Born to Run
It’s What Sled Dogs Do Best
By David S. Lewis
What makes sled dogs run—tearing off from a dead start with so much vigor and enthu-siasm that the g-force can knock a musher back on his heels? And what makes them keep running, up to one hundred and fifty miles a day, and for 10 days straight when racing? Whatever the reason, it’s undeniable that sled dogs are possessed of an extra-ordinary spirit and passion for what they do.
Jason Matthews, guide for Absa-roka Dogsled Treks in Pray, says it’s years of selective breeding that’s brought out the dogs’ intense desire to perform. The Alaskan Huskies he drives for sport and pleasure in the Paradise Valley evolved over time among the Inuit of Alaska, in the Northern Territories among other native peoples, and through breeding associated with the fur trade. Rather than being bred for show, as the more striking Siberian Husky was over the last hundred years, with their stunning eyes and gorgeous fur (see right), the Alaskan variety is a hybrid, the result of village dogs being bred over time on the basis of how long and hard they could pull a sled. During Alaska’s Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1897, dogs were used for hauling freight, mail, and for transport, and at that time prospectors from far away places brought new blood to the already mixed Alaskan breed.
Somewhere in time, wolves too were bred into the mix, captured from the wild and tamed as pups. As a result, there’s a spirit to these creatures that seems to rise from some mysterious gene pool that blends wildness with devoted service to man. Matthews likens them to motored vehicles with the gear shift permanently set in drive, which anyone new to dogsledding realizes the instant they take flight, because the dogs are ready to run whether you are or not. Not prone to idling once on the trail, they’d rather pull hard at any given moment, and they’ll leave you on your backside in the snow if you fail to hold tight.
While Matthews pursues dogsled-ding as a guide and for sport (he’s planning a run at the 2010 Iditarod, the famous sled dog race from Anchorage, in south central Alaska, to Nome on the Bering Sea, which runs for 10-17 days, with dogs covering about 150 miles a day), he also found that his sled dogs can provide emergency transportation as high winds and drifts snowed in his West Pine Creek home in late January. For days, in the last house on a Forest Service road, and backed up against National Forest land, Matthews ran his sled dogs about a mile each morning to a waiting truck, which holds the dogs in stalls, so that he could drive them to work at Absaroka Dogsled Treks, which operates out of Chico Hot Springs. With a six dog team, he carried back groceries and necessities as needed to his snowbound home, using dogs as they have been for hundreds of years in the North Country. Matthews also owns and operates Yellowstone Pizza in Liv-ingston, and has been running his sled team so he can work that job too. But he doesn’t deliver pizzas by dogsled, not yet anyway.
To get a taste of the experience, my wife and I took a dogsled run with Jason and a team of twelve dogs last month (he keeps a total of nineteen). The first thing I noticed, after the jerk of the sled as the dogs took off, was the fusion of the dogs’ vigor with the forest’s cold stillness, as if one flowed from the other. We headed up Mill Creek’s main fork, an outing I enjoyed at other times, powered by other means—never drawn by dogs. Though snow only dappled the valley floor, it flooded the landscape at that elevation, where the forest is quiet except for the skidding of the runners and the muffled sounds dogs’ paws make on the snow. They ran quietly through the whiteness and woods (no barking), which as we rode deeper felt hallowed like a temple open to the sky. Jason, whose knowledge of sled dogs borders on encyclo-pedic, includes a talk with each guided run. Moments descended though, when words wouldn’t do. We ran silently with the dogs—under rock faces that look like old men, through snowscapes stuck by trees white with powder, then blackened by last year’s fire. Below and away, among what must have been boulders covered in snow, pools shone darkly from the creek bed. They wallow in elegance, the only visible remnants of the creek in winter. Seduced by the woods and how swiftly we had traveled into the drainage, I turned my attention back to the dogs—and their dedication.
With twelve of them harnessed to a sled, keep a firm grip, especially when they ignite like a fuse. Jason’s dogs run for distance, not pure speed, but rapidly hit their top end when they dig out from a dead start—it’s a kick to see them put out, giving everything they’ve got. Suddenly, you’re moving swiftly. The three of us and the sled weighed 500 pounds, and the dogs hauled us with relative ease at speeds from 9 to 25 mph. Sprint dogs can hit 30-35 mph for 10-12 miles (pulling a sled), and we had witnessed such a musher and his team as we harnessed up Jason’s dogs at the trailhead. The musher and his sprint dogs were in training, one of which we borrowed for our ride, and when they took off through the trees they flew quickly to top speed, up the snow covered trail and out of sight.
