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Sometimes, it just amazes me the way that dogs fit into our lives. Of course, they’re beloved companions, and we all know how service dogs work to enhance the lives of people with disabilities, how search and rescue dogs assist humans in valuable work, and how therapy dogs can help people to overcome the worst kinds of trauma. Then, of course, there are competitions and dog shows.
I don’t suppose I ever thought about dogs much in the context of shared athletics, though, until I started Googling around one night (which is something I often do with Janice and Leroy by my side), and came upon something that just absolutely blew me away. Can you imagine a sled dog race that extends over no fewer than 1,000 miles? Think of the stamina needed on the part of those dogs and their handlers, and the incredible level of cooperation it would require. This is the Yukon Quest, and once I learned about it, I just knew I had to write about it and share what I’ve learned with you.
The Yukon River is known as the “Highway of the North.” Historically, the frozen river was followed by men prospecting for gold, and also by the people who carried mail and supplied to prospectors and others who found reason to occupy the Alaskan Interior.
In 1983, four dog mushers were shooting the breeze in Fairbanks, Alaska, at the Bull’s Eye Saloon. The beer was flowing, and they began, as men often do in such situations, to play a game of “What If?”
What if we had a dog race that went on a bit longer than most? What if it actually followed the Highway of the North? What if people would come from all over the world to compete?
This wasn’t a completely original idea – in fact, people had been talking about a race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse as early on as 1976. But it wasn’t until Leroy Shank, Roger Williams, Willy Lipps, and Ron Rosser sat around that table at the Bull’s Eye that it actually began to come to fruition. They were determined to create a sled dog race that would actually follow the same route as prospectors followed during the Gold Rush of 1898, and even continue it to the interior, where gold rushes continued into the early part of the 18th century.
The first thousand-mile race took place in 1984, and it was grueling. 26 teams left Fairbanks for Whitehorse, and over the course of the race, six had to drop out. The last team arrived in Whitehorse on the sixteenth day. The winner was Sonny Lindner, who arrived on Day 12. This race demanded a great deal from the human participants, and from the dogs as well, to say the least.
Of course, without the sled dogs, there would be no Yukon Quest. Not only were sled dogs instrumental in the colonization of the far North, for the past hundred or so years, they have still been a vital part of northern culture. Without these amazing canine athletes, the Yukon Quest would simply not be possible.
Dog mushers come from all walks of life, and they work as coaches and cheerleaders for their dogs. They also have to be pretty good cooks in order to make a 1,000-mile journey lasting up to 16 days bearable. They have to be very knowledgeable when it comes to the health and condition of their dogs as well, and they need to know that their dogs can perform, and even flourish, in the very demanding conditions that they find in the North.
Veterinarians are also very important participants in the Yukon Quest. They examine each and every dog before the race, after the race, and at least four times during the race. There are veterinary stations set up at regular intervals so that the dogs can be checked over and determined to be fit to continue the race. Veterinarians are also authorized to order a musher to remove a dog from the race if there are concerns about its condition.
Sled dogs have a long history in the North. In fact, 15,000 years ago, when humans first came across the Bering Strait into North America, they were accompanied by domestic dogs. And for literally thousands of years, natives used dogs as pack and draft animals. The Eskimo (or Inuit) dog and Interior Village dogs interbred, and formed the base for today’s Alaskan Husky.
History also shows that in the mid-17th century, Russian traders forged inland via the Yukon River, and bred their dogs to native stock. This resulted in heavier dogs that were able to haul larger loads.
During the late 19th century gold rush, the northern population exploded. During the summer, the rivers were usable for transportation. During the winter, though, it was necessary to find other means to transport people and goods. This is when the sled dog population exploded along with the human population. Virtually anything that needed to be moved during the winter months, when everything was frozen, moved by sled dog. If you needed supplies, dogs would bring them in. Mail came by dog sled. And if you needed medical assistance, then there was a very good chance that the doctor would arrive by dog sled.
