Sunday was the kind of day that makes you want to become a dog musher.

Sunday was the perfect kind of winter day. The kind where a sled dog’s breath crystallizes into millions of tiny snowflakes when it hits the air. The kind where in the sharp, still air, a husky’s piercing bark causes the snow to shudder off barren tree branches. It was the kind of day that simply makes you want to become a dog musher.

Last weekend, I tried my hand at dog sledding outside Talkeetna, Alaska. About two hours north of Anchorage on the way to Denali, the tiny town is nestled in the Mat-Su Valley. Many dog mushers make their home here, taking advantage of the snow and proximity to the foothills of the Talkeetna Mountains to train for the annual Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome.

The Fairview Inn at dusk in Talkeetna, Alaska.

Sled dogs have a history in the Arctic that far surpasses the Iditarod, which started in 1973. in North America, the Inuit have had sled dogs for possibly as long as 4,000 years. First used as pack animals to carry things to and from camp, beginning at least 800 years ago, the fluffy beasts of burden became draught animals used to transport people.

Sled dogs in Alaska in the 1920s. Photo: Part of the Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress).

Then, during the twentieth century in North America, the expanding fur trade ensnared sled dogs into its web. Teams of Siberian huskies allowed fur trappers, Inuit among them, to collect far more pelts than previously by expanding their range and efficiency. Hunting grew to the point that the Canadian government imposed regulations to restrict hunting with dog teams, particularly in the 1940s. Ottawa was concerned that ravenous sled dogs were requiring too many calories, as Frank Tester, a sociologist, documented in his study of the effects of colonization on relations between Inuit and their sled dogs. The canines’ insatiable appetites were putting pressure on the local caribou population. In a tragic irony, these hoofed animals had been introduced to ward off starvation among the Mackenzie Inuit in northwest Canada in the 1930s. The introduction of caribou and regulations on sled dogs represent the colonial government’s continued efforts to keep “correcting” its devastating interventions into Inuit culture, only to generate new and unforeseen problems each time.

Hungry like the wolf

A sled dog looking proud.

It is a fact, though, that sled dogs need massive amounts of calories. In winter, a dog that is in training can require up to 12,000 calories per day. In comparison, a human might eat 2,000 calories a day, or perhaps 4,000 in order to stay warm while working in subzero temperatures, as a study in the Journal of Nutritional Science attested. Today, in a place like the dog sledding outfitter I visited in Talkeetna, the canines eat specially formulated dog food. But a century ago on Canada’s Baffin Island, annual yearly cooperative walrus hunts took place in order to obtain some of the ivory-toothed, 1,700-kilogram marine mammals for the dogs’ sustenance. (Some dogs still have the privilege of eating walrus meat, as this photo from Greenland shows.)

From sled dogs to iron dogs

Beginning in the 1960s, sled dogs’ relevance to transportation among the Inuit in North America diminished due to the introduction of the snowmobile, referred to in Alaska as a snow machine. When the vehicles were first introduced, many Alaska Natives called them “iron dogs,” reflecting their apparent interchangeability.

Yet snow machines, like other things brought in from the “Outside,” had unintended effects – some of them bearing the difference between life and death in the Arctic. As Tester, the Canadian sociologist, wrote:

“In the face of disaster, [the snowmobile’s] body provides neither warmth nor sustenance.”

Frank Tester (2010). Mad dogs and (mostly) Englishmen: Colonial relations, commodities,
and the fate of Inuit sled dogs. Journal of Inuit Studies 34(2): p. 142.
Unlike sled dog puppies, snowmobiles also do not provide warm cuddles.

Apart from questions of physical survival, the sled dog has also had impacted on cultural survival. Traditionally in Inuit culture, sled dogs were not bought and sold – they were bartered. Now, the sled dog has now become a commodity with a price tag. A sled dog descended from Iditarod champions could cost thousands of dollars. Those breeders, too, might not want to sell their dogs to just anyone, though, especially potential rivals.

More than just having monetary value, as a commodity, sled dogs now have visual and aesthetic value as well. The resilient canine is central to outsiders’ experiences and imaginings of the Arctic. In other words, it’s a key part of the tourists’ “Arctic gaze.” In Talkeetna, I played a part in this new sled dog culture based on exchange rather than reciprocity and on flows of money and tourists.

One of the caretakers and his dogs.

To learn a few basic mushing skills and spend a few hours petting puppies in the snow, I paid a handsome sum. The experience on offer merged the thrill of transport across snow with contemporary Americans’ love of pets. While half of our time was spent out on the trails, the other half was spent playing with puppies that I found irresistible – especially as their white-blond fur glowed in the low winter sunlight.

Mushing in the forest.

The resilience of the husky

Many Native (and non-Native) people still use sled dogs for hunting, transportation, and simply just connecting to their culture. Just last weekend, for instance, over omelettes and endless cups of coffee at a popular breakfast spot in Anchorage, I told an Alaska Native friend about my impending dogsledding adventure.

“Have you ever gone?” my companion asked him.

“I used to have 44 sled dogs,” he answered in a matter-of-fact tone. It was a way for him to get back to the land after years away in law school.

The sled dogs I saw in Talkeetna, however, were of a slightly different sort. Bred to be lean, muscular, and big-pawed, they might grow up to be Iditarod champions. But they likely won’t ever carry a seal on their back or tear their teeth into fresh walrus. Just as the relationship between people and sled dogs has changed dramatically in the past half-century, so, too, has the relationship between dogs and their environment.  

A one-week old sled dog puppy at the AK Sled Dog Tours, run by Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey.
Categories: USA/Alaska

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