Dog sledding: one of the most romantic date ideas, a fun family outing on wintery vacations, the subject of many major movies, an extremely useful technique that has shaped life in the Arctic. But where did it all begin and why?
Many Western countries view dog sledding as a fun and adventurous excursion that they experience once while on vacation in Norway, or some such country. However, the practice of dog sledding has its roots in much more practical reasons than fun or cuteness (even though Huskies are undeniably one of the cutest dog breeds around). Like most things, to truly appreciate dog sledding, we must first take a look at its history.
The exact starting point of dog sledding is somewhat unclear, since this sport has been used for centuries. However, current records date dog sledding all the way back to 1000 A.D., when the natives of northern Canada first made it popular. Back then, the locals used one dog to pull firewood on a small sled, which proved to be far quicker and more efficient than humans lugging it by hand. They quickly realized that larger cargo could be carried across country by distributing the weight equally amongst a whole team of sled dogs. This method of shipment spread by word-of-mouth from one colony to the next until it reached as far as Europe.
Eventually, using dog sledding to transport cargo became outdated due to the invention of snowmobiles and other alternatives. In 1967, in order to avoid the extinction of dog sledding altogether, the Iditarod race was created. The idea was to breathe new life into dog sledding by transforming it into a hobby or a sport. Fortunately, the Iditarod saw great success and has prospered since then. Not surprisingly, Norway caught onto the dog sledding race trend and in 1981 created the “Finnmarkslopet”, the longest dog sledding race in Europe. This race includes teams of up to 14 dogs per sled and stretches the length of 620 miles!
Whether moving cargo cross country, participating in the Iditarod or simply enjoying dog sledding as a hobby, a musher must carefully select his or her team of sled dogs in order to have a successful experience. Just like groups of humans working together, different dogs bring different strengths and weaknesses to a group. The “wheel dogs” are positioned closest to the sled and are typically the strongest dogs in the bunch, as their main responsibility is to pull the sled out from the snow when it gets stuck or caught in thick snow. The “team dogs” comprise the majority of the group and are the fastest of the bunch to maintain a high speed. The “swing dogs” or “point dogs” are responsible for steering and are positioned directly behind the lead dogs. When the lead dogs decide to make a turn, the swing dogs are responsible for steering the rest of the group in the right direction safely, to avoid the dogs running off the trail (or worse, the sled toppling over!). Perhaps the most critical team members are the “lead dogs”. The lead dogs must be very attentive, as they are responsible for responding to the musher’s commands of “gee” (right turn), “haw” (left turn) and so on. The lead dogs must also be very intelligent and good hunters, as they are expected to always find the trail, even if it is buried in deep snow.
Clearly, dog sledding has gone from a simple, useful work task to a complex, global sporting event. Dog sledding has undergone several transitions over the years and is enjoyed by various people for many different reasons. However, one thing has always remained the same: that dog really is man’s best friend.