The working relationship between humans and dogs in Arctic regions and the use of working dogs dates back to at least 4,000 years ago. The Chukchi people, living in northeastern Siberia, have been using dogs for herding and pulling loads since the Stone Age. Archeological discoveries suggest that canine assistance was crucial to human life in the vast and frozen northern regions of America, Greenland and Europe, whose natives created one of the most ancient practices: dogsledding.
Dog sleds were, at the beginning, a way to travel faster, improve the outcome of hunting, and bring more preys back home. Later, exploration, trading, transportation, and communication, were added to the list of functions for which sled dogs were essential, allowing the relationship between a musher and his dogs to carry through the ages.
Dogs have played a major role in the history of northern circumpolar regions. In America, Inuit and Yupik cultures, which are descendants of Eskimos that today live in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, would not have survived if it wasn’t for their dogs. They have pulled sleds since about 1,000 years ago. In the 1600’s, when European explorers and traders came to the frozen American lands, they used sledding to travel and transport mail, goods, fur, and gold. After Jacques Cartier discovered the Saint Lawrence River, young French men were sent by Samuel de Champlain to North America to interact and trade with the natives, and help French settlers adapt to their new life in New France. These men, called “coureurs de bois” (runners of the woods), were the first european mushers in America and the origin of the designation “musher” is owed to them. After 1759, the British controlled the region and the coureurs the bois continued to use sled dogs, to which they would say “marche!”, which means “walk” in French. This word was slowly changed to its English adaptation “mush!”.
By the end of the 19th century, during the gold rush, dogsleds were the means of transportation used to haul the gold out of the Alaska-Yukon region. The sudden population growth triggered a substantial development of the area, making dogs’ contribution crucial. Mushing became then part of people’s both working life and pastimes.
The Canadian Northwest Mounted Police used dogsleds to patrol the Yukon lands and mushing mailmen where responsible for communication. People from all over the world, attracted by the area’s gold reserves and the opportunities this implied, immigrated to the Alaska-Yukon lands and learned the science of dog sledding. Towns such as Nome in Alaska experienced, between 1900 and 1909, a boom in their population followed by a massive drop. This eventually turned them into ghost towns. However, it was in Nome, in 1908, that the Nome Kennel Club recognized mushing as a sport and held the first organized long distance sled dog race, the annual All Alaska Sweepstakes (AAS), which has kept the mushing science alive though different competitions. Furthermore, Nome hosts people from all over the world every year since the Iditarod was created in 1973 contributing to the recognition of Mushing as Alaska’s official sport.
Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, was the first man to succeed in attaining the South Pole on December 14th, 1911, with four other men and 16 sled dogs. He had learned the techniques of mushing as well as other survival skills form the Netsilik natives, who lived in today’s Nunavut region, during his three year expedition across Canada’s Northwest Passage, between 1903 and 1906. Amundsen led a team of five in an expedition to the South Pole using four sleds and bringing back only 11 of the 52 dogs with whom he had departed in October, 1911. Even if the name of the first explorer to stand on the North Pole is unknown, most of the pioneers who reached the world’s northern extremity used sled dogs during their expeditions.
During World War I, European countries such as Norway, turned their sled dogs, used so far for sports and recreation, into ambulances and carriers for supplies to the troops based in the frozen woodlands, mountains, and fields.
Today, modern ways of transportation replaced mushing, and the latter remains an entertainment for sled lovers and a sportive activity that excites and gathers a large number of mushers and fans from all over the world.