Dog Sledding: Sport Racing
By Robert Forto
This is the first in a weekly series of articles on the sport of dog sledding. I have been a professional musher for fifteen years and was given the privilege of writing my doctorate on the sport of dog sledding: Chasing the Dream: A Study of Human-Canine Communication in the Sport of Dog Sledding (2005). In these weekly articles I will showcase the sport, the history, how a dog team prepares for racing, and many more topics. If you have a story you would like to share about dog sledding please send me an email anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to check out our new website at https://teamineka.com
Dog racing began long before the invention of the sled. It goes back to when men first began to use dogs to pull small burdens by a simple leather thong. At that juncture in history a strange phenomenon began to unfold. Man discovered that the dogs are fiercely competitive in the hunt, but are not naturally competitive in a race against time to reach a given point. They will compete to catch a rabbit or other small game, but without incentive of the hunt they merely played at running.
However, once a dog is hitched to any burden with a man behind him, for some reason the dog acquires the competitive spirit to race. When the dogs are harnessed to a sled, they become frantic if another team passes them on the trail—but only when a man is with them.
The annuals of history are replete with indications that primitive man raced dogs against each other—if only one dog against another, dragging burdens by leather thongs around their necks. Every early record of encounters with Native Alaskans mentions dogs, and many allude to the racing of them.
The first race in continental North America was held at the St. Paul Winter Carnival in Minnesota in the early 1900’s. In this area, the fur trade was big business and dogs were used more extensively as the Native Americans began to be involved in commerce, and required transportation of more than just their supplies and their belonging. Then later on, the transportation route between St. Paul, Minnesota and Winnipeg, Canada eventually developed into a race event, the St. Paul Winter Carnival Race, that was made famous in the early 1990’s Disney movie, “Iron Will.”
In Alaska the gold rush brought a lot of people and a lot of international attention to the North. The books of Jack London and the poems of Robert Service made the gold rush in the Yukon, or on the Yukon River and in the Klondike famous. Dogs figured predominately in these literary works. The stories of Buck in The Call of the Wild and White Fang were read by hundreds of thousands of people at the time, and they are still best sellers in some areas.
When the gold rush moved on to Nome, Alaska, many miners and prospectors moved with it. One of those people was Scotty Allan, who had come originally from Scotland as a trainer and handler of horses. When he went to Canada and the Klondike, he got into mushing dogs for a living. When he later went to Nome, he got a job with a mercantile hardware company called The Darling. Darling was the owner’s name, and Allan transported supplies from Nome to the outlying camps using Darling’s sled dogs.
In the American West cities had begun to imagine that they needed to be doing something more, they needed to become cities where children could be raised and people were decent. In the West they would probably have an opera, build an opera house, and start to invite opera companies to come and perform. It was vastly different in Alaska.
All Alaska Sweepstakes
In Nome, Alaska the idea was to develop a kennel club, and races for kids first of all were organized. After a while, they decided they needed a major event like the Kentucky Derby, which would be a social event as much as a sporting event. One of the attorneys in town was from Kentucky, and he and the people of Nome hit on the idea of having a long distance sled dog race, which became the Alaska Sweepstakes. For the first years of the race Scotty Allan was the winner and, if not the winner, he was one of the contenders. Later on there were a number of people who had heard about dogs in Siberia which were claimed to be faster or to have better endurance. Several expeditions brought dogs from Siberia over to Alaska. A lot of them were inbred with the native Alaskan dogs. Some of the people continued to race the dogs that were already there in Alaska, which were crosses between hunting dogs and whatever dogs the gold rush had brought. They did recognize, though, that those dogs from Siberia were a little bit different.
The Alaska Sweepstakes fast became a big media event. As the attention of the world was sometimes drawn to the gold rush in Nome, these races caught the imagination of the journalists, writers and the public who read the newspapers. As the news spread, some of these dogs made it south to California as early as 1914, and some of them were used in races started by the new mushing enthusiasts. Most likely, in 1914 or 1915, races were begun in The Pas, Manitoba and other places that had seasonal snow.
