The origins of sled dog racing stretch back more than 100 years. But it wasn't a recreational activity; it was a job. Throughout the northern regions of the globe - Siberia, Scandinavia, Canada, the United States ... anyplace where winter conditions existed for up to six months - sled dogs were working animals. Many of today's race routes used to be working "highways" for teams of sled dogs. A good example of this is Alaska and the Iditarod Trail. When you look at the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, the granddaddy of all sled dog races, its origins started as a working highway and stretch all the way back to 1867, the year of the Alaska Purchase.
Alaska for Sale
Early in the morning of March 30, 1867, after a long night of negotiating with the Russians, William Seward, then Secretary of State for the United States, signed a purchase agreement and bought the territory of Alaska for $7,200,000. This worked out to only 1.9 cents per acre, but the Alaska Purchase was still nicknamed “Seward’s Folly,” or “Seward’s Icebox.” Many Americans could see no value in owning wilderness, let alone so much of it.
But there was no denying the price was a good deal. The Tweed Courthouse was under construction in New York City at the same time, and that single building cost more than Alaska did. And thirteen years later, the Alaska Purchase turned out to be a very good deal.
Gold, Gold, GOLD!
In 1880, gold was discovered in Juneau, Alaska, marking the start of the “Alaskan Gold Rush.” From 1880 to 1914, there were more than thirty major gold strikes in Alaska. Three of Alaska’s largest towns – Juneau, Nome, and Fairbanks – were founded because of gold strikes.
In 1909 gold was discovered in Iditarod and by 1910 Iditarod was the largest city in Alaska, with more than 10,000 residents. Iditarod boasted several hotels, banks, saloons, and even a newspaper. The town was serviced by regular sternwheeler service that plied the Innoko and Iditarod Rivers, bringing passengers and supplies in, while hauling gold out.
Most gold mining towns were supplied in this manner. And boats worked fine during the summer months. But Alaska has very short summers. From October to May, the waterways froze up and another method of transportation had to be used.
The Iditarod Trail
Alaska Natives had used sled dogs for winter travel for hundreds, probably thousands, of years. Alaska was criss-crossed with a network of Native trails, but they didn’t always extend into areas where gold had been discovered. And they weren’t particularly lengthy. Alaska Natives had little need to traverse the region during the winter months. The existing trails tended to be shorter, connecting one native settlement to another, but not extending much further.
By 1908 the need for regular mail and supply service to the gold miners was so great, the U.S. government surveyed the area and decided to construct a winter trail. The trail, called the Iditarod Trail, would be used exclusively for sled dog travel.
The Iditarod Trail was constructed in 1910 and its primary purpose was for hauling freight. In 1910, adults didn’t race sled dogs on the Iditarod Trail for sport, they traveled the trail for work.
The Iditarod Trail started in Seward, a new city in the southern portion of the territory. From there, it stretched all the way to Nome, at the northern end. In its entirety, the Iditarod Trail stretched roughly 1,200 miles across Alaska. There were still many small trails in Alaska, but the Iditarod Trail became the main thoroughfare, the dog sled equivalent of a major highway.
In the 1900s, sled dogs were as common as cars, ATVs, and snowmobiles are now. Everybody kept sled dogs because it was the only way to get around during the winter. They were working, not racing, animals. And although the dogs were well cared for, they weren’t family pets. They were a winter necessity.
During the winter months, preachers and doctors visited communities and patients using dog sleds. Individuals and families kept dogs for hauling wood and water, and for traveling about. Huge freight teams of up to fifty dogs were used for long distance hauling of mail, supplies, and even passengers.
When it came to winter travel, dogs were the best choice. Pound for pound, sled dogs are the most powerful draft, or pulling, animals on earth. A team of twenty sled dogs, averaging seventy-five pounds each, can easily match a team of horses of the same total weight.
And for the long haul, dogs are faster than horses. Dogs can maintain an average speed of ten miles per hour for hundreds of miles (with rest stops) and, for short sprints, can exceed twenty miles per hour.
Dogs are also easier to take care of than horses. Even in winter, dogs can be fed from the land, with things such as moose, fish, or caribou. Horses and oxen require hay and grain – which you would have to haul with you. By the time you packed your sled with just the food your horse team needed, there’d be no room to haul anything else. Horses or oxen are also heavy. They’d sink through the snow-packed trails, becoming stuck.
Traveling the Iditarod Trail
From October to May, everything in Alaska moved by sled dog. And most of it moved on the Iditarod Trail. Anyone could use the Iditarod Trail, but its was primary purpose was to haul freight. The difference between the dog teams individuals owned, and the large freight teams, was like the difference between a modern day family that owns a car, and a truck driver operating an eighteen-wheeler long haul truck.
As soon as the rivers froze, mushers (the people who drove the sleds and took care of the dogs) would start off with huge loads of food, mail, and other supplies for isolated miners along the trail. A team of fifty dogs could pull a freight load of roughly one thousand pounds between fifty and seventy miles a day.
Settlements and roadhouses existed along the Iditarod Trail and mushers aimed to reach a roadhouse each night. Many of the roadhouses were in villages, but some, such as Skwentna or Rohn, were nothing more than a stop – a single building in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.