By the early 20th century, airplanes largely took over mail delivery, so fewer sled dogs were needed. Then, as highways were built by mid-century, trucking took over as the main means of transporting goods and services. With the advent of the snowmobile in the late 1950s and early 1960s, sled dogs were all but obsolete, even on the northern trap lines. The only people who were still running dog sleds were recreational mushers. These were people who loved the idea of a bygone day when sled dogs ruled the landscape. They wanted to preserve that way of life, and they knew that the most effective way of doing that was by breeding stronger, faster dogs, and trying to foster an interest in dog sled racing as a sport.
With the advent of recreational mushing, mushers turned to breeding stronger, bigger dogs that had enhanced endurance, and also crossing them with lighter breeds that could run faster. This caused the Siberian Husky (a light, quick, Russian breed) to be introduced to lighter North American breeds. The Alaskan Husky was the result, and today it is the most commonly used sled dog.
Today’s sled dogs are powerful runners, able to outrun virtually any other animal over huge distances – often up to 60 miles! Their hearts are powerful, their feet are tough, and they are very strong-willed (yet possessed of an incredible loyalty to the humans who care for them). Their feet are brawny and well-suited to running long distances over ice and snow, and they are very confident. They also work very well in harness, cooperating with their fellow canines in much the same way as their ancestors did. Simply stated, they want to pull, and they want to please.
Generally speaking, today’s sled dogs are mixed breeds, as they were back when they were actually needed for travel through the North. The “Alaskan Husky,” in fact, is really a catch-all term for a mix that has been bred for speed, strength, endurance, cooperation, and tough feet, along with a willingness to work with other dogs as a team.
Some breeders still do focus on pure stock, usually Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian Huskies, American Inuit Dogs, or Canadian Inuit Dogs. Most of the dogs that you find in races like the Yukon Quest, though, are mixed breeds that fall under the generic umbrella, “Alaskan Huskies.”
I’ve often joked with my friend, Neila, that with five Rottweilers, she could make up a dog team. And actually, she could! There are no specific breed requirements for sled dogs. To participate in the Yukon Quest, a dog does not have to be of any particular breed, or even meet some weight requirement. The race has included dogs as small as 35 pounds, and dogs as big as 70 pounds. Usually, teams are comprised of Alaskan Huskies that weigh anywhere from 45 to 60 pounds. Mushers like to have their dogs fairly equal in height and weight, but this is not a requirement. It usually works best, though, when the dogs are similar in size, height, and gait. The main concern for most mushers, though, is the feet.
A good sled dog has feet that are evenly spaced (not splayed or spread out) and resistant to injury and wear. You can, to a certain extent, breed for good feet, but foot care is also vital. Many mushers provide their dogs with booties to protect their feet over long distances. Friction can also be a huge problem over the course of a race. When conditions are good, mushers will let their dogs run without booties to toughen up their feet and allow the feet to breathe. In bad conditions, the booties go back on.
Because of the importance of the feet in a dog sled race, mushers are also highly vigilant about regularly inspecting the feet. “As go their feet,” they say, “so go the dogs.” This means that everything – everything – that happens during a race depends on the condition of the dogs’ feet, so even what might appear to be a minor issue is speedily dealt with by the musher.
This really isn’t any different from the way that any trainer, in any sport, treats his athlete. After all, sled dogs are athletes, and they have to be fit to compete. If their feet are giving them problems, they will not perform well.
Again, as is the case with human athletes, there are other issues to think about. If a dog is overweight, for example, he will likely become sore thanks to trying to support his excess bodyweight. And, as is also the case with human athletes, dogs often pack on the weight during the “off season.” So, pre-season training means running the dogs over short distances to get them back into shape before they’re called upon to perform in an event like the Yukon Quest.
Have you ever looked at an Olympic runner, and thought to yourself, “How can he be in good shape – he’s so thin!”? The reality is that he’s probably in top shape. It’s the same with sled dogs. They’re actually at top form when they look a bit slender. If you look closely, though, you’ll see that they’re well-furred, and have a very nice undercoat that works to prevent snow and ice building up on them. Don’t worry that the dog looks slim; you can be assured that his musher is feeding him well as they prepare for the event.
In fact, feeding is very important. Mushers worry very much about the way that their dogs eat, and from puppy hood on, mushers try to instill healthy eating habits in their dogs. They watch for picky eaters. Some of them free feed, but most prefer regular meal times. I talked about this in 5 Reasons Why Free Feeding Might Not Be Right For Your Dog. They try to make sure that their dogs eat enthusiastically so that they get the calories they need to stay warm while in a grueling race, and they are very vigilant about ensuring that no one dog ends up being shortchanged when it comes to food. Dogs, after all, are a lot like people in that regard: they don’t perform well if they’re not getting enough to eat.
