What does it take to run hundreds of miles across packed ice and frozen terrain, for days and weeks on end, in arctic temperatures? That’s easy: A lot. A lot of grit, guts, and a laser-like focus on getting where you’re going. The Samoyed, Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky, Chinook are some of the most well-known of the sled-dog breeds, and with good reason.
Sled dogs probably evolved in Mongolia between 35,000 and 30,000 years ago. Scientists think that humans migrated north of the Arctic Circle with their dogs about 25,000 years ago, and began using them to pull sleds roughly 3,000 years ago.
There are historical references to dogs used by Native American cultures dating back to before the first Europeans made land. There were two main types of sled dogs: one kept by coastal cultures and the other by people living in the interior. In the mid-1800s Russian traders following the Yukon River inland and acquired sled dogs from the villages along its shores.
The Alaskan Gold Rush saw the use of these breeds, since most camps were accessible only by dogsled in the winter. They were also put to work for the exploration of the poles, and to deliver mail in Alaska, resulting in the late 1800s and early 1900s being nicknamed the “Era of the Sled Dog.”
After that the hearty breeds worked at a variety of jobs, until airplanes, highways, trucks, and snowmobiles effectively put them out of work. (Sled dogs today are still used by some rural communities, especially in areas of Alaska and Canada, and throughout Greenland).
But they didn’t stop mushing once their jobs dried up. Sled-dog breeds and their outdoors-y owners mush for recreational purposes, and the fanatically devoted teams participate in events like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. Billed as the “World Series of mushing events” the Iditarod is 1,100 miles of sheer endurance, spanning about 10 or 11 days, depending on the weather.
It begins with a ceremonial launch in Anchorage, Alaska, the morning of the first Saturday in March, with mushers running 20 miles to Eagle River along the Alaskan Highway, giving spectators a chance to see the dogs and their mushers. The teams are then loaded onto trucks and driven 30 miles to Wasilla for the official start of the race. The winning team takes home a $50,000 prize. That’s a lot of premium kibble.
Perhaps the most famous sled dog of all was Balto, a jet black Siberian Husky, who was the lead dog of the sled dog team that carried diphtheria serum on the last leg of the relay to Nome during the 1925 diphtheria epidemic. There was serum in Nenana, but the town was 700 miles away, and inaccessible except by dog sled. A relay was set up, and 20 teams pulled together. Six days later the lifesaving serum reached Nome.
In 1995, Universal Pictures released the movie “Balto,” based on his life. It earned three out of four stars from the most famous film critic of the day, Roger Ebert.
Today a bronze statue in Balto’s honor stands in Central Park. It’s probably the only statue in the park that children attempt to ride. The plaque at its base reads “Endurance · Fidelity · Intelligence.”
That pretty much says everything there is to know about the noble sled-dog breeds.