When freight mushers were traveling the Iditarod Trail, everyone along the route knew they were coming. Roadhouses developed the tradition of hanging a lantern outside, a token to light the way and guide the musher to his destination. When mushers were on the trail, the lantern was kept lit until the last one had safely reached the roadhouse.
Roadhouses were places where a musher could get a hot meal, a warm bed, and wait out the blizzards that swept the countryside. The roadhouses also provided food for the dogs and places for them to bed down. They were like a modern day truck stop. Mushers usually hauled groceries and mail to the villages, and hauled gold out.
With the coming of railroads, cars, and airplanes in the early 1920s, sled dogs became less important as working animals. And many of these sled dog highways, like the Iditarod Trail, became overgrown. But these same trails that are now used for many sled dog races.
Sled dogs were a huge part of winter transportation in the snowbound regions of the northern hemisphere until the 1920s. They were transportation animals and during the winter everything moved by dog team. But in the 1920s the use of sled dogs declined drastically, thanks to the invention of the airplane. The airplane made it possible to travel great distances, over wilderness areas, and do it in a relatively short amount of time. The first airmail service in Alaska was flown in 1924 and airplane travel immediately became the way to get around.
Alaska went directly from sled dogs to airplanes, without any of the major road and railway building that occurred in other states. Even today, when Alaska is the largest state in the United States, Alaska has fewer miles of highway than any other state except Rhode Island, the smallest state.
Seemingly overnight sled dogs were no longer needed. But sled dogs still had one last glory run. A glory run that saved hundreds of lives.
In early 1925 a diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome – the northernmost, and most isolated, town in Alaska. The town needed medicine immediately or hundreds of people, most of them children, would die.
But the closest serum, or medicine, was in Anchorage – roughly 1200 miles away. Normally, an airplane would have delivered the serum, but the weather was horrible. Airline travel was still a new industry and few pilots had yet developed the skill, or experience, to fly in blizzard conditions. The only pilot considered capable of flying the route was not available – he was on a trip down in the lower forty-eight states.
To get the serum to Nome, a dog sled relay was organized. The Alaskan Railway had recently been completed and the serum was placed on a train and rushed to Nenana. But that was as far as the railroad went. After that, it was entirely up to the dogs.
From Nenana, the first musher took the serum and raced westward down the frozen Tanana River to the Yukon. All along the route, every village offered its best dogs and its best musher, and each team raced the serum as fast as they could to the next relay point. The teams raced day and night, in blizzard conditions where the temperature rarely rose above minus forty degrees Fahrenheit. The winds were so strong they blew the sleds and dogs over, but the relay teams pushed on.
Blizzard conditions raged the entire time, but the worst stretch came at the end, where the dogs had to cross the treacherous Norton Sound ice and then race along the beaches south of Nome. Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog, Togo, took the serum over the ice on Norton Sound, and Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog, Balto, finished the last two legs of the relay, bringing the serum into Nome. During the last legs of the journey, the blizzard was so fierce, eighty mile per hour winds battered the trail.
The serum arrived in time to prevent a full-scale epidemic, and hundreds of lives were saved. Twenty mushers, and their teams, had covered the distance in roughly six days.
The serum sled dog run was such an amazing feat, it received worldwide press coverage. All the mushers received special gold medals. A statue of Balto, the heroic lead dog who ran the final two legs into Nome, was erected in New York City’s Central Park the next year. It’s still there.
In 1995 an animated featured entitled Balto was produced by Steven Spilberg's Amblimation animation studio and followed with two sequels.
Where'd That Dog Come From?
In the last century, different types of dogs have been used for sled racing. The first sled dogs were the result of cross-breeding with wolves. They had lots of stamina, but their wild instincts remained strong, making them hard to control. Purebred dogs, such as Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies, have also been popular. While mushers continue to use all sorts of dogs (a team of standard poodles has competed in four Iditarods), nowadays, the most popular sled dog is the Alaskan Huskies. Alaskan Huskies are “mutts,” created from cross-breeding, and bred specifically for performance. Weighing about fifty-five pounds, they’re smaller than other breeds and are known for their strength and love of pulling.
Do Mushers Mush?
Every wonder where the word “Mush!” came from? Or why someone who drives a sled dog team is called a “musher?” The origin of the word “musher” comes from the French word “marcher” (mar-SHAY), which means “to go forward.” Because drivers did this – they went forward, even using the word to urge their team on– they were called “mushers.” But nowadays few mushers use the command “Mush!” to get their dogs moving. They’re more likely to yell “hike!” or “let’s go!” … or any other command they feel like.
Super Freight Dogs
Sled dogs are known for their strength and endurance.In December, 1911, during the Alaskan Gold Rush, four dog teams hauled 2,600 pounds of gold out of the wilderness. And in December, 1916, a mere forty-six dogs hauled out 3,400 pounds of gold. But in the 1960s sled dogs hauled one of their largest loads ever. Yup’ik Eskimos on Nelson Island needed to move some houses that were threatened by rising waters. While they did use mechanical equipment, they also used a team of one hundred sled dogs to move the houses more than twenty miles!