Dog sledding, also known as mushing, is a popular winter sport that involves using a team of dogs to pull a sled over snow and ice. While many people are familiar with the basics of dog sledding, the sport remains a complex activity with a deep base of knowledge and a rich history. There is so much more to understand than tying a dog off to a dogsled. Just the gear itself can be complicated from the sled, to what rails are used on the sled, the sled bag, the lines, the harnesses, the booties, and plenty of other tools and gear to help the sled ride the way it should and stop the way it should. And all the equipment varies for the specific outing from overnight cargo trips to marathon races to sprint races and everything in between. What gear is used can also be impacted by the weather, the style of trail, the amount of gear, and the size of the team. Dog sledding is not just the dogs and not just the musher but the relationship they share that allows the musher to control the dogs and get them to work together successfully. This takes time, patience, and an understanding of the dogs themselves. This also takes an incredible amount of work to feed, care for, and train the dogs properly. But for those whose knowledge of dog-sledding extends just as far as a dramatic movie about mail runs through the arctic or a social media post about the Ididarod, here’s 7 fun facts about the sport for the beginner:
1) Dog sledding originated in the Arctic regions of North America, Europe, and Asia. The Inuit people of northern Canada and Alaska have been using dogs to pull sleds for thousands of years, and the sport of mushing has its roots in this ancient tradition.
2) Dog sledding is a physically demanding sport that requires both strength and endurance. Mushers must be able to handle the weight of the sled and the dogs, as well as navigate through challenging terrain. It’s not just jumping on the sled and letting the dogs do the work. It’s a cooperation between both dogs and the musher.
3) Many dogs are specifically bred and trained to be sled dogs, and they love to run and pull the sleds. Some breeds commonly used in mushing include Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian Huskies, and Samoyeds. For these breeds and others, running is in their DNA. They are active breeds built for high energy and high activity.
4) The Iditarod is one of the most famous dog sledding races in the world. It takes place annually in Alaska and covers a distance of over 1,000 miles. Mushers and their teams of dogs race through some of the harshest conditions on the planet, enduring extreme cold and high winds. But dog sledding is not just something that happens in far away places like Alaska. Every year in Minnesota and across the midwest, there are dozens of races. And though none of our races cover 1000 miles of territory, we do have a wide variety of styles from short sprint races to longer marathon styles. Some of these races including the Gunflint Mail Run, the Beargrease, the Klondike Derby, the Wolf Track Classic, the Copper Dog, and many more.
5) Contrary to popular belief, few mushers actually use the command “mush.” More commonly, the command “hike” or “let’s go!” is used to get moving, “gee!” is used for right, and “haw” is used for left. The terminology of course doesn’t stop there. Since mushing is such a communicative sport between team and musher, there are dozens more terms used depending on the team and the style of dog-sledding.
6) Dog sledding is not just a winter activity. Some mushers also participate in dryland mushing which involves using a team of dogs to pull a sled or cart on a dirt or gravel surface. In this way, mushers and their team can stay conditioned year-round and continue investing in the bond that allows them to perform at their best come winter.
7) Not all dog sledding is done for sport. In some remote regions, dog sledding is still used as a means of transportation. And though the invention of the airplane and snowmobile reduced the necessity of things like mail delivery and emergency supply runs by dogsled, plenty of people still use their dog teams as a traditional and reliable means of transportation during the deep winter. In other areas, such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness where planes, snowmobiles, and other motorized vehicles are not allowed, dog sledding is the only means for lodges and resorts to haul equipment in and out or for visitors to explore the wilderness in the winter.
If the sport of dog sledding sounds intriguing to you and you want to see it in action and learn more, there are plenty of opportunities. If you’re in the Upper Midwest, attend one of the aforementioned races to see sled dog teams at their very best. And if you’re interested in being even more than a spectator, there are some amazing outfits in Ely where you can take a day or an overnight trip by dogsled and really feel and experience the sport for yourselves!