THE HISTORY OF DOG SLEDDING
Sled dogs are one of humanity’s oldest companions.
They are also one of our oldest means of transportation.
Nobody knows exactly when the peoples of the far north came upon the idea of tethering dogs to their sleds as a way to cross frozen landscapes. The beginning of the story is so distant that we can only see traces of it in archeological clues and ancient DNA.
For many years, historians believed the history of dog sledding started among the indigenous peoples of modern-day Siberia some 3,000 years ago.
Today, research has pushed that mushing origin timeline back thousands of years – thanks to a dog named Zhokhov.
The ancient remains of the pup were discovered on Zhokhov Island in the Eastern Siberian Sea in 2017. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen determined that Zhokhov was around 9,500 years old - the oldest domesticated dog found to date. Notably, the Zhokhov site also found traces of dog sledding equipment.
They also compared its DNA with the genomes of modern sled dogs. They found today’s sled dogs all shared major parts of their genome with Zhokhov.
“This means that modern sledge dogs and Zhokhov had the same common origin in Siberia more than 9,500 years ago,” said the researchers.
While we may not know exactly when dog sledding began, it’s easy to see why it began. Humans can only go so far on their own two feet. They can only carry so much weight.
But even a small team of sled dogs can carry hundreds of pounds and travel dozens of miles in a single day. Dogs like Zhokhov and its many ancestors and descendants were selected and bred to be small and strong. Sled dogs have higher oxygen uptake to give them more stamina and are built to thrive on a high-fat diet.
Generation after generation, these sled dogs helped the indigenous people of the northern polar regions travel great distances, take advantage of the seasonal migration of key food sources, and establish trading networks. They were instrumental in making life in the far north possible.
THE WEST DISCOVERS DOG SLEDDING
Dog sledding spread out of Siberia across the polar north over a period of several centuries, eventually stretching across modern-day Russia, Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Scandinavia.
The practice was mostly unknown to people who lived outside the Arctic until around the 10th Century. Some of the first written references to dog sledding are found in the records of Arabian merchants who worked along the trade routes of the Silk Road.
Marco Polo gave a lengthy description in his record of his travels across Eurasia in the 13th Century CE. He talked of the impassable lands of Siberia and a network of “post-houses” set at regular intervals:
“At each of these post-houses they keep some 40 dogs of great size, in fact not much smaller than donkeys, and these dogs draw the couriers over the day's journey from post-house to post-house, and I will tell you how. You see the ice and mire are so prevalent….no horses (as I told you) can travel, nor can any wheeled carriage either. Wherefore they make sledges, which are carriages without wheels, and made so that they can run over the ice, and also over mire and mud without sinking too deep in it.…..On such a sledge then they lay a bear-skin on which the courier sits, and the sledge is drawn by six of those big dogs that I spoke of. The dogs have no driver, but go straight for the next post-house, drawing the sledge famously over ice and mire.”
Did the Italian see these sled dogs in action? He probably never got that far north, but his father and brother did, so it’s more likely he based his story on second-hand accounts. However, 14th-century explorer Ibn Batuta confirms a similar account of traversing remote Russia in describing "the journey is only made in small cars drawn by dogs. For this desert has a frozen surface, upon which neither men nor horses can get foot- hold, but dogs can..." This is a sign of how much mushing had continued to evolve over many centuries.
ADVENTURERS AND SLED DOGS
“Lacking horses, Man has made of the dog a draft animal. All the tribes of the Asiatic coasts, from the Ob to the Bering Strait, to Greenland and Kamchatka, harness their dogs to sleds, in order to make long journeys and to transport cumbersome burdens…”
Baron von Wrangel, 1843
Starting around the 16th century, European adventurers from the south began making their way into the icy reaches of the north on the hunt for new lands to conquer and new riches to exploit. They found vast supplies of furs, whale oil, ivory, and other valuable resources for the taking. They also came into contact (and often into conflict) with the people who had long called these regions home – and with their dogs.
The French were early European adopters of dog sledding when they began to colonize Canada in the 1600s. As hunters and trappers, they naturally took their cues from native Iroquois hunters who had used dogs for those same purposes for centuries and were soon flying along backcountry trails on toboggans made of birch.
Over the generations, dog sledding allowed the French to penetrate deeper into the wilderness and develop a network of trading posts that exist today as towns and cities. Catholic missionaries also used dog sleds to spread their gospel among the First Nations and to establish missions and churches.
As the English began to stake their own claims to North America, they inevitably crossed paths with French sled dog teams and their owners. They noted that team drivers would yell “Marche!” meaning “walk!” when they wanted the dogs to go forward, and over time this morphed into the Anglicized word “Mush!” Dog team drivers became known as “mushers,” a term that lives on today.
THE KLONDIKE STAMPEDE
Dog sledding was practiced in the northern parts of the United States for a long time without much notice further south. While horses were more popular, there were regions where dogs provided a more efficient way to get around and to get things done. Starting in the 1850s, there were a few sled dog races around New England, but it seems fair to say that most Americans were only dimly aware that dog teams existed by the late 19th Century.
All that changed in the summer of 1896, when gold was discovered near the Klondike River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Once word of the gold strike reached the outside world, it set off what became known as the “Klondike Stampede,” with an estimated 100,000 would-be prospectors setting out for the isolated region to find their fortunes. Only about 40,000 made it to the gold fields, and only half of them became prospectors. A few dozen struck it rich, while the vast majority went home empty-handed.
Sled dogs played an important role in carrying these dreamers to the Klondike. They were better adapted to the environment than horses or mules and were more capable of carrying heavy loads of equipment and supplies across the rough terrain.
