How Huskies Became Sled Dogsby Catherine Holden Robinson
They can be seen each March, hauling mushers over the most perilous terrain North America has to offer, but the history of the husky dog extends back far beyond the earliest Iditarod race. These canines have been companions and babysitters, and have hauled supplies and medicine along the Historic Iditarod Trail, but their ancestors date back to the early villages of interior Alaska.
The Earliest Huskies
Non-descript in appearance, and weighing in at a mere 40 to 60 pounds, the Alaskan husky isn't going to win at the dog shows, but it isn't the dog's appearance that has made it vital to the people of Alaska for thousands of years. Whalebone dog sleds dating back nearly 5,000 years evidenced the existence of an Alaskan dog of great strength and endurance. When Russian explorers arrived in the early 18th century, they were met by wicked terrain and two prominent canines: an Eskimo dog, an ancestor of the modern-day malamute, and an Indian dog, utilized by villagers of interior Alaska, believed to be responsible for the Alaskan husky we know today.
Necessity as the Mother of Invention
Long before the whir and vibrations of the snowmobile disturbed the snow-covered lands of the Alaskan regions, husky dogs, harnessed to sleds, and guided by steadfast mushers, provided the only form of transportation. They carried everything from groceries and medicines, and endured fierce cold and hunger during extended hunting expeditions. Their strong bodies and sturdy paws allowed them to navigate frozen seas and icy tundra, in search of polar bear, which would feed and clothe native villagers.
Canines to the Rescue
The Alaskan husky took a quick trip into near obscurity as the revered sled dog when in 1908, a malamute team took home the trophy in the first Alaskan Sweepstakes, a predecessor to the Iditarod race introduced in the 1970s. The malamutes held the title for two years, losing out in 1910 to the Siberian husky, a bloodline from Russia, imported into Alaska by Leonard Seppala. The Siberian huskies attained further acclaim in 1925 by carrying serum to the diphtheria-threatened area of Nome, across a portion of what is now the Iditarod Trail.
Last Great Race on Earth
Beginning in the 1940s and spanning two decades, sprint racing emerged in the Alaskan regions, bringing about new notoriety to the Alaskan husky who excelled in these shorter races. These sprint races gave way to the introduction of the Iditarod in 1973, a race of nearly one thousand miles, testing the endurance, strength, and teamwork of the Alaskan husky, bringing about a worldwide renewed interest in these steadfast, working dogs.
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