HISTORY OF SLEDDING AND SLED DOGS
Prior to the formation of sled dog racing as a formal sport, sled dogs were bred and used by native peoples of the polar regions of the world in their everyday lives for survival in harsh climates. Two dogs commonly employed in sledding are Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies. These two breeds had quite different origins and uses. Alaskan Malamutes originated with a group of Eskimo people known as the Mahlemiut. The dogs of that time were very large freighting dogs, capable of pulling heavy weight. The Mahlemiut people inhabited the region in the upper part of the Anvik River in Alaska, and were spread out over a large area. The Mahlemiut people used these dogs for hauling food back to the villages. Also important in the background of sled dogs are the village dogs of Greenland. The gold rush in 1896 created a high demand for these dogs.
On the other hand, Siberian Huskies originated with the Chuckchi People of Northeastern Siberia. These people had a Stone Age culture and used their dogs for a variety of things, like herding reindeer and pulling loads. These dogs were smaller and faster than their Mahlemiut counterparts. These dogs were exported to Alaska at around the time of the gold rush. Thus the gold rush played a very important part in the development of our modern day sled dog breeds.
Sled dog racing began as a natural human competitive challenge, "My dogs are faster than your dogs." As a formal sport, sled dog racing appeared with the first All-Alaskan Sweepstakes race in 1908. Prior to this, Alaska's mushers had little opportunity for recreation and they used their teams primarily for work and transportation. Rules for the races were established, and they provided a good diversion to the difficult living conditions. In the 1920's, airplanes were gradually replacing sled dog teams for transportation, freight hauling, and mail delivery.
In 1925, sled dogs proved that they were invaluable during the "Great Race of Mercy to Nome." In Nome, an outbreak of diphtheria threatened to become a fatal epidemic. A 20 lb. package of antitoxin serum needed to be relayed from Nenana to Nome. Twenty drivers and more than 100 dogs were recruited for the run. Planes were ruled out due to extreme cold (40 below and colder) and if the plane crashed, the serum would be lost. Serum was transported from Anchorage to Nenana by train. The drive was a success, the serum was delivered, and lives were saved. The drive covered some 674 miles in less than five and a half days. This, along with the simple commemoration of the uses of the Iditarod trail, is the origin of the Iditarod sled dog race.
The recent Disney film, BALTO, is a take off on the name of one of the lead dogs used on the serum run. Balto was published at the time in the press as a "hero" of the serum run. In reality, the real "hero" of the serum run was Leonhard Seppala's (the breeder of the foundation dogs for the Malamute and Siberian Husky breeds of today) lead dog Togo. Togo, at approximately 10 years of age, ran 340 miles of the run compared to Balto's 50 miles. Balto was a second string dog left behind by Seppala which Gunnar Kasson used for the final run to Nome. Since Balto was the leader of the team coming into Nome, he has always gotten the credit. Togo was left permanently lame from the run and was given by Seppala to Elizabeth Ricker of Poland Springs, Maine to live out the rest of his life. He died on December 5, 1929, after which he was stuffed and sent to the Peabody Museum at Yale University as part of the Whitney Collection of other famous dogs. It has since been moved to Wasilla, Alaska to the Iditarod Headquarters.
Even before this run, Togo was one of Seppala's most important leaders and there have been other stories written about him. Unfortunately, in the case of the serum run, he never seemed to be able to get the credit he deserved. Togo is one of the foundation dogs that most present day Siberian Huskies can be traced.
The Iditarod Trail Race follows alternating routes in even and odd years. The northern route, which runs up through Ruby, Galena, and Nulato stretches 1,151 miles from Anchorage to Nome. In off numbered years, mushers follow a southern route through Iditarod, Shageluk, and Grayling, that is ten miles longer. The traditional mileage cited for this race trail is1,049, which is just a symbolic figure: the 1,000 because the mileage always exceeds that, and the 49 because Alaska is the 49th state.