A lot of these races were related to using these dogs as working animals, and of the dogs spent most of their careers working in harness, hauling supplies and people around. Then for a short period every winter and spring, these dog drivers would participate in the races, which was their claim to fame; but racing was not the dogs’ full time profession.
Racing in The “Lower 48”
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.
Many mushers in the 1960’s big ambition was to win the North American or the Rendezvous, which were the biggest mushing events in the world. It was their thought that if they could become famous, they could make a career out of that. Most of these mushers failed to make ends meet. Then in 1973, the Iditarod started. Some of those same mushers scoffed at it and said that mushers would never make it to Nome. They said, the race was never going to be anything. But it immediately became an event, because in a sense, it was a throwback race. It inspired people like the early dog races did. It was more of what the general public imagined dog sledding should be—that is working together with the dogs for long periods of time. When the Iditarod came along it immediately went into the forefront of the sport, and it helped to publicize the sport and bring people back into it.
A Sled Dog in Every State and Europe
About the same time inflation hit an all time high in the United States, the price of gasoline skyrocketed and dog food prices went up. People could not afford to travel anymore. In the 1980’s some other races came on and expanded the sport. The John Beargrease Marathon in Minnesota and the Alpirod in Europe are just two. Again the naysayers had their reservations. Many were opposed to the idea of racing in Europe saying it was a lot of nonsense, that mushing originated in North America and was going to stay in North America, and nobody was going to claim our glory. What was true is that new ideas were being developed in Europe, and that is still true. If a person was to look through a European sled dog publication, they would see all kinds of crazy ideas, and equipment and things that which have not been developed here in North America.
The Alpirod, the first big stage race in a long time, was a European invention. Maybe North Americans were just a bit too inflexible. We in North America have not thought of ways to promote the sport, and that is still true today.
When the Alpirod ended, because some big political and economic problems in France, it really did not make a big impact. There were other races that started. People in Europe were training dogs races and continue to do so because that is the way they enjoy working with their dogs. People in the United States and Canada, who may have planned to run the Alpirod, had to redirect their efforts, and focused on some new races like the rejuvenated The Pas race and The Yukon Quest. The races in Alaska continued to grow as well.
Today there are many races held throughout the winter months in the United States, as long as there is enough snow. Some notable races are the Race to the Sky in Montana, The UP-200 in Michigan, the Triple Crown races in Colorado, The International Pedigree Stage Stop Race and Atta-Boy 300 stage races in Wyoming and Oregon. Sprint and middle distance races are held each year in Minnesota, Maine, New Hampshire, Washington, Wisconsin and various other cold weather locales.
The future of the sport is very bright. A lot of people are running dogs, people are out having fun—recreational mushers who race small teams are the base of the sport today. Their common thread is they like the outdoors and they like to work with their dogs. Many a recreational mushers run dogs in winter carnivals and events put on by hundreds of breed and sled dog clubs throughout North America and Canada. Racing is being done in countries like Australia and Chilé, were they use three-wheeled carts instead of sleds. And as an added bonus the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports was formed with the sole purpose of getting the sport of dog sledding back into the Olympics. There is resurgence in making the Siberian a dual-purpose working dog, on the trail and in the show ring. These areas are where this researcher’s interest truly lie and is the purpose of this dissertation.
In summary, mushing has been popular for many hundreds of years. Events like the Alaskan Sweepstakes, the Nome diphtheria epidemic and later the establishments of the Iditarod have all contributed to its lure. Mushing has also been aversely affected to some degree or another by such circumstances as were presented in World War II. In spite of setbacks, the sport of mushing has been able to rebound and flourish today and is in fact becoming a worldwide phenomenon.
Robert Forto is a professional musher under Team Ineka, public speaker and the training director of Alaska Dog Works. Forto hosts a weekly radio program, The Dog Works Radio Show.