Friday, January 16, 2009

The Evolution of Dog Sledding

Long before carbon fiber components and quick-change runners …

…there lived a culture of people - the ancestors of today’s circumpolar Inuit – who built their “sleds” (qamutiit) out of material they had at hand: pairs of runners fashioned of frozen char (fish) laid end to end and rolled in water –soaked animal hides, bound with strips of more animal hide, then lashed with more hide to uprights of bone and then again to cross pieces of more bone. The bottoms of the runners were painstakingly built up of layers of moss and mud, then made glistening smooth with water warmed in their mouth, or sometimes even urine freshly squirted over the moss mixture and spread smooth with a small “rag” of polar bear hide. A brief shearing pass the runners’ surface over a rock, or cracked off on jagged ice, and forward progress came to a halt until the time-intensive rebuilding procedure was repeated all over again.

We who enjoy our version of dog powered “sports” would do well to remember the ancient roots of our activities, and pay homage to the people who perfected a technique of travel which allowed them to survive in one of the harshest environments on earth.

Sue Hamilton, October 2007

The Evolution of Dog Sledding

by Sue Hamilton

The evolution of dogs pulling sleds has been nothing short of extraordinary. In North America archaeologists found sled parts attributed to the Thule culture (ancestors of today’s Inuit) dating back to 800 BP (Before Present: dating scale now used by archaeologists was established 1950 as the origin year for the BP scale. The year 1950 was chosen because it is the year in which calibration curves for radiocarbon dating were established. Wikipedia) Back then there was but one type/breed of dog and the qamutiit (sleds) they hauled were likely made of whale and caribou bones, frozen fish wrapped in animal hide, all lashed together with sinew, with runners built up of moss, and mud made smooth with a glazing of frozen water and even urine. Harnesses were fashioned of seal skin as were the “tug” lines - far easier said than done taking into consideration the hunting, harvesting, processing and assembly. Connectors between harnesses, lines and the sled were bone toggles – no moving parts. Dogs ate the same terrestrial and marine animals they helped their owners harvest.

Fast-forward several hundred years to the dawn of the twentieth century. Sleds were wooden and of various designs, runners were made of steel, harnesses of a few designs and lines were of processed leather or some plant fibers and, instead of just the traditional Inuit Dog who had dominated the polar regions of North America for four thousand years, a few other pure breeds (Samoyeds, Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes plus other aboriginal breeds found below the tree line) and an increasing blend of the polar spitz breeds bred to dogs brought north from more southerly latitudes by gold seekers, missionaries, explorers and fur traders, were being put to use for work and for sport. Dogs were eating food that was designated specifically for them, although a far cry from what we see today.

If an early 1900s musher could time travel to the 21st century, he might think he was on a different planet! He would marvel that the heavy and ponderous sleds of his era have been replaced by carefully crafted ash sleds of many designs, some weighing no more than forty pounds, lashed together with nylon line, and shod with a variety of plastic runners, some of which could be slipped off and replaced in the blink of an eye. He would hardly believe his eyes to see that some sleds were built entirely without wood and not only had instant swap runners, but also quick change other parts, as well! Leather harnesses have become museum pieces, replaced by harnesses of man-made fibers in a rainbow of colors, designs and styles: H-back, X-back, Siwash, recreational, short backed, split chest, lead dog, wheel dog, freighting. The popularity of dog sledding, recreational and especially racing, has boomed in the last century. Today very few pure breeds of dogs are bred strictly to haul heavy freight or to compete and the mixed breed Alaskan Husky has become the dominant dog on the racing circuit, bred and “fine tuned” to win at speeds unheard of by our time traveling musher.

Nowadays, the many facets of dog sledding are scientifically studied and analyzed. Sophisticated and highly defined dog food and supplements continue to evolve to offer the very best nutrition and care of racing and freight hauling dogs as well as those used for recreational sledding. Back in 1925 when dog teams relayed life saving diphtheria serum to a remote Alaskan village (the historic event which is commemorated by today’s Iditarod Sled Dog Trail Race), the dogs who saved the lives of those desperate villagers were themselves barely safe from their own host of dog diseases and “occupational” ailments. Today, formal research projects, published and underway, study the anatomy, physiology, nutrition, biology and conditioning of these fabulous athletes. These dogs, bred to run and loving their jobs so much that they have been seen to try to put themselves in harness without human assistance, now benefit from cutting edge veterinary medicine light years ahead of where the field was – if it even existed - at the time of the serum run. Driven by the love and passion mushers have for their dogs, the science and business of performance, technology and well-being, once the exclusive sphere of human athletes, are now very much a part of the world of mushing.

October 2008