Dogs are considered humans’ best friends because of their loyalty, ability to offer companionship and provide security to their caregivers, and commitment to their owners. Humans and dogs have a longstanding relationship that can be traced back to the period of hunting, gathering, and early farming practices, where dogs would accompany humans to the fields and keep them company while at the same time protecting them from wild animals. Dog mushing, also referred to as dog sledding entails the use of dogs to pull a sled containing cargo through areas covered in snow. Dog mushing has been used as a transportation method in areas like Alaska and Canada that are characterized by cold winters and heavy snow. The history of dog mushing in Alaska and Canada can be traced back a few decades ago when the sled used for mushing was usually handmade and was used to transport supplies to settlement areas.
History of Dog Mushing in Canada and Alaska
Prehistoric Period While different historical documents offer variations of information on the origin of dog mushing, the history of this practice in Canada and Alaska can be traced back to the prehistoric periods. The first archeological evidence of equipment used for harnessing dogs was found in Canada and is believed to have belonged to the Thule people that lived in coastal regions in Canada and Alaska between 1000 and 1600 CE (Sultana and Weber 98). During this period, dog mushing helped the Thule people to travel for long distances during harsh winters while searching for food. While horses were often used during the summer and warm seasons, dogs were considered reliable during the harsh winters because they could survive extremely cold weather and could easily maneuver the snow and treacherous terrain. The sleds used during the prehistoric period were made using stalks of wood (Sultana and Weber 98-99). The sleds used during the prehistoric period formed the basis for the formation of more effective dog mushing equipment.
Dog Mushing during the 18th and 19th Century The popularity of dog mushing increased in Canada and Alaska during the 18th and 19th century as more people living in these regions obtained dogs for transportation purposes. Early colonists who lived in Canada during the 1700s adopted the use of sled dogs from the natives. In the early 1700s, fur traders in Northern Canada and Alaska used dog mushing to transport fur to various empires or forts (Sultana and Weber 100). Dog mushing was also used in trading activities to transport meat, messages, firewood, and other essential supplies that people needed to survive. Dogs were one of the domesticated animals that people could keep in the northern Arctic regions easily because grazing animals were unable to find enough green pastures (Waaler 81). During this time, the early colonists also had begun selecting dogs that could be used by the French Canadians military arms for transportation. The military use of sled dogs increased during the French-Indian War that took place between 1754 and 1763 (Sultana and Weber 100). During the war, dog mushing was used to transport soldiers and their supplies to strategic fighting points.
Dog mushing in Canada and Alaska continued to be the main transportation system for locals and the military during the 1800s. The Canadian Royal Mounted Police along with the US police force relied on dog mushing for transportation while conducting patrols in northern Canada and Alaska in the 1800s (Sultana and Weber 100). The sled dogs were trained to respond to voice commands, referred to as marche in French. William Miller, a Hudson’s Bay employee is recognized as one of the individuals involved in training sled dogs to follow simple commands like turning right and left. The reference to the term marche led to the development of the English terms mush and dog mushing (Scoggins 137). The voice commands were used to instruct dogs to start running, make them stop, or turn right or left.
Dog Mushing during the Klondike Gold Rush The discovery of gold during the late 1800s in the Yukon Canadian Territory located in the western region of Canada and Alaska led to increased use of dog sleds for transportation in Canada and Alaska. The Klondike gold rush occurred between 1896 and 1898 after three men, Skookum Jim, Dawson T. Charlie, and George Washington Carmack discovered more gold than anyone else had found previously in Yukon, on one specific area. The three men made their discovery on August 16, 1896, and set off one of the renowned gold rushes in history. At the beginning of 1897, an army of hopeful men interested in searching for gold made the journey to Yukon to search for gold (Nobleman 13). The route to the Yukon area crossed four mountain ranges and was characterized by temperatures that could drop as low as -61o F and winds that could reach up to 50 miles an hour (Martin 43). Since dog mushing was already a common transportation method in these regions, miners viewed it as the best way for carrying their mining supplies and foods while navigating the region in search of gold.
