An ode to malamutes, the strongest of Arctic sled dogs.

The polar bear is the Arctic’s most iconic animal, but the sled dog is its most practical. For millennia, dogs have co-existed with humans in the north. Archaeological evidence suggests that perhaps as long as 17,000 years ago, the Zhokov people of northern Siberia bred dogs to hunt polar bears and pull their specially-designed sleds. Then, at some point during the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene — around the end of the Ice Age, in other words — Arctic-adapted dogs emerged.

Today’s modern sled dogs trace their lineage to Pleistocene Siberian wolves, but not North American wolves. This suggests that the ancestors of the husky you might see around your neighborhood — or other Siberian-descended canines, which includes Greenland sled dogs, Alaskan malamutes, and Alaskan and Siberian huskies — were first domesticated and bred on the Eurasian tundra before being brought to Alaska and Canada. There, into the present day, the Inuit continue to use the descendants of these sled dogs, called qimmiq in Inuktitut, for transportation and hunting.

When white men arrived in the North, they copied the Natives by using sled dogs to haul supplies over long distances. Their destinations were not hunting camps, but rather mining camps and road construction sites that undermined the integrity of Indigenous lands. Whites and Indigenous Peoples were also reputed to have treated their dogs differently. As one writer traveling through Nome in 1900 observed:

“The Malamute dog is conceded to be the most profanity provoking animal in existence, yet with all his cussedness and general propensity for stealing, his filthy meanness and outrageous howling, he is a hard worker and faithful to his owner or driver, and the white brute who will kick and break a rib or knock out an eye of some of these dogs, deserves a life sentence. The natives, although they sometimes let their dogs go hungry and generally let them shift for themselves, rarely beat or abuse them.”

Three Alaska Native girls and three malamute puppies. 27 January 1920. Photo: American Red Cross/Library of Congress.

Malamutes rose to fame and popularity via wildly spectated competitions like the Nome Iditarod. Dog races had such a hold on popular culture at the time that results of events like the Alaska Sweepstakes made front page news alongside headlines reporting the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1915.

Malamutes were also in high demand to support polar exploits during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration in the 1900s. Not long after the First World War ended, the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition appealed to a retired musher, “Scotty” Allan, and his malamute Baldy of Nome, regarded as one of the greatest trail dogs of all time, for help in securing similar dogs that would assist them on their journey to the South Pole. In the words of The Washington Herald in 1920, the British wanted to known “how these doughty beasts can best be used in penetrating the white wastes where no other animal can haul the white man’s sleds.”

The Arctic’s heavy lifters

Called “the explorer’s most useful help-mate in the North,” by the The Daily Missoulan in 1917, malamutes are the strongest of the sled dogs. Bigger and sturdier than huskies, they can pull up to 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds) of weight on a sled. In snow-covered terrain, they also outperform draught animals like horses. In the early 1900s, 3,000 of them died while building the Skagway Trail to Lake Bennett, causing it to receive the ignominious nickname of the “Dead Horse Trail.”

More than just pulling cargo, malamutes can also bolster national security. Several militaries that contend with harsh winters have adopted malamutes into their menageries. In Greenland, the Danish military formed the Sirius Patrol, the world’s only military dogsled patrol, by employing Greenland sled dogs.

Across the Atlantic in France, malamutes served on the front in the First World War, where they bravely (and obliviously, in all likelihood) ventured after their owners had heeded their countries’ calls for canines. Esther Birdsall Darling of Nome, Alaska sent 23 of her dogs to Europe where, in the words of the aforementioned Montana newspaper in 1917, they were “transplanted from the romance of the north to the cruelties of the battle zones.”

During the war, as a blizzard pummeled the French Alps, malamutes delivered crucial ammunition to the French Army, which would have had no other way of obtaining it. Thick snow blanketed roads, fields, and mountain passes, rendering trucks and horses useless. Yet malamutes came to the rescue. The good-natured dogs, which howl rather than bark, “settled into their collars for four days over treacherous mountain trails and across deep expanses of snow,” coming under enemy fire as they pulled sleds piled high with combustive cargo to troops in need.

Skiing with sled dogs

Although a land war is raging in Europe again today, malamutes are no longer found alongside troops. Instead, they live decidedly more peaceful lives. Last month, when I traveled to northern Norway for the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, I spent the weekend prior to the event in the Lyngen Alps, a mountain range in northeast Norway where the reindeer-herding Sámi still live. Over two days, I went up into the snowy fjords with my ski guide/AirBnB host extraordinaire and his two malamutes: seven-year-old Mulla and her son, four-year old Judo. While malamutes have been trained for skijoring, or pulling people (usually recreational or competitive athletes) on cross-country skis, my ski guide and I just had the malamutes along for fun. The two fluffy balls of fur bounded in fits and starts up the mountain while we two humans needed pieces of metal, plastic, and mohair to advance at any reasonable speed. Malamutes’ paws are wide, allowing them to distribute their weight over the snow in a similar way as snowshoes do for humans. Occasionally, though, they do still get stuck in deep drifts or under low-hanging tree branches.

My ski guide and I slowly floated upwards atop the snow with skins on our skis. Like malamutes, the transportation technology traces its roots to the cold continental climes of interior Eurasia — in this case, to the Tuva people in northern Xinjiang. Yet our companion Mullah, who was weaker than her son, would sometimes get lodged into the deep snow momentarily before figuring out a way forward. Judo charged relentlessly ahead. But on the second day, even he got stuck behind a fence buried in snow. My ski guide had to go over to him to pull him over the obstacle. Silently waiting, Judo still didn’t bark.

At the top of the fjord, with the Lyngen Alps radiating behind me and the low noon sun peaking through the lavender clouds, I wanted to take a picture with the malamutes. Sweet yet headstrong, they of course wouldn’t pose until I yanked on their leashes. Instantly, I felt their brute force pulling me in different directions. These dogs were definitely bred to haul.

Back at the house in the 3pm nightfall that is northern Norway in January, the dogs curled up on the couch, pretty much taking up all the cushions. They were spent. The next day, Mullah didn’t join us for our second ski tour. As she ages, she doesn’t quite have the strength she once did, especially in her front legs. But Judo came out for yet another day in the snow — the environment in which malamutes are most at home.

Summer has always been hard on Arctic sled dogs, and climate change is making its long hot days even more challenging. My ski guide told me that in the season of the midnight sun, he takes his malamutes down to the fjord two to three times a day to cool off. Fortunately, as the days elongate, the dogs shed their thick winter coats, though this turns into a vacuuming nightmare for malamute owners. In the old days of the Arctic, when people lived more nomadic lifestyles, that fur would have just blown into the wind.

With that ode to malamutes, Happy Valentine’s Day!

Categories: Travel & Photo


For the love of malamutes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.