Sled Dogs Are Among the World’s Best Athletes… Alaska

A sled dog strains against its harness as it leaps to take off in the annual Fur Rendezvous championship sled dog races.

A sled dog strains against its harness as it leaps to take off in the annual Fur Rendezvous championship sled dog races. He was jumping the gun, so to speak, and still held in place. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

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.

Championship sled dog races are held each year in conjunction with the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous. This year snow had to be brought into the city and put down on the streets.

Championship sled dog races are held each year in conjunction with the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous. This year snow had to be brought into the city and put down on the streets.

Sled dogs are highly honored in Alaska as this statue on 4th Street attests.

Sled dogs are highly honored in Alaska as this statue on 4th Street attests.

Naturally, our grandsons wanted their photo taken with the sled dog.

Naturally, our grandsons wanted their photo taken with the sled dog.

When we arrived, mushers were busily harnessing their dogs. 4th Street was lined with vehicles like these.

When we arrived, mushers were busily harnessing their dogs. 4th Street was lined with vehicles like this.

As I mentioned above, sled dogs love to run and compete as much as the finest of Olympic athletes. This dog is saying, "I'm ready, Let's go!"

As I mentioned above, sled dogs love to run and compete as much as the finest of Olympic athletes. This dog is saying, “I’m ready, Let’s go!”

These people were assigned the responsibility of holding the dogs back until the start of the race. It is a great indication of the strength of the dogs. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

These people were assigned the responsibility of holding the dogs back until the start of the race. It is a great indication of the strength of the dogs. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Dog handlers are assigned to keep the dogs in place until it is time to run. The far dog seems to be barking, "Now!" While the near one says, "Are they ready?"

Dog handlers are assigned to keep the dogs in place until it is time to run. The far dog seems to be barking, “Now!” While the near one says, “Can I go, Boss?” (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

And they are off!

And they are off! (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Racing sleds are engineered of speed...

Racing sleds are engineered for speed with every ounce of weight considered.

While more traditional sleds are built to haul loads, or, in this case, our Daughter-in-law Cammie and Grandson Chris at Chena Hot Soprings.

While more traditional sleds are built to haul loads, or, in this case, our daughter-in-law Cammie and grandson Chris at Chena Hot Springs.

Peggy caught the dogs racing for the finish line.

Peggy caught the dogs racing for the finish line.

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.

These dogs in Chena Hot Springs were prepared to provide our son Tony and grandsons cooper and Connor with a ride. The fist dog is the lead dog, the next are swing dogs, the following four are team dogs and the last two are wheel dogs.

These dogs in Chena Hot Springs were prepared to provide our son Tony and grandsons Cooper and Connor with a ride. The first dog is the lead dog, the next two are swing dogs, the following four are team dogs and the last two are wheel dogs.

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.

Today's racing sled dogs look quite different from the sled dogs of 30 years ago. These are Eurohounds, a mixture of traditional Alaska Huskies and German Short Haired Pointers.

Today’s racing sled dogs look quite different from the sled dogs of 30 years ago. These are Eurohounds, a mixture of traditional Alaska Huskies and German Short Haired Pointers. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

A more traditional Husky. I took this photo at Chena Hot Springs.

A more traditional Husky. I took this photo at Chena Hot Springs.

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.

Dog kennels at Chena Hot Springs. Libby Riddles told me that mushers normally owned a number of dogs. Imagine feeding this lot! And cleaning up their poop.

Dog kennels at Chena Hot Springs. Libby Riddles told me that mushers normally owned a number of dogs. Imagine feeding this lot! And cleaning up their poop.

Luke Skywalker was happy to greet the grandkids. All of the dogs came with imaginative names.

Luke Skywalker was happy to greet the grandkids. All of the dogs came with imaginative names.

Sled dogs are raised from puppies, such as this cut fellow at Chena.

Sled dogs are raised from puppies, such as this cute fellow at Chena.

A final shot of the sled dogs at Chena Hot Springs as they round a corner carrying Tony, Connor and Cooper. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

A final shot of the sled dogs at Chena Hot Springs as they round a corner carrying Tony, Connor and Cooper. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

So, is this the future sled dog champion of the world? No, I think it might be a Toy Pomeranian. A woman walked by with it on a leash. When I asked if I could take the pups photo, she picked it up, handed it to me, and snapped our photo. Next blog: the great train trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks.

So, is this the future sled dog champion of the world? No, I think it might be a Toy Pomeranian. A woman walked by with it on a leash. When I asked if I could take the pups photo, she picked it up, handed it to me, and snapped our picture. NEXT BLOG: The great train trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks.

24 comments on “Sled Dogs Are Among the World’s Best Athletes… Alaska

  1. Fantastic tale on sled dogs. Amazing how they can work together. Malamut dogs here in Australia are used to guard sheep to keep out foxes during lambing times as are wethered male alpacas.

    • Thanks Gerard. The dogs really impressed me. Interesting that they use Malamutes to guard the sheep. Alpacas are used in Oregon and California to guard sheep against coyotes. –Curt

  2. Love your picture and story of sled dogs. I can see that sled dogs breed now change, and has less hair/fur and I thought the fur keep them warm?
    I will have to talk to my husband to take me there….

    • Thanks Nina. You are right on the fur. The same thought crossed my mind. I suspect that the dogs that live and work in the climate full time are more on the husky side. –Curt

  3. Looks like huge fun. Seem to remember there was a horrid incident during a race recently when a madman shot at two sled teams – the last thing they’re expecting to encounter on the scary front I’m sure.

    • Great fun indeed, AC, and I thought of you as I wrote the piece.
      It was the Iditarod. But a drunk ran down and killed two of the dogs from one team on a snowmobile. At least he claimed it was because he was drunk. I suspect his mental problems were much worse than that. –Curt

    • Thanks Katy. I had to readjust my thinking about huskies from 30 years earlier when I lived in Alaska. And the grandkids are indeed lucky. Both our son and daughter have introduced their children to many wonderful experiences. –Curt

  4. I really was surprised to see other breeds of dogs involved in this. I guess I’ve assumed that only huskies ever were used. It’s fascinating to see how eager and excited they are. I’ve heard that herding dogs are the same — they have a job to do, and they’re proud of doing it well.

    • I think proud is a good term, Linda. I read a comment from one musher who claimed his dogs hated being beaten. BTW, Peggy and I are on the road. We are in Flagstaff now. ETA for arriving in your neck of the woods around April 9-10. Will Email from Roswell NM. -Curt

  5. We have been dogsledding twice and each time such amazing experiences. Your upcoming journey retracing your cycling steps sounds fascinating. I shall look forward to following along.

  6. Great photos of the statue and all the dogs. I had no idea there were names of dogs based upon their role in pulling the sled. But here’s a question: their fur looks so short. Don’t they get cold? Really cold?

    • That’s a really good question. I got cold out there. The dogs seem to take it well. And they certainly don’t get cold when they are running. Huskies are still the best bet for animals that live and work in the climate full time. –Curt

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