The popularity of dog mushing during the Klondike gold rush was also promoted by the need to obtain the best dogs for the journey. Explorers like Richard Byrd and Roald Amundsen who were interested in looking for gold in the Yukon Territory and the Alaskan region bordering the area, bought attention to the use of Husky breeds like the Canadian Eskimo dog for dog mushing because they were faster, stronger, and could endure the long travels better than other domesticated dogs. The Husky dogs used for dog mushing during the Klondike gold rush bred with wolves and other dogs by native nomadic hunters and gatherers who had been living in the regions long before the gold rush (Sultana and Weber 100). The practice of breeding these dogs with wolves continued to promote the formation of superior dogs that could withstand the low temperatures and ensure distance journeys during harsh weathers.
The period between 1886 and 1899 was characterized by extensive use of mushing dogs in Canada and Alaska. Thousands of miners sprang up in the region to work on the sands and gravel in search of gold. Since the journey to the Klondike region in Yukon was tiresome and long, the miners had several checkpoints. They had to carry what they would need as they spend several nights on the trail and were far from civilization. They heavily relied on their mushing dogs for survival and the success of their journey, as they could not carry all their supplies on their backs. Miners who owned mushing dogs developed deep bonds with their dogs and used them for transportation and hunting. Those who were lucky to find gold used their mushing dogs to seek potential buyers or traders (Martin 47). Since the dogs were loyal to their owners, they followed their owner’s lead, making it easy for the miners to control the dogs during the journey. The thousands of miners that moved to Klondike relied heavily on mushing dogs for transportation and survival.
Dog Mushing after the Gold Rush After the gold rush in Klondike, people living in Canada and Alaska focused on using dog mushing for transportation and sporting activities held during sledding competitions. These competitions gained popularity during early 1900. As more people settled in northwest Canada and Alaska and gained interest in dog mushing sports, rules and regulations were formed among the dog-owning communities and in the world of professional sports. The majority of the people who settled in the region during the 1900s had moved to Alaska and Canada during the Klondike gold rush (Waaler 79). Early participants in dog mushing sports used the sporting activity for entertainment purposes before it gained fame among professionals in the world of sports. Aside from the sporting activities, inhabitants of Alaska and Canada continued using advanced sleds for dog mushing as their transportation medium.
Dog mushing was also common in Canada and Alaska during the First and Second World Wars. During World War I and II, military personnel used dog sleds to transport heavy military equipment over harsh terrains. Some of the military equipment used during this time could not be carried to the battleground by people, especially during the cold seasons. Aside from the transportation of equipment, the sled dogs were also used to conduct search and rescue operations. The operations were meant to look for wounded soldiers and carry them back to their military base where their wounds could be nurses. Mushing dogs could move across the snow more efficiently and travel through battlefields that mules and horses were unable to traverse. In 1914, Canadian and Alaskan mushing dogs were transported to France where they were used to pull sleds filled with ammunitions in the Vosges Mountains (Tucker 106). Some of the Canadian and Alaskan sled dog owners were also recruited to participate in the war as professional controllers of the sled dogs because of their experience in using them.
The historic use of dog mushing in Canada and Alaska was associated with the harsh climate characterized by heavy snow and the difficulties of other domesticated animals like horses and mules to survive long journeys without accessing pasture lands. The endurance of the Canadian and Alaskan bred dogs also made them more suitable for maneuvering the snow-covered lands. Since better transportation systems for snow-covered areas had not been developed in the late 1800s, the thousands of miners involved in the Klondike gold rush relied on dog mushing to transport their supplies. The Klondike gold rush and the World Wars increased the demands for sled dogs in Canada and Alaska and promoted people’s reliance on the dogs for long-distance traveling over snow-covered regions. As such, the development of the history of dog mushing in Canada and Alaska is linked strongly to the gold rush and the World Wars.
Martin, Elizabeth. Yukon Quest Sled God Race. Arcadia Publishing, 2013.
Nobleman, Marc Tyler. The Klondike Gold Rush. Capstone, 2006.
Scoggins, Dow. Discovering Denali: A Complete Reference Guide to Denali National Park and Mount Mckinley, Alaska. iUniverse, 2004.
Sultana, Selima and Joe Weber. Minicars, Maglevs, and Mopeds: Modern Modes of Transportation Around the World: Modern Modes of Transportation around the World. ABC-CLIO, 2016.
Tucker, Spencer C. World War I: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection [5 volumes]: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection. ABC-CLIO, 2014.
Waaler, Rune. Dog Sledding in Norway: Multidisciplinary Research Perspectives. LIT Verlag Munster, 2019.