Sled Dogs in the Yukon

Sled Dogs are an important part of the story of the Yukon and the Klondike.

The history of the sled dog is a long one, and likely originates in Siberia before the first Indian peoples traveled to America. Scandinavian peoples are also known to have used dogsleds from prehistoric times. The Klondike is only a blip in the history of the dogsled, but it is an important blip. Indian dog teams are usually run in what is commonly called “fan formation” with each dog pulling individually on a single lead rope attached to the sled. White men generally hitched their dogs in pairs, or in a long single file hitch in deep snow or other difficult terrain.

About 40 years after the great California Gold Rush came to an end, gold was discovered in Alaska. Although the climate was forbidding, thousands of gold seekers mounted steam trains (that could cross the American Continent as of 1869) and steam ships with their hearts set on striking it rich in the Klondike. Improved transportation methods delivered gold seekers by the tens of thousands to the frigid coasts of Alaska. The dogsled was the fastest and safest way to travel in this country, and had long been used to carry the mail. A dogsled driver was known as