From Babiche Webbing to Kevlar Runners—An Intro to Alaska Dog Mushing History
When Russian and then American pioneers moved into the Alaska frontier, they found a culture already greatly shaped and supported by its interaction with dogs. Alfred H. Brooks, the head of the US Geological Survey (and for whom the Brooks Range is named), wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century: “Countless generations of Alaskan natives have used the dog for transport, and he is to Alaska what the yak is to India or the llama to Peru.”
Before contact with the Russians in 1732, Inupiaq and Yup’ik peoples of the Bering Straits had already adapted their masterfully designed wood latticed and gut-skin covered kayaks into an over-the-snow craft, minus the skin but plus ski-like runners to glide over snow when pulled by dogs. The average team was three dogs, with their master running ahead to guide their dogs between villages, fish camps, and hunting camps. Unlike today, teams were harnessed like a fan, with no leader.
With their long distance fur-gathering forays, the Russians brought new efficiencies to dog mushing. Teams harnessed in single file or pairs were introduced, along with the concept of a lead dog that would follow voice commands and keep the team in order. Handlebars were added to sleds. Larger teams of dogs were used, with sleds sometimes carrying passengers.
Demand for dogs and sleds skyrocketed exponentially with the gold rushes to Alaska in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. During one of the big rushes it was said that no stray dogs could be found on the streets of Seattle, having all been rounded up and shipped to Alaska. Malamutes, huskies, and other breeds were mixed to haul freight and passengers. Unlike today’s relatively small and sleek long distance racing sled dogs, the breeds of yesteryear weighed in around 75 pounds and pulled between 100 and 150 pounds.
Sled designs proliferated, with manufactured sleds joining the ranks of toboggan-style handmade sleds. Most every sled at the turn of the twentieth century was equipped with a “gee pole.” The gee pole was a stout pole lashed to, and projecting from, the front of the sled, which the sled driver could use to leverage and steer the sled. Most dog drivers still did not ride the sled, instead running besides or riding skis or a sort of early snowboard between the dog team and sled. Riding the sled-runners was used only by drivers of light and fast mail and race teams.
With the replacement of the dog team for intervillage travel by the airplane, sled technology and dog breeding languished for half a century. Sprint dog racing took the forefront after World War II, until Joe Redington, Sr. and others reintroduced the concept of long distance sled dog travel—this time for racing purposes. Because racing loads are minimal, smaller breeds of dogs have gotten more popular. Sleds now incorporate lightweight plastics, and a design with a mid-sled seat for the musher is becoming popular. Nonetheless, dog drivers still use commands from the mid-eighteenth century—“haw, gee”—to guide their teams on sleds that use centuries-old designs by Alaska’s Native people.