Drivers must stop at mandatory checkpoints on the trail. At these checkpoints, the driver's gear and condition are checked, and all the dogs are inspected by a veterinarian. There are 26 checkpoints on the northern route, including Anchorage and Nome. The checkpoints farthest apart are Cripple and Ruby, 112 miles apart, about midway through the race. Wasilla to Knik is just 14 miles.
Cripple is the official halfway point on the northern route. The first driver there wins a trophy and $3000.
Ruby is the first checkpoint on the famed Yukon River. The first driver there earns a gourmet dinner and a cash prize.
Among the bigger checkpoints are Unalakleet, population 714, and Nulato with 450. Several stops, such as Ophir and Cripple, are ghost towns. Most of the stops have a small store, phone service and limited lodging. Some stops offer no more than the checker's cabin.
TYPES OF SLED DOGS
Naturally, most northern breeds were used as sled dogs. Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian Huskies, Eskimo dogs, Greenlands, Samoyeds, Norrbottenspets, and Hokkaidokens are all sled dogs. However, lots of different breeds of dogs have been and are used to drive sleds and carts. People use Irish Setters, Dalmations, Golden Retrievers, etc., to enjoy mushing sports. In fact, most modern day speed and endurance mushers use mixed breeds (often Siberian crossed with hound). So, if you do not have a "sled dog," but still want to enjoy the sport, fear not, for most any type of dog can be used. Mushing is fun, both to take part in and simply to watch.
Contrary to common belief, the word "mush" is not usually used to drive dogs. "Mush" comes from the French word "marche" (marcher), which means to walk. Undoubtedly, the French used this term during the gold rush days. The word "mush" is felt to be too "soft" a sound to be used as a command. Below is a short list of common commands and terms associated with dog driving sports.
-Hike: used to get the dogs moving or moving faster if possible.
-Gee: Turn right / Haw: Turn left
-Easy: slow down
-Musher: One that drives sled dogs
-Mushing: The act of driving sled dogs
-Lead Dog: Dog that "steers" the sled dog team and regulates speed
-Wheel dog: Dogs closest to the sled
-Sled: Wooden rig that the dogs pull in the snow and on which the driver stands
-Snowless rigs (or "gigs"): Also called training carts. Take the place of the sled when there is now snow. They are usually wheeled carts made of light weight metals.
There are many other terms common to dog driving sports.
The types of mushing equipment alone could cover many pages; only the main points are covered here. The references listed at the end of this section provide additional information.
There are two main types of sleds - basket sleds and toboggan sleds. Basket sleds (also called stanchion sleds) are popular among sprint racers and recreational mushers. They are fast on glare ice and hard packed trails and are also good in high wind conditions. They are lightweight, and the basket is set high off the runners, which can keep gear dry. Toboggan sleds are more durable and stable than the basket sleds, and they are capable of carrying bigger loads. They are more rigid and generally less maneuverable than basket sleds. The bed of the toboggan rides two inches above the snow. These sleds handle soft snow better than their basket counterparts. Both types of sleds are equipped with a brake, which is a vital item.
So, which sled? It depends on what you want to do with it. Basket sleds are lighter and more suitable for racing. Racing trails are groomed and hard packed for speed. They can be used for longer trips and camping. However, to carry more gear and run in softer snow conditions, a toboggan sled would be better. For the novice and / or once-in-a-while musher, the basket sled is the best choice. They are generally cheaper and easier for a novice to use.
In order to have your dog pull the sled, it must have a proper harness. For speed or recreational mushing, the x-back harness is the harness of choice. The harness is extremely important as it properly distributes the weight of the load across the dog's muscular-skeleto system. Of all the components of mushing, the harness is the most important. The x-back harness is sometimes referred to as a racing harness, but it is NOT strictly used for racing. As long as the load is not too heavy, the x-back is used for a wide variety of dog driving activities. The harness should be padded around the front and fit the dog very well.
