Monday, October 26, 2009

2009 Mushing History Conference

The 2009 Mushing History Conference is developing well as the organizers work toward bringing together authors, historians, researchers, writers, veteran mushers, and supporters of the colorful history of sled dog travel for this unprecedented gathering in Alaska.

The Conference is scheduled for the first weekend in November, with a meeting for the presenters planned for Friday, November 6th, and the Conference to be held on Saturday and Sunday, November 7th and 8th.

Presentations will cover the evolution of man's relationship with working sled dogs, including delivering the U.S. mail by dogteam, polar expeditions, the Centennial of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, Joe Redington's work with dogteams for the U.S. Army, trapline use of sled dogs, historic and present-day sled dog races, Esther Birdsall Darling, the evolution of sled dog nutrition and diets, and much more. Also presented will be photographs, books, maps, pamphlets, posters, slide shows, mushing films, videos, short subjects, documentaries and other media.

A sampling of the confirmed speakers to date is available at the conference website. For information about the Conference contact:
Conference Director: Tim White, 881 County Road 14, Grand Marais, MN; email:

Coordinator: Helen Hegener, Northern Light Media, P.O. Box 759, Palmer, Alaska 99645; (907) 354-3510; email:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lance's Third Iditarod Win

Lance Mackey with his leaders, Larry and Maple, after winning his third Iditarod race, March, 2009. Photo by Theresa Daily, Daily's Web Design,

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Joe May's Commentary

This weekend the Don Bowers Memorial 200/300 Mile Sled Dog Race has been running between Willow and Trapper Creek, Alaska. I found an interesting commentary by veteran musher and commentator Joe May at the Don Bowers Memorial Race site today, and as usual, Joe's writing is stellar:
Each year by custom we designate someone, generally deceased, as honorary musher. Considering possibilities this year my mind veered onto a different tack:
The Trapper Creek rest stop and checkpoint, “May’s cabin”, is the old Kurt Wagner homestead across the river from downtown Talkeetna. My wife Sandra and I, in recent years, have refurbished the cabin and call it home…the cabin, a piece of history in itself. We’ve been involved locally with sled dogs and the people who drive and drove them hereabouts for many years. So the thought comes to me; what better way to keep good memories alive than to dedicate this year’s race to the “wood and water” haulers...

Joe then gives a quick history lesson and a respectful nod to
...the shaggy dogs, their sometimes shaggy owners, their long suffering wives, ex wives, girlfriends, and live in cooks who once inhabited that world “up the tracks” and “across the river” that made this place and the time so dynamic...

There's a new generation of mushers writing their own "tales of the trail," but as Joe acknowledges,
The mushers of this years Bowers race will use trails, knowledge, and skills that developed and evolved here in the upper valley by those unique characters. I thought it a fine gesture to recognize them and the time they defined….good history is so easy lost.

Just so.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Eskimo Family, Pt. Hope, Alaska, 1949

This black and white film clip from 1949, titled "Eskimo Hunters (Northwestern Alaska)," shows an Eskimo family in Point Hope, Alaska, going about their daily lives as they hunt seals and seabirds, go shopping at the local trading post, and take a dogteam on a caribou hunt. The film raises many questions, such as did the family members actually wear those beautiful parkas and other gear on typical hunts? Probably not, just as the father probably didn't hit a seal or a bird or a caribou with every shot, and the dog sounds and other effects are obviously dubbed in. Still, this is a fascinating bit of footage showing many old ways which still make sense.

There's an interesting explanation of the origin of the term 'eskimo' at Wikipedia, but further discussion of the word quotes Lawrence Kaplan's "Inuit or Eskimo: Which names to use?" ((2002, Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks): "...while Inuit describes all of the Eskimo peoples in Canada and Greenland, that is not true in Alaska and Siberia. In Alaska the term Eskimo is commonly used, because it includes both Yupik and Inupiat, while Inuit is not accepted as a collective term or even specifically used for Inupiat (which technically is Inuit). No universal replacement term for Eskimo, inclusive of all Inuit and Yupik people, is accepted across the geographical area inhabited by the Inuit and Yupik peoples."

This YouTube video is part of the many films available from The Travel Film Archive, a collection of travelogues and educational and industrial films -- many of them in color - that show the world the way it was between 1900 and 1970. Their holdings include archives of the renowned travel filmmakers Burton Holmes, Andre de la Varre, and James A. FitzPatrick, as well as footage shot by many other intinerant cameramen. There's a disclaimer on their YouTube page which reminds viewers:
Please keep in mind that the narration for some of these films was written over 75 years ago and reflects the colonial attitudes of the time, some of which may seem offensive today.
At any rate, this is an interesting video - and the huskies are beautiful! Appreciation for this film clip to Donna Quante and Bonnie Foster.

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