Sled dog racing

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There is evidence of dogs being harnessed to sleds in eastern Siberia as far back as 4000 years ago. The sport was officially recognised in the 20th century. During the Alaskan gold rush, enthusiasts pitted themselves against each other to find out who had the strongest, fastest dog teams. It was not long before a sport was born.

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Polar expeditions

North Pole (1909)

On 6 April 1909 Robert Peary became the first person to reach the geographic North Pole. This man of legendary authority led an expedition that comprised 132 dogs, 15 sleds and 24 men; only 40 dogs and 8 sleds would make it after a hard slog covering an average of 25 miles a day.

South Pole (1911-1912)

The Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the Englishman Robert Scott both set course for the South Pole in 1911. Amundsen’s dog-led expedition arrived first on 16 December 1911. Scott, who refused to take dogs for sentimental reasons, arrived almost five weeks later on 18 January 1912. None of the men on Scott’s expedition would return.

Alaska’s first races

Mushers and gold diggers established the Nome Kennel Club in that small town on the west coast of Alaska in 1907 to regulate the sport and organise official races.

One year later Albert Fink, a Nome lawyer, drew up the rules of the first ever competition, the All Alaska Sweepstake, a 408-mile course from Nome to Candle and back again. They were as follows:

- Every musher must be a member of the Nome Kennel Club.

- Every dog must be registered with the Club.

- A musher can have as many dogs as desired, but every dog that starts a race must arrive at the finish, either in the harness or on the sled.

- The dogs must be identified and marked at the start to prevent substitution during the race.

- If one team approaches another team from behind, the team in front must stop and let it pass, waiting a certain amount of time before moving off again.

The musher is the person who drives the dogsled. It is said to come from the French word “marche”, which means “walk”, a command given by the French-speaking Canadians to get their dogs moving and then anglicised to “mush”

The first edition of the race took five days to complete.

Dussert

The Norwegian Leonhard Seppala would become the greatest name in the early years of the race through his exploits on this course of “ice fields, high peaks, frozen rivers, tundra, forests (and) glaciers”. He won the All Alaska Sweepstake with his team of Siberian Huskies in 1915, 1916 and 1917.

“He is a superman,” wrote one of his rivals. “He passed me every day of the race, although I wasn’t dawdling. I never ever saw him mush his dogs but I’ve never seen dogs pull like that. Something happened between him and his dogs that I cannot put my finger on; something supernatural, a sort of hypnotism.”

The teams improved quickly between 1908 and 1915. The first Huskies imported from Siberia set a new record in front of Iron Man John Johnson in 1910 of 74 hours 14 minutes 37 seconds. A year later, Allan Scotty Allan won the race with a team of Alaskan crosses (Malamutes and Setters) in around 80 hours in the midst of a terrifying blizzard. He would go on to become another great name in the All Alaska Sweepstake, winning three of his eight races, along with three second places and two thirds.

Despite this fantastic record, it was Leonhard Seppala who dominated the sport. His best lead dog Togo is known to mushers around the globe. Seppala racked up a lot of successes in New England, where he met a young student called Roland Lombard. The sport came on leaps and bounds under “Doc” Lombard, a musher and a veterinarian, who won more Anchorage World Championship titles than anyone else and became the first president of the International Sled Dog Racing Association (ISDRA).

Another name that deserves a mention is Georges Attla, a Native American from Huslia in Alaska who won every title going. His bookEverything I know About Training and Racing Sled Dogs is still considered to be the musher’s bible around the world. The life story of this remarkable man, who suffered from tuberculosis of the bones, robbing him of the use of one leg, was adapted for cinema in the 1979 film Spirit of the Wind.

Races today in the United States

Sled racing became popular in the rest of North America in the 20th century. The New England Sled Dog Club was founded in 1924. The 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York included dogsled racing as a demonstration sport, attracting a lot of attention from the general public.

The Second World War disrupted competition, but clubs started to spring up in the post-war period, including the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers, whose head Robert Levorson was president of ISDRA between 1971 and 1974. His appointment coincided with a momentous decision of the Alaska state government in 1971 to make sled dog racing a national sport.

