Dog mushing remains one of Alaska’s most recognized cultural symbols and to this day is used to transport people and goods across the state. Dog mushing is using dogs to pull sleds across the snow, a common form of transportation in places like Alaska and Siberia that are known for cold winter weather and rough terrain, making horses and other forms of transport difficult. While snowmobiles, airplanes, and other modern forms of transportation have caused dog mushing to recede in importance, it is still used in rural parts of Alaska, and events such as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race draw thousands of spectators every year.
Dog mushing has a long history in Alaska and other northern parts of the globe, though it was only relatively recently that it became known to the wider world. Read on to learn about the history of dog mushing in Alaska.
The History of Dog Mushing in Alaska
Dog mushing is believed to date back to 2,000 B.C., having originated in either Siberia or North America. Prior to European contact, Native American and First Nations tribes in North America used teams of dogs to pull supplies through snowy, difficult terrain. The term “mushing” derives from the French word “marche,” meaning “walk” or “move.” French colonists who settled in what is now the Canadian province of Quebec would order dogs to move by shouting “Marche!,” which became “mush” when pronounced by English Canadians.
In 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier landed on the Gaspé Peninsula in what is now eastern Quebec, claiming it for France. Over the course of the next century, the French would fight a series of battles with the neighboring Iroquois tribe. To ameliorate this, starting in the 1600’s, Samuel de Champlain arranged for young French men to live among the Iroquois and learn from them in a gesture of cultural exchange. These men, who would later become known as “coureurs des bois” (runners of the woods), became the first Europeans trained in dog mushing.
Over the course of the 1600’s, France extended its control over Canada to include all of the Canadian Shield, aided by the coureurs des bois and their ability to cover vast amounts of ground in the winter. Dog mushing became the preferred form of transportation in New France due to the difficulty of horse travel during the winter and the rugged terrain of the Canadian Shield.
Following the conclusion of the Seven Years War (or French and Indian War as it is known in the U.S.) in 1763, most of New France was transferred to British control. Dog mushing became ingrained in both Canadian and American culture as a result, with the French term “marche” becoming the English “mush.”
Dog mushing in Alaska largely began with the Klondike gold rush in the late 1890’s, which brought thousands of settlers to neighboring Yukon in search of treasure. Because of the lack of infrastructure in the region as well as its mountainous terrain, remote location, and bad winters, many prospectors chose to journey to Yukon and Alaska via dog sled. Dog mushing became the dominant form of transportation in Alaska around this time and was immortalized in popular culture by Jack London’s novel The Call of the Wild.
In 1911, Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, became the first person to reach the South Pole. He used a team of dog sleds to make the journey through Antarctica, while his competitor, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, used Siberian ponies. While Amundsen successfully made it home, Scott and his team died from exposure on their journey back from the South Pole.
By the time World War I began, dog mushing had become a significant part of European culture, particularly in Scandinavian countries such as Norway. Dog mushing was used to transport sick and injured people in rural areas, to bring supplies to soldiers on the front lines, and for nature tours.
One of the most famous dog mushing events was the serum run to Nome, Alaska in 1925. Over the course of six days, several dog teams raced to deliver diphtheria antitoxins to the city of Nome in order to stem a potential epidemic. Dog mushing teams traveled to Nome from Seward along the Iditarod Trail, a 935-mile long trail that was the only means of reaching Nome at the time. Balto, the lead dog on the final approach to Nome, became a canine celebrity as a result of the serum run, and is immortalized in two statues, one located in Anchorage and the other in New York City’s Central Park.
Over the course of the 20th century, dog mushing fell into decline across Alaska due to more advanced technologies, such as airplanes and snowmobiles, allowing easier travel across the state. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which began in 1973, helped to re-popularize dog mushing as both a method of transportation and a competitive sport.
To this day, dog mushing remains a common form of transportation in Alaska, as well as other cold, mountainous locales such as northern Canada, Scandinavia, Siberia, and the Alps. While snowmobiles have replaced dog mushing in some parts of the state, some trappers and fishers in rural areas continue to use sled dogs due to their greater reliability in cold weather, as snowmobiles require gasoline and specialized parts in order to work. Tourists can enjoy dog mushing in or near many of Alaska’s major cities, such as Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Dog mushing remains one of Alaska’s most important and recognized cultural symbols. Despite technological advances, it has continued to survive and thrive as a means of transportation, a form of tourism, or as a spectator sport. If you are planning to visit Alaska, be sure to visit a dog mushing camp or race to partake in this unique cultural phenomenon.