and function:

  • Lead dogs are the fastest, smartest dogs in the pack and are picked to run in front of the team. They steer the team and set the running pace.
  • The swing dogs run right behind the lead dogs and are responsible for directing the team around curves and turns.
  • The wheel dogs are the closest to the sled and musher. These are the generally the largest dogs in the pack and use their strength and steadiness to effectively guide the sled.
  • The rest of the dogs are known as team dogs. They contribute power and speed to the pack.

Thanks to all the running they do and their increased metabolism, sled dogs need to consume around 10,000 calories a day.

While some outside of the dog sledding community assume that the dogs are mistreated, many mushers actually take better care of their dogs than themselves. There’s an understanding that dogs that aren’t cared for cannot perform to their fullest. Strong, loving bonds are a necessity. Mush with PRIDE—Providing Responsible Information on a Dog’s Environment—is an organization formed entirely to ensure the care of sled dogs.

Dog sledding is an amazing pastime, and races like the Iditarod, which commences each March, continue to honor the tradition. 

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