Jason and I stood behind the basket, in which my wife sat in a sleeping bag to enjoy the ride and keep warm. Later, we stopped and switched off. I moved up to the basket, and my wife took the helm with Jason. At one point, he asked her to stand on the break, as he had asked me, while he positioned the dogs for a switchback, a hairpin turn. To stop the sled, with full body weight you stand on the break, which claws into the snow. But there’s no guarantee. My wife’s weight, 120 pounds, did not stop the dogs from driving forward, and so Jason intervened. Other breaks on the sides act like moorings, penetrating the snow with steel grips on lines attached to the sled.
Meant for cargo, the basket offers a cushy ride because it sits low and is removed from the wind, though Mill Creek itself is shielded from the valley’s notorious gusts. Yet no matter where one rides you feel yourself a creature of the elements like the dogs, sometimes more so than expected as they leave their droppings on the fly. No matter, they’re the ones doing all the work, pulling three people and a sled swiftly over the trail, which is packed tight at the low end, then powdery at higher elevations among the blackened trees.
Getting a feel for the dogs and the utility of the sled, it’s easy to see dogsledding as practical transportation, which it once was (and still is for Jason Matthews as he mushes out of his snowbound home), and that is, of course, how mushing began. While it’s the state of Alaska’s official sport, and offers great fun in the Paradise Valley, mushing has its roots deep in the survival and trading needs of peoples living in the frozen north.
As Alaskan musher Thom Swan writes: “When modern dog sled racers aim their teams toward the finish lines of the North Country’s great races they are following the long obscured tracks of historical Canadian hivernants [usually Métis—nomadic mixed blood descen-dants of native peoples and French Canadians, Scots or English on the Canadian prairies]. If the prize money offered the winners of Minnesota’s John Beargrease Dog Sled Marathon, Alaska and Yukon Territory’s Yukon Quest and even the world famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Classic were all combined, that healthy sum would pale in comparison to the vast profits earned as a result of the work performed by the dog drivers of the historical North American fur trade.”
Swan continues: “No one knows who might have been the first human to harness a dog to a sled. The earliest archaeological evidence of dog harnesses and other specialized equipment for dog traction occurs in Canadian Thule sites, and it may have been these people who invented this mode of transportation that greatly increased the range of winter hunting and travel at some point between AD 1000 and AD 1600."
Long before the fur trade then, harnessing the power of dogs was indispensable to the survival and culture of North America’s native peoples. The travois itself is a primitive sled pulled by horse or dog over dry earth and adaptable to snow. Commonly, these sleds were used for carrying cargo, not people, using just one or more dogs.
Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist traveling in North America in the 1700s, wrote: “In winter it is customary in Canada, for travellers to put dogs before little sledges, made on purpose to hold their cloathes, provisions…. Poor people commonly employ them on their winter-journies, and go on foot themselves. Almost all the wood, which the poorer people in this country fetch out of the woods in winter, is carried by dogs, which have therefore got the name of horses of the poor people. They commonly place a pair of dogs before each load of wood. I have, likewise seen some neat little sledges, for ladies to ride in, in winter; they are drawn by a pair of dogs, and go faster on a good road, than one would think. A middle-sized dog is sufficient to draw a single person, when the roads are good.”
These days, dogs are not a common practical necessity, even though they come in handy for people like Jason Matthews who prefers them to snowmobiles, especially when high drifts cut off a forest service road. But understanding why they are valued so by Jason helps us answer the question we asked when this article began, what makes sled dogs run? The dogs aren’t talking, but here’s Jason’s response as to why he runs them, and with it we might assume he speaks for his dogs too, because he knows them best.
“I got into running sled dogs,” he said, “simply because I always loved dogs and I love winter. It was the perfect combination for being able to explore wilderness areas—with a dog team, which is more in touch with the natural world than being on a snow machine, and you can cover a lot more ground than being on cross country skis. And there’s a feeling you get…you have to be so at home in adverse winter conditions that they don’t even phase you. It’s irrelevant. It’s the bond with the dog, and being out there doing it, going to wild places.”