The weight pulling harness is used to haul heavier loads. Therefore, one would expect to see freighting harnesses used in conjunction with toboggan sleds. They are also used in competitive weight pulling. They are similar to the x-back harness, except that they are constructed to give the dog different freedom of movement and different distribution of the load. The freighting harness has one very important feature that the x-back does not. At the rear of the harness, there is a "spacer", usually a wooden rod that is about as long as the dog is wide. While pulling heavy loads, the rod is well away from the back of the dogs rear legs. For recreational mushers, this wooden rod can be somewhat irritating for the dog as it will hit the back of the dogs' legs when not loaded. Consider what you are going to do with your dog(s) before purchasing or making a harness.
The line that runs from the sled to the dogs is called a gang line. It is simple to construct once you understand its function and geometry. The gang line consists of three components. First is the tow line, which is typically 3/8 inch polyethylene rope. It connects to the sled and runs up between the dogs which are hitched side by side on either side of the tow line. To this, the tug lines are attached. These lines are typically 1/4 inch poly rope and are "braided" into the tow line. The tug lines attach to the harnesses (which are on the dogs!). The final component is the neck line. The neck line is also 1/4 inch poly rope and is braided into the tow line. The end of the neck line attaches to the dog's collar. The dog does NOT pull from this under ANY circumstances. The function of the neck line is to keep the dogs close to the tow line, thereby maximizing their pull strength. When out on the trail, you always want to have a spare gang line, as the dogs may break theirs, or a tangle may become so severe that the line must be cut to free the dogs!
The next component of mushing equipment is the snow hook. The snow hook is essentially an "emergency brake" for the sled. When you stop the sled, and must get off to untangle dogs or rest or something, you can set the snow hook in the snow and it will hold the dogs (and therefore the sled) in place. They are remarkably effective. They are simple: a large, heavy, metal hook, weighing a couple pounds and about 12 inches in length. These can be purchased from a variety of places. It is very important to attach the hook to the rear of the gangline, not the sled. A strong team of dogs can very easily tear a sled to pieces if it is between the hook and the dogs.
The last pieces of equipment to mention are the sled bag and dog booties. The sled bag can be used to carry an injured dog or gear. In an ISDRA sanctioned sled dog race, sled bags are a required piece of equipment. They can be made or purchased. Dog booties are used to protect the dogs' feet from injury, particularly on long journeys. They are typically used when mushing on rough ice, when mushing along roadways where chemicals from de-icing can be present, or when driving the dogs on a snowless rig on a hard surface. Booties can be made or purchased.
How about the cost? Well, it caries, or course. The numbers below are typical.
Sled: $300.00 - $500.00
Harness Trail harness :$20.00 Freighting harness: $35.00
Ganglines:1-4 dog line .$30.00
Sled Bags: $85.00
Snow Hook: $55.00
Booties: $3.00 (per paw)
The reference section includes the names, address, and phone numbers of some outfitters the sell this type of equipment.
Skijoring really only requires six simple components. A skier (you!), a dog (or dogs!), an x-back harness, a tow line, padded belt, and cross country skis. You MUST know how to cross country ski VERY well to do this (without falling every 2-3 feet). The harness has been discussed previously. There is no need to discuss the skis; and the tow line is just that - a line that connects you to the dog(s). This leaves the padded belt. That can be purchased or made. The idea is that you put the belt on, attach the tow line to it, attach the dog(s) to it, and go! Some people prefer to use a handle to hang on to rather than attach the dogs to a belt. The handle can then be dropped if the dogs pull you into trouble! Others feel that it is best to use a belt and execute a controlled fall in case of trouble rather than risk having the dogs injure themselves in a tangle when a handle is dropped.
Weight Pulling Equipment:
The name of the game here is truly the harness. As discussed above, the weight pulling harness is completely different from the x-back harness, and THEY ARE NOT INTERCHANGEABLE! The weight pulling harness has side lines that connect to a spreader bar at the hock, instead of continuing up to the hips. This is important, because a single dog weighing 60 lbs. may pull 2000 lbs.!
Many mushers have a wheeled cart for training in the fall prior to snow fall. In areas with insufficient snow, these carts are used in competition. These can be purchased or made by a good welder. Carts are a lot of fun, but are very fast with enthusiastic dogs!