Note: I’ve been away from the Internet for several days. I haven’t been up in the cold north of Alaska, however. I’ve been hanging out in Death Valley, California, warming up. Peggy and I returned from our adventure up near the Arctic Circle and immediately jumped into another.
A number of years ago, as many of you know, I went on a 10,000 mile solo bicycle journey around North America. Over the next two months, Peggy and I will be retracing the route in our van. I rode through Death Valley on the trek, which is why I am here. I’ll start blogging about my adventure soon, but first I have two posts left from Alaska. Today’s is on sled dogs; the next will be on our railroad trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks.
“On King, On you huskies!”
I was eight years old when I climbed on my first sled and went dashing across the wilds of the Yukon in hot pursuit of bad guys with Sargent Preston, his team of loyal huskies, and his faithful dog King. So what if I was sitting by the family radio. So what if my dash through the snow was totally in my imagination. Sargent Preston and King were as real to me as the Lone Ranger and Silver. My brother Marshall and I never missed an episode.
With this background, it is hardly surprising that I was fascinated with sled dogs when I first moved to Alaska in 1983. I watched with interest as the mushers and their teams raced through Anchorage in preparation for the Iditarod. I jumped at the opportunity to recruit Libby Riddles to be a spokesperson for the non-profit I ran immediately after she became the first woman to win the race. “I am doing a spread for Vogue,” Libby told me. “Pick me up at the airport when I get back and we can run around and do media together.” It was a great coup for the organization but even a greater coup for me. We talked sled dogs nonstop.
I missed the Iditarod in my recent visit to Alaska. Our timing was off by a day. But I did get to watch the world-class sled dog races that were part of Fur Rendezvous. What struck me most about the dogs was how eager they were to run. There was no, “Do we have to?” It was “Let us go. Now!” They couldn’t wait for the start command. I was fascinated by how powerful the dogs are. To keep them in place, each sled was attached to a snowmobile, several people were assigned to hold the sled, and dog handlers stood beside each of the dogs. At the start command, everyone simply let go. Off they went, every muscle straining to pull the sled.
These animals are superb athletes and can sprint up to 20 miles per hour. Even more amazing, is the ability of the Iditarod dogs to run a thousand miles in little more than a week. Few animals can match their capacity to work, compete, or eat. It takes 10-12 thousand calories per day to fuel the dogs on their dash to Nome.
Dogs are raised from puppies to be sled dogs and develop a close bond with their mushers. Before they learn the discipline of being a sled dog, they learn that it is play. It’s a lesson they remember their whole lives. As they grow older they are tried out on different team positions. The most important is the lead dog. He or she responds to the commands of the musher and keeps the dogs in line. An occasional nip may be required. Lead dogs also help keep the musher out of trouble. “Um, there is a moose up ahead you might want to worry about.” Moose think of sled dogs as wolves and wolves are enemies. You don’t want a thousand pounds of angry moose charging your team.
Next in line are swing dogs who help assure that the team follows the lead dog. Behind them come the strong team dogs who are responsible for providing power to pull the sled and maintain speed. Finally, the wheel dogs are next to the sled and are responsible for turning it. The dogs work together closely, along with the musher, as a finely tuned crew.
In 1983 when I ventured into the far north, three breeds of dogs were considered sled dogs: Alaskan Huskies, Siberian Huskies and Malamutes. These dogs had been hauling sleds through the tundra for hundreds, if not thousands of years. While theses breeds are still a central component of any sled dog breed, short-haired German Pointers and even a little greyhound have been interbred with the huskies to create sprinters for shorter races. The new dogs are known as Eurohounds. Most of the dogs at the Fur Rendezvous seemed to fit the description.
We finished our Alaska sled dog experience at Chena Hot Springs where we visited a kennel and the grandkids (along with the required parents) went for sled dog rides.