Racing in The “Lower 48”
By Robert Forto, PhD
This week I will be heading to Alaska to cover the Iditarod start for my Internet Radio Show, Mush! You Huskies (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/dogworks) please listen in if you can.
Then in 1925 came the diphtheria serum run. It brought a lot more attention to the dogs resulting in a statue in Central Park, New York of one of the leaders, Balto. Leonhard Seppala claimed it was Togo who deserved the credit though. But at the time dog mushing had spread across North America, and very soon, there were races in New England and in the western states—California, Idaho, and in The Pas, Manitoba. But racing in Alaska was still a big time event.
In the 1920’s, the famous were Leonhard Seppala and a French Canadian named Emile St. Godard. They had different types of dogs. Seppala had the dogs that would later become known as Siberians, although they were not called Siberians at the time, but he was not concerned with registering them. St. Godard had a cross of the native husky type dogs and long-legged coursing dogs like greyhounds and stagehounds. The mushers would load their dogs into box car trains in The Pas and the mushers in New England would load their dogs and travel to The Pas, and they would all go to race in Ashton, Idaho in a race that was to become the Great American Dog Derby.
At this point dog mushing was on a roll. There was an exhibition sled dog race at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1932. There were major races with a lot of publicity throughout North America. Companies, or a company’s owner with a fair amount of money sponsored many of the teams of that day. A man from Chicago who would come up on vacation to The Pas area sponsored St. Godard. He used to tell St. Godard that he was in the meat packing business. Later on there were some people who claimed that he was actually in the Mafia, and describing his profession as a meat packer was one way of putting it.
Although mushing was popular, there were some in New England who felt there was just not enough activity. They thought it would be a lot simpler to award prizes to the dogs without having to race them, so they created two breeds, which they called the Siberian Husky and the Malamute. Rather than determining which dogs were the best because of their racing performance, they would just write down on a piece of paper a breed standard and award prizes because the dogs looked like they ought to be good. This was the foundation of the breed clubs for both dogs, and they continue to this day under the umbrella of the American Kennel Club.
There is at least one account of a breeder/musher named Eva “Short” Seeley who went through her kennel and picked out dogs and decided arbitrarily that this dog was going to be a Siberian Husky, and that dog is going to be a Malamute. Supposedly, some of the Siberians and Malamutes were in the same litter. Fortunately, in Alaska and other parts of the country where dogs were still being used for working, people did not pay any attention to that. Leonhard Seppala did not either for long. He went on for a while breeding white dogs, but then he decided on another type of dog. This had some consequences. In the next twenty years dog mushing did go into a decline. World War II had something to do with it. There were some uses for dogs during the war, but on a large scale, mushing activities in North America, even after the war ended.
Then the races were restarted in Alaska, along with some in New England. They were restarted in The Pas in the early fifties after a delay related to the war. It was a slow period in the sport, and the hope of its revival, because of national and international publicity in the 1920’s and 30’s and the participation in the Winter Olympics, did not happen.
In the early seventies there was a feeling among some people that the big event or the big part of the sport that needed to be saved in order for the sport to survive was open class mushing. During that time a lot of people were saying that they had to have a lot more participation in the open class; they have got to have more people involved so that they can have more open teams. Many people did not get involved because they were not ready to make the kind of commitment it takes to have thirty or forty dogs in their yard. There were a lot of obstacles in those days, and if a musher was not willing to make the commitment, their efforts would often be fruitless. It was those mushers who did make the commitment, who dedicated themselves to dog mushing, who gave up other professions to be dog mushers even through it was not very profitable, may have sustained or saved the sport.
Dr. Robert Forto is a musher training for his first Iditarod in 2013. Dr. Forto can be reached through his website at http://www.teamineka.com