A wealth of races is held every winter in North America. The biggest are the Fur Rendez-vous World Championship, Anchorage, Alaska; the World Championship Sled Dog Derby in Laconia, New Hampshire; the World Championship Dog Derby, La Pas, Manitoba; the North American Championship, Fairbanks, Alaska; the Alaska State Championship, Kenai-Soldotna, Alaska; the Race of Champions, Tok, Alaska; the Surdough Rendez-vous, Whitehorse, Yukon; the U.S. Pacific Coast Championship, Priest Lake, Idaho; the All American Championship, Ely, Minnesota; the Midwest International, Kalkaska, Michigan; and the Quebec International Course de Chiens, Quebec City.

These annual races attract tens of thousands of spectators. They are split into three legs of between 15 and 45 miles depending on the category, held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Some, or all, of the course runs through urban areas. Long-distance races have also been initiated, including the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, which covers 500 miles in Minnesota; the Yukon Quest, which covers 800 miles along the Yukon River from Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska; the International Rocky Mountains Stage Stop Sled Dog Race, which covers around 370 miles, starting in Jacksonhole, Wyoming, and of course, the Iditarod, the longest (1049 miles officially, but even longer in practice), toughest, most prestigious sled race in the world.

These races have added new names to the sled dog hall of fame. People like Joe Redington Senior and Earl Norris (the Siberian Husky breeder and the world’s most famous musher), Eddy Streeper (1985 world champion), Harris Dunlap, Rick Swenson (the King of the Iditarod), Libby Riddles (the first woman to complete the Iditarod in 1985), Susan Butcher (Iditarod winner in 1986, 1987 and 1988). In 1979, Butcher joined Redington to drive her team around 6,000m (20,000 feet) to the top of Mount McKinley, a feat equalled by Jacques Philip in 1991. Alaskan Lance Mackey, meanwhile, became the first musher to win both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year in 2007, repeating the trick a year later.

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Never alone

People often ask me if living alone for weeks in the solitude of the far north doesn’t overwhelm me. I always say I’m never alone when I’m with the dogs. And it’s true; they say so much to me with their eyes, their bravery, their sensitivity. I remember one night in the far north of Canada, somewhere between the Great Slave Lake and a small first nations village. It was very cold, minus fifty at least, and I was very sick. I suddenly fell from the sled and started vomiting while I was on my stomach. My head was spinning. I was afraid I would pass out, which would have been the end of me. The dogs stopped and came back to me. Voulk moaned, licking my face and nudging me, gently leaning on me, as if to say, “Come on, we have to go. Don’t lose heart. I’m here. We are here”. How could I feel alone that night?

Dogs are part of our lives just as much as they are part of the history of the far north, where they have helped humans discover and explore. They are the indispensable companions of a large number of people, who need their eyes, their ears or their nose to deputise for their own. They accompany hunters for whom they retrieve game, they save people trapped under avalanches and collapsed buildings. They give so much it would take a whole book to do them justice, but the greatest thing they give is love. Mutual love, which is most strongly expressed in the help they give us. Long live dogs and everyone who loves them!

Vanier

Nicolas Vanier
Film maker and explorer
www.nicolasvanier.com

The sport in the Nordic countries

Sled dog racing is also very popular in Sweden, Norway and Finland. The most popular dog sport is pulka, in which between one and three dogs pull a loaded sled with a person on skis alongside.

Hunting breeds such as hounds, pointers and setters are preferred, as they are faster over short distances (4-7 miles) and better adapted to working alone.

The Norwegians swept the board at the first European Championship in 1988 on the short distances. They have since bred a cross with even more speed and stamina, the Greyster.

There are some very long-distance races, too, including the Femundlopet in Norway, the Amundsen in Sweden and Norway, the Finnmarkslopet in northern Norway and the Arctic Bahrens, the world’s longest sled dog race from Murmansk in Russia to Røros in Norway, a distance of around 2000 miles.

