History of sports: dogsledding.

Happy huskies pulling a sled across snow. Wikipedia Commons

Huskies and winter chills.

Tell me what is better than an activity that involves adorable animals, is enjoyable, and is also practical? I know, I know you have nothing. Dogsledding is a method of winter travel that was developed by the Inuit[AD1]  as a way to haul goods and to travel efficiently across the snowy terrain. This was quickly adopted by early European explorers as they soon learned that it would be an effective way to haul supplies and to check on their traps.

Now, who does not want to know more about the dogs?! These fluffy teams can range from 2 to 12 dogs and are commonly in pairs. The furry friends that are typically utilized for this are Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes. They are highly intelligent and easily-trained dogs that are also a good size and have enough fur to make them perfect for the climate. Alaskan Malamutes are often used when it comes to hauling cargo and for trips that will take multiple days. As well, these dogs are typically used when doing long-distance races. Siberian Huskies, on the other hand, are typically used for day trips with lighter loads or for speed racing.

Although normally in pairs, they may be placed in a single file line if they are crossing trackless terrain in deep snow. The reason is because their rider will often walk in front wearing snowshoes, having the dogs follow behind pulling the sled and any supplies that may be on it.

There is much thought that goes into the placement of each dog in the lineup. Naturally the two at the very front are the leaders and are responsible for guiding the team. They are the ones that are commanded by the rider’s voice commands. The pair that is directly behind the leaders are referred to as the “point dogs” and are often referred to as leaders-in-training. Their job is to provide encouragement to the leaders and to help keep them moving forward. The last pair of dogs immediately in front of the sled are known as the “wheel dogs.” They are the strongest and are responsible for keeping the sled on track. All of the dogs in the middle are referred to as the “swing dogs” and, no, they are not the best dancers. Their time to shine is when the team needs to turn as they are responsible for ensuring that the team stays on the trail when rounding corners.

Many people nowadays are familiar with the command “mush” for when riders who are now known as mushers want to spur their team to action. This was not always the term that was used for such a desire. Initially, early French-Canadian drivers used the term “marche” which means walking or running. This makes a lot of sense when you consider what the command is asking our canine friends to do. However, everyone’s favourite English explorers misinterpreted what they were trying to say which is why we now use mush as our command of choice.

Just like how the riders vary, so do the designs of the sleds they ride. The Inuit developed what is called a qamutik, which is designed to carry loads over rough terrains. When we begin to head farther south, we see the flat-bottomed toboggans that are more effective for hauling loads through deeper snow. This was also the inspiration for the toboggans that we use for general recreational purposes. Of course, Europeans had to come and modify these designs. They developed a basket sled which allowed for the load to be raised up off of the snow. This was done with the support of two narrow runners that were placed on the underside of the sled. These basket sleds have been modified slightly, the reduction in length being the most noticeable modification, to allow them to be used for dogsled racing.

Although there is not as much of a need for dogsledding for the purpose of transporting goods, that does not mean that it is any less entertaining to take part in. There are still many individuals who train teams for a variety of different reasons. Most of these are for the purpose of touring wilderness areas or for racing. Many of these races are held in conjunction with different winter carnivals. These carnivals often feature speed racing as it is something that is easier for spectators to come out to view. The longer endurance races are often their own separate events. A few of these consist of the Yukon Quest, which takes place between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon. Depending on weather conditions, it can take competitors between 10 to 14 days to cover this 1600km trail. There is another race that covers a similar distance that takes place between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska. Races do not just take place in Canada. You can also find many that occur in the Northern United States of America, Greenland, France, Norway, and Russia.

Even though it involves some of the cutest athletes, dogsledding is not for the lighthearted. One must not only look after themselves while taking part but must also care for 2 to 12 furry children. This poses challenges of health and injury depending on weather conditions, as well as the overall age and physical ability of the dogs deteriorating.

This is more than just a sport that we can watch for amusement. This originated from a way of life. Dogsledding was the way that the Inuit people were able to move around and allowed them to sustain themselves. The transition over time from this easy way of living to fierce competitions is one that is truly remarkable. Some traditions may change, but they will not die.

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