Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow
One name, many activities
Although we often think of mushing only in terms of races such as the upcoming Iditarod, it is really a general term that covers many activities such as carting, sled dog racing, skijoring, freighting, and weight pulling.
Sled dog racing is the aforementioned Iditarod type of competition, which we’ll cover in more detail below. Dog carting can be carried out on snow or cleared land, with the dog pulling a cart filled with supplies or even a person. Skijoring involves a person on skis being pulled by a dog (or horse or car). Freighting is the use of dogs to carry cargo, and is very similar to carting. Weight pulling has the dog pulling a sled carrying various sized loads, with the competition being won by the dog who can pull the heaviest load over a prescribed distance in the shortest amount of time.
Depending on the type of event, a dog may work alone or in a team, with team members being identified by their position relative to the sled or cart. The lead dogs are at the front of the pack and are responsible for finding the trail and steering the rest of the dogs, for whom the view never changes.
Swing dogs are next in line, and are responsible for swinging the rest of the team around curves as directed by the lead dogs. Team dogs add power. They follow the swing dogs and simply run wherever the dogs in front of them go. The last dogs in line (those closest to the sled) are called wheel dogs. They must be the calmest dogs on the team and be able to ignore the noise and the motion of the sled behind them.
Dog Sled Racing
Most Americans are familiar with the present-day Iditarod, but did you know that sled dog racing is known as the official state sport of Alaska? (Hey, you have to do something to get through those long winter nights, right?)
Races are classified as sprints which cover short distances of 4 – 25 miles, mid-distance races which run up to 200 miles, or long distance races with courses that run over 200 miles. Races are also categorized by the number of dogs allowed in each team. Finally, races may be said to be “timed start” or “mass start”. A timed start race is sort of like golf, with each team being given a start time analogous to a tee time. In mass starts, all of the teams start when the official gives the start signal, similar to what you might see at a track meet.
There are actually many races during the winter season, not just the big races like the Iditarod and the Yukon 1,000. Annamaet Petfoods runs a challenge series consisting of at least five races and featuring skijoring with one, two, or three dogs, as well as mid-distance and open class races of various lengths that use teams ranging from four to ten dogs. The Alaska Dog Mushers Association also oversees several championship races throughout February and March.
In the United States, most races are sanctioned by the International Sled Dog Racing Association. Unsanctioned races are also held, but participants enter at their own peril. A sanctioning body specifies rules meant to protect both the human and canine racers in an event. For example, ISDRA-sanctioned races must avoid all hazards and use clearly marked trails. The racers must treat their dogs humanely and may not use any performance-enhancing drugs on either human or canine competitors.
The original use of the Iditarod Trail wasn’t for a race. It was simply a route taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s by dog teams carrying supplies and mail to miners in Nome. These dog sleds were often the only source of transportation available to those traveling the wilds and living in the outposts of Alaska during the winter months, until bush pilots took over in the late 1920’s. The art of mushing just about died out during the 1960s with the invention of the snowmobile.
The Great Race of Mercy
In 1925, Nome experienced a diphtheria epidemic, during which Inuit children were being decimated disproportionately because they had no immunity to this “white man’s disease.” Although there were two planes available to fly anti-toxin from Anchorage to Nome, neither of the planes had ever been flown in the winter, so Governor Scott Bone approved the use of sled dogs to transport the life-saving serum. Twenty mushers and more than 100 dogs relayed the package of medication over 674 miles to Nome in five and a half days.
Norwegian musher Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto became media celebrities when they arrived in Nome with the essential medicine. Among fellow dog sledders, however, Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo are considered the real heroes of the Great Race of Mercy. Seppala and Togo covered the most distance and the most hazardous parts of the route.
The Iditarod Trail becomes a Sled Dog Race
In 1967, organizers Dorothy G. Page and Joe Redington Sr. held a race known as the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race, covering just 25 miles near Anchorage. This was the first running of what would later become the Iditarod.
It was slow-going in the early years. In 1968, the race was canceled when Mother Nature didn’t provide enough snow, and in 1969, only twelve mushers participated, probably because the winner received just $1,000. However, by 1972, organizers started a fundraising campaign to boost the winner’s purse to $51,000 for the first “true” Iditarod, held in 1973 and covering over 1,000 miles. Corporate sponsorship obtained in 1975 assured the event would have secure financial backing in perpetuity.
The now-famous dog sled race is run each March through 1150 miles of the most rugged terrain between Anchorage and Nome. Teams of 12 to 16 dogs cover much of the original trail taken by those early mushers who supplied the miners in the outposts of Alaska. We’ll cover the present-day Iditarod in a future issue of Straight Poop, as we get closer to that magical first weekend in March when the race begins.