The art of dog driving started with early man. The area in northern Asia known as Siberia, is the location of some of the most brutal weather conditions on the face of the planet. The bone chilling temperatures produce almost frictionless snow and ice that covers everything for the majority of the year.
The next natural step from dogs pulling firewood along the beaches, or dragging home spoils from the hunt across the frozen, snow covered tundra, was to pulling toboggans and sleds. From ancient bone runners dug up at Savoonga on Saint Lawrence Island, we know that the sled was used between four and five thousand years ago. The dog sledding that these prehistoric people started became a crucial tool for the tribes of the north in the fight against Mother Nature for survival.
The Chukchi and Samoyed tribes of Siberia developed dog driving into an art over the centuries. The Chukchi, according to experts, are the first people that depended seriously on the dogs in order to survive. The Russian scholar, Dr. Robert Crane, wrote, “climatic changes and displacement of the Chukchi by a more powerful southern people combined to force the Chukchi to base their economy on sled dog transportation in order to survive.”
In the long winters of the northern region the sled dog’s contributions were the most prevalent. Time and time again the Chukchi people suffered from the scarcity of
food that continually threatened their very survival. This reality was the catalyst that drove the tribe to develop the sled dog. With this development, the Chukchi had trumped the other arctic tribes who competed fiercely for the limited resources. The native people of the north were able to extend their hunting ranges in direct correlation to the added mobility that their dogs enabled them to achieve by pulling sleds of supplies
The original canines that the Chukchi used were likely descended from the domesticated dogs of their competitors from the southern latitudes. The dog of the north scarcely resembled its southern ancestors a few generations later. They were larger, more rigorous, wolf–like and of course very furry. Their thick outer coats were supplemented with a life sustaining undercoat that helped the canine to retain heat, and fight off the bitter cold of the arctic regions.
These early dogs did more than pull sleds; they were hunters, protectors and companions. The sled dog was to become an important part of history, figuring predominantly in a plethora of history changing events. Most assuredly, without the sled dog many things would be different.
Dr. Robert Forto is the Dog Sledding Examiner, a musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and the host of Mush! You Huskies radio show