Prospector William B. Haskell wrote in his 1898 memoir that native sled dogs were “a prime necessity…and are sometimes worth their weight in gold. They do nearly all the packing in the summer and they will carry from 40 to 50 pounds, keeping up with a man. In the winter, they do all the freighting, haul all the wood, and carry all the mails.” A good team with a good driver would cheerfully make a 1,000-mile trek in the dead of winter if asked.
It was the young author Jack London who immortalized the sled dog in his 1903 novella The Call of the Wild. London had traveled to the Klondike at the height of the gold rush and had seen sled dogs in action. He knew about the trade in dogs taken from the cities of the Pacific Northwest and sold for huge profits in the Klondike. In Dawson City, he befriended his neighbors, Louis and Marshall Bond. Marshall had a working dog named Jack, and he became the model for the novel’s hero, Buck.
“He always spoke and acted towards the dog as if he recognized its noble qualities, respected them, but took them as a matter of course,” said Bond. “It always seemed to me that he gave more to the dog than we did, for he gave understanding. He had an appreciative and instant eye and he honored them in a dog as he would in a man.”
MUSHING TO THE POLES
Sled dog teams were an integral part of what’s sometimes called the Heroic Age of polar exploration.
Given that they originated in the Arctic, it’s not surprising explorers turned to sled dogs in their push to reach the North Pole. Sir John Franklin ran dogs on his 1819-1822 Coppermine River survey of the Hudson Bay area. Three decades later, explorers like Elisha Kane, Isaac Hayes, and Charles Hall utilized them again on a search to locate Franklin after he and his crew vanished in 1847.
Historians argue over who reached the North Pole first – Frederick Cook in April 1908 or Robert Peary in April 1909. One thing that isn’t disputed is that both expeditions involved sled dogs and native Inuit drivers. Cook took 103 dogs on the expedition and 26 on the final push to the Pole. Peary brought a much larger party and a complement of 133 dogs organized when he set out in the winter of 1909.
Sled dogs were introduced to Antarctica during the first major British expedition in 1898 and thrived on the continent for decades. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen took 116 dogs on his trek to the South Pole in 1911, and he credited them with being a key factor in beating British explorer Robert Scott by five weeks.
Sled dogs were instrumental in Antarctica for decades before being replaced by powered vehicles in the late 20th Century, although a small population remained to provide isolated human settlements with companionship during the long winters. The last sled dogs left Antarctica in February 1994 under the provisions of an international treaty designed to keep them from spreading non-native diseases to native animal species like seals and sea lions.
THE 1925 SERUM RUN
In January 1925, America was transfixed by a desperate effort to deliver medicine to the isolated settlement of Nome, Alaska. Diphtheria had broken out in the town, and the delivery of the antitoxin was a life-or-death race against time for the local children.
With the region’s only plane grounded for the season, officials assembled a relay of 20 mushers and their teams to transport the fragile glass vials of serum from the rail station at Nenana to Nome – a distance of 674 miles along the rugged Iditarod Trail through some of the harshest weather imaginable. With temperatures plunging to -60°F, gale-force winds, and heavy snows, the mushers and their dogs faced challenging conditions. They nevertheless made the run in a record-breaking 127½ hours without breaking a single vial of the precious serum.
A three-year-old Siberian husky named Balto won international acclaim as the lead dog on the final 53-mile sprint to Nome. New Yorkers were so taken by the story that they erected a statue that stands in Central Park to this day.
Historians debate whether Balto was the true hero-dog of the story. Some argue that it was a dog named Fox that had led the team that day, rather than the inexperienced Balto. Togo, the lead dog for the legendary musher Leonhard Seppala, ran a much longer and more dangerous stretch of the relay. Seppala used to tell a story of an earlier trip on the same stretch where the team was trapped on an ice floe and Seppala threw Togo onto the shore to see if he could pull the floe off the water. The harness snapped, but the well-trained dog grabbed it and dragged Seppala and the team to safety. Among the mushing community, there is no debate: all dogs performed heroically, but Togo is king.
Balto died in 1933 and his body was preserved. He is still on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, despite calls to return him to Alaska. Togo, on the other hand, was also preserved and is on display at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race headquarters in Wasilla.
More than any other event, the 1925 serum run established sled dogs as a part of American culture. Every generation of children in the past century has been introduced to this famous sled dog journey through books and movies.
There are pockets of the northern latitudes where more traditional mushing is still part of life, from Alaska to Greenland, where sled dogs help with hunting and travel and freighting.
There is also racing. With the founding of the 408-mile long All Alaska Sweepstakes in 1908, long-distance sled dog racing was born. This racing tradition carries on today in Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia with races like the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest, the Finnmarkslopet, and the Beringia, each of which are between 600-1000 miles long.
Sprint mushing is another major element of sled dog racing, and perhaps the one with the easiest spectating, where teams generally race up to about twenty-five miles per day at high speeds of up to around 20mph, which is much faster than it sounds at the back of an excited canine freight train flying through the forest.
As well, after millennia, sled dogs have found themselves in the last century in competition with widespread use of "new" modes of transportation like planes, all-terrain vehicles, and snowmobiles, but at the same time, sled dogs and their musher owners have found ever-expanding ways of moving down the recreational and racing "trails" together. There are now many "dryland" mushing styles for the warmer months, including canicross, scooterjoring, bikejoring, carting, and more. While the landscape is always changing, nowadays there are more opportunities to become a musher than ever before, the primary questions one simply needs to ask before starting are: Does your dog love to run? And, do you think you can hold on to the "sled?"