The core of a really good dog team is dogs that get along well, love their handler, and most importantly, love to run. Sometimes, even a dog that doesn’t quite come up to par in terms of natural ability can be an outstanding sled dog simply because he has “heart” – he has the attitude that’s needed for competition. There’s really no secret to raising a good sled dog; you start with good breeding, raise them with love and care the same way you would a companion dog, and they’re going to want to go that extra mile (or, in the case of the Yukon Quest, that extra 999 miles) for you.
That’s not to say that you can make any dog a sled dog. Sure, I joke with Neila, but honestly, if you attached all five of her Rottweilers to a sled, I’m betting that pandemonium would ensue. The key is teamwork. So, what makes a good dog team?
A dog team is comprised of several different dogs. The lead dogs, which are the ones at the front, are the ones who keep order. They listen to the commands delivered by the musher, they set the pace, and they make sure that all the dogs are going in the right direction. If you’re creating a dog team, you want the independent thinkers at the front. Although good lead dogs are very obedient, they also have to be capable of independent thought.
If you’ve been following the US election, you know something about what I’m talking about here. What a lot of people don’t know is that the President of the United States always has his hand on the nuclear button. A lot of people think that there are checks and balances, but there aren’t, and that’s why so many people are afraid of Donald Trump: he could, quite literally, push a button, with no one there to stop him, and destroy the world.
With a dog team, there actually are checks and balances. A good lead dog knows when to disobey a bad order. If the musher is about to lead the team off a cliff or into a river, for instance, the lead dog knows that this is a bad order, and he will not obey it. Good lead dogs trust their musher to give the right order 99% of the time, but when the order is bad, a good lead dog will disobey. A good musher knows and respects this.
Good lead dogs will also challenge an inexperienced musher. If the lead dog knows that the team is exhausted, for instance, and can’t reasonably deliver anything more, he will lie down and refuse to move. An inexperienced musher, if he is smart, will trust his dog on this. It’s a partnership.
Swing dogs are those behind the lead dogs. They work to turn the team right or left.
Wheel dogs are the ones closest to the sled, and they are the dogs that work with the swing dogs to turn the sled. Their job is to know when to turn wide to get around obstacles like trees.
In between the swing dogs and the wheel dogs are the team dogs. They might not be the brightest bulbs on the string, but they’re the ones that deliver the strength. Their job is simply to pull, and to continue to pull until the race is over.
Before I started thinking about sled dogs, I had no idea that there could actually be a 1,000-mile race, and I had no idea of the demands that are made on these canine athletes. But this race attracts participants from all over the world, and is supported by the governments of the Yukon and Alaska, and takes place thanks to the efforts of sponsors, volunteers, and fans. It’s dedicated to raising awareness of the sport, the mushers, and their dogs.
The coming year marks the 34th Yukon Quest. It is set to begin on February. The entry fee is $2,000 US dollars, and the event is limited to no more than 50 mushers. A musher must be at least 18 years old, and must already have completed at least a 200-mile race, and a 300-mile race, within the previous 42 months in order to be eligible to enter.
Oh, as if! I don’t have the stamina. Neither do Janice and Leroy, or any other dogs that I know. The dogs in the Yukon Challenge are serious athletes, and so are their mushers. All I can reasonably do is look at them in admiration. The level of training and commitment that is needed to participate in the Yukon Challenge is well beyond anything that I can even begin to comprehend.
The Yukon Challenge is definitely not for me. It’s not for most people I know – 1,000 miles over ice and snow, and best case scenario, 12 days to get there. I am totally in awe of these dogs and their handlers. My idea of extreme sports is tossing Frisbees to Janice and Leroy at the same time, instead of one-on-one. But what a wonderful way to honor the heritage of Northern dogs, and preserve a way of life that most of us, with our smart phones and our fast food, and our comfy way of life can’t even begin to understand. These are amazing dogs and amazing handlers, and they deserve respect and admiration.