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11 History Facts About Dog Mushing for Tour Guides

by ATJ Posted in The Alaska Experience Blog |


Sled dog tour guide training covers a wide array of skills, from handling the dogs to caring for the unique gear to navigating in the wilderness. But it might not teach you one of the most fun things about the activity—its history. Whether it’s just for your personal knowledge or for sharing with guests, knowing more about the background of dog sledding in Alaska will certainly entertain. Here are 11 facts you might not know about the history of this modern sport.

  1. Before Russian contact, native people of the Bering Strait used teams of dogs to pull adapted kayaks over the snow. Most teams were made up of three dogs, and the master ran ahead to guide the dogs. Instead of a straight line of dogs with a leader in front, like today, the dogs were harnessed in a fan without a leader.
  2. Today’s racing sled dogs are smaller and sleeker than the sled dogs of old, which weighed about 75 pounds.
  3. Scientists think the original sled dogs evolved in Mongolia and migrated north with their humans about 25,000 years ago.
  4. People began using dogs to pull sleds about 3,000 years ago.
  5. The first documented dog sled race was from Winnipeg, Manitoba to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1850.
  6. Husky breeds became popular for dog sledding when they were used by explorers such as Richard Byrd, Robert Peary and Ronald Amundsen during the golden age of Arctic exploration.
  7. When the gold rush broke in Alaska in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, demand for dogs and sleds went through the roof. It’s said that all the stray dogs in Seattle were rounded up and shipped to Alaska to be used for transportation since most mining camps could only be reached by dog sled once winter set in.
  8. Dogs were used in Alaska to deliver mail into the 1900s. Malamutes could keep going even when weather conditions would stop horses, trains and boats.
  9. At the beginning of the 20th century, most dog sled drivers still ran or skied beside the sled instead of riding on the sled. Only the people who drove light, fast mail or race teams would ride the sled’s runners.
  10. The word Iditarod actually means “distant” or “distant place” in the languages spoken by indigenous Athabaskan peoples. It’s also the name of an abandoned city from the gold mining era. The Iditarod race was founded in 1973, just as dog sledding had nearly disappeared.
  11. To this day, mushers use the same commands to guide their teams as dog sled drivers in the mid 18th century, such as “haw” and “gee.”

While a few things have changed in modern sleds and dog teams, most of the contemporary sport of dog sledding has been passed down for centuries. The history of the sport is deep, and knowing a bit of it makes the guiding experience that much more rich.

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