Continental Europe

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Dr Thomas Althaus and Paul Nicoud founded the Swiss Nordic Dog Club in 1959. The club held its first race in 1965, allowing the handful of continental European enthusiasts to discover the sport as practised in North America. A winter race programme was soon established in Switzerland (Lenk, Saint-Cergue, Saignelégier, Sils, Saint-Moritz) and Germany (Todtmoos, Bernau). The first race in France was held on the Col de la Schlucht in Vosges in February 1979.

The sport’s popularity has grown down the decades, as has the number of races. The ruling body on the continent is the European Sled Dog Racing Association. ESDRA organises annual championships in Europe.

The Trail Club of Europe was formed in 1973, based on the rules established in the International Sled Dog Racing Association in the United States. It organises the Swiss championship and a European championship in Germany.

The Alpirod-Royal Canin was the biggest European race between 1988 and 1995. It was the first time Alaskan Huskies had raced through Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. The 600-mile race was spread over 12 days in January and February. Winners included Joe Runyan, Kathy Swenson and Roxy Wright.

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The Alpirod-Royal Canin was the biggest European race between 1988 and 1995. It was the first time Alaskan Huskies had raced through Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. The 600-mile race was spread over 12 days in January and February.

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The first annual world speed championships, combining pulka and sled dog racing, with teams of six, eight and ten dogs, were held by the International Federation for Sled Dog Sport in Saint Moritz in 1990.

Pulka and sled dog racing are now firmly established canine sports on the international stage. Pressure has been steadily building for inclusion in the Winter Olympics. Sled dog racing was unable to break through after its appearance as a demonstration sport at the 1932 Winter Games, but more recent demonstrations suggest that it may yet win a place among the Olympian disciplines.

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Elsewhere in Europe, the Pirena – a race made up of stages of between about 10 and 20 miles – is held in the Spanish Pyrenees. The Alpentrail runs along some of the old Alpirod course in the Tyrol in both Austria and Italy. Stages are between 20 and 30 miles long.

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Pulka and sled dog racing are now firmly established canine sports on the international stage.

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The most impressive – and difficult – of them all is the Grande Odyssée – Savoie Mont-Blanc, which was first run in the French Alps in 2005. The race, which is held in January, covers well over 600 miles (1,000 km) in ten stages, passing through some of the most breathtaking winter scenery France has to offer, including the Portes du Soleil, Megève and Haute Maurienne Vanoise. There are more than 25,000 m (82,000 ft) of elevation changes during this race.

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Alaskan Huskies: the world’s best-performing dog

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Distinctive characteristics: Alaskan Huskies are not like any other dog. They have been bred for over a century for their sporting qualities.

Origins: Alaskans are a cross between Siberian Huskies, native dogs and a few other working breeds. They have become the world’s best-performing sled dog.

Physique: Their compact size (16-24kg /35-50lbs) ensures they can cover huge distances through the snow. They are robust and hardy, rarely suffering from illness.

Did you know?Alaskan Huskies currently make up around 90% of the world’s sled dog population. Each dog is specialised in a particular distance class. Alaska and Canada are home to the largest Alaskan Husky breeding kennels.

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Why is carting good for dogs?

It’s not just for Nordic breeds; carting is open to all dogs with the right morphology and in good health. It doesn’t even require snow.

It’s an activity which enables dogs to expend their energy, while learning to manage their efforts. It also demands discipline and a great deal of care. Measures need to be taken to protect handlers, dogs and any passengers, but they should never prevent the dogs – especially the lead dog – from showing initiative by choosing the best routes, anticipating difficulties and controlling the pace.

For me, it’s one of the few activities where dogs work with the handler, rather than for the handler. The result is a strong bond that matures over time.

I’ll never be more than a Sunday musher with my cart and my two Australian Shepherds, not working in snow, but Aladin and Cooper couldn’t care less. They don’t mind that sheepdogs never run the Grande Odyssée or the Iditarod. They are courageous, steadfast and reliable, and they are clearly happy.

Carting is first and foremost about enjoying walks in the forest, the first feeling of gliding, commanding a small family cart, the management of effort, and especially the sense of freedom.

