Skip to main content

A Wild Ride: The History of Dogsledding

Jan 15, 2013 02:39PM ● By Erin Frisch

A Wild Ride: The History of Dogsledding

Perhaps you’ve seen Hollywood’s depictions of epic dogsledding rides across snowy terrain in Eight Below or Snow Buddies. But do you know the true history of this ancient human activity? Beyond the thrill of bouncing across snow-covered slopes on a fur-lined sled is the original function of dogsledding: the sole means of transportation, and sometimes survival, in the coldest places on Earth.

Before snowmobiles or monster trucks or helicopters and helipads, there were dogsleds. In fact, few of those conveyances will do you any good in sub-zero temperatures when every ignition is frozen silent. The only engines up and running are those of big, fluffy huskies. Dogsledding, also known as “mushing,” has roots much farther north in Canada and the Arctic than most dare to venture. Although no one is certain when and where the first team of dogs was hitched to a sled, evidence of sledding equipment has been found dating from as early as 1,000 AD, and Marco Polo referenced dogsledding in the thirteenth century.

Dogsleds were most certainly used by the natives of North America. The indigenous people hunted on qamitik, traditional sledges made of bones instead of wood and laced together with seal hide. Europeans who settled in North America in the 1700s quickly harnessed this method of transportation for their own uses. The command “mush” (one of two; the other, “whoa,” means halt) is actually a bastardization of the French command marché, meaning “walk.” A pair of dogs soon became the colonial equivalent of a pair of horses, as they were used to haul goods and timber as well as to pull a sleigh ridden for pleasure. Sledding was also the vehicle for mail and delivered the legendary Winter Express each winter after a dangerous trip from Athabasca to Lake Superior. Soon, however, sled dogs began to pull more valuable cargo. With the advent of the fur trade, initiated by English, Dutch, and especially French settlers, the sleds were loaded with cheap European goods and driven into Inuit camps where their drivers traded trinkets for coveted animal pelts.

Life for sled dogs was tough. In teams of two to eight dogs, each could bear its own weight many times over and had to do so for hours on end. Today, “mushers” are dedicated sportsmen and sportswomen as well as trainers, taking expert care of their dogs. But in the days before animal rights, overzealous traders worked many of the dogs to exhaustion, running them all day and feeding them meager rations at night. Most dogs didn’t last more than a season and were released into the wild after their usefulness had run its course. The dogs themselves, however, were made of much stronger stuff than our common lapdogs. While the teams consisted of a mix of breeds, it is not unlikely that most of the dogs had some percentage of wolf blood in their veins. Let’s just say that this natural and sustainable source of energy will last longer than any Alaskan oil reserves.

Today, dogsledding enthusiasts still practice the national sport of Alaska, showcasing their kennels full of well-trained and well-fed sled dogs. The Iditarod, one of the greatest races ever completed by man and dog, is still run every year. It follows the original indirect trails, covering about 1,150 miles. This year the race begins on Saturday, March 2nd in Anchorage. If you are in the area, it is a spectacle not to be missed!

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Woodstock Magazine's free newsletter to catch every headline