Freedom with strings, because the dogs have to follow commands, even when the cart is small. All told, it’s an extremely pleasurable team activity, which also has the advantage of channelling the exuberant energy of these two very active dogs.

Esnault

Colonel Pierre Esnault
French Army (France)

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A close-knit team

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Mushers and their dog form a very close-knit team. Sled dog racing is the only sport in the world in which the same level of effort is expected from human and dog. Mushers have to help their dogs to pull the sled on uphill sections. Downhill, they have to manoeuvre the sled to negotiate bends at high speed (often more than 25 mph / 40km/h). Even on the flat, mushers are expected to pay their way by pedalling through the snow to help their dogs.

Their master’s voice

Sled dogs only respond to the musher’s commands, so he or she has to build a solid relationship with them, especially the pack leaders. The goal is to get to the finish line as fast as possible and so everything depends on the desire of the dogs. While all dogs love to run, the trick is to get them to try to surpass themselves.

Total teamwork

Obedience is not the only factor in sled dog racing. The success garnered by women in the sport shows that other qualities such as gentleness are just as important. Sled dog racing is about total teamwork, based on encouragement rather than coercion. When asked, the majority of mushers will tell you that they feel happiest when they form a strong team with their dogs.

Sled dog racing elsewhere in the world

Nowadays races are held around the world. In South America, there are races in Tierra del Fuego and in the Andes (Ushuaia race, Andirod). Argentina hosted the first intercontinental championships in 2009.

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“Dryland”: from training method to world championship

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The cart is the musher’s fundamental training tool, used when there is no snow on the ground, generally in September. Dryland competitions are also held in many countries where snow is more of a rarity (initially Australia and South Africa although the list is growing all the time). The International Federation for Sled Dog Sports’ first ever world dryland championship was hosted by Aranda, Spain in 2004.

Australia and South Africa hold their own races on dirt tacks, while Lesotho has held a race on snow. The Chukotka and the Kamchadal are two Russian races in eastern Siberia.

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Andy

Vetodesneiges

Rick Swenson’s son Andy is named after Rick’s all-time favourite lead dog, which helped him win his first three Iditarod titles between 1977 and 1981.

There was no money at all in the sport in the 1970s, but Rick Swenson was driven to compete because of his love of dogs. Back then, regular dogs could still make their mark in sled dog racing, which only makes Rick’s achievements even more outstanding. Of course, he was able to build on the dog’s natural motivation and desire to run, but having said that, it is much easier to achieve a top-class performance with dogs from established racing lines and Andy certainly was not one of them. He was simply an extraordinary sled dog who won the utmost respect of one of the world’s greatest mushers.

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Granite

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Susan Butcher always acknowledged that her lead dog Granite was instrumental in her four Iditarod victories between 1986 and 1990. She admitted that Granite had plenty of faults. As a puppy, Granite was afraid of his own shadow, never mind other dogs and let alone the sled itself, refusing to pull his own weight. Susan even tried to give the dog away but there were no takers. Eventually, she took Granite with her on a training session on an ice field on the final part of the Iditarod course between Koyuk and Elim – and could scarcely believe what happened next. Granite suddenly blossomed into a great leader, able to drive the team through a blizzard, and never looked back, becoming one of the sport’s biggest stars.

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Togo and Baltoo

Two dogs – Balto and Togo – share the honour of both having a statue in their name. Balto’s is in Central Park in New York, while Togo’s stands in Anchorage, Alaska. Both were heroes of Leonhard Seppala’s team on the famous serum run in the winter of 1925, when a diphtheria epidemic threatened the town of Nome on the west coast.

Ten-year-old Togo led Seppala’s sled for 340 miles through a storm, an amazing feat in itself, and compounded by the fact that Toga was suffering a fracture that would leave him limping for the rest of his life.

After his death in December 1929, Togo’s body was exhibited at Yale University’s Peabody Museum, and then subsequently moved to the Iditarod Museum in Wasilla.

Balto gained global fame after the story was made into an animated movie by Walt Disney. In fact, Balto only covered 50 miles – no mean feat, but not quite in the same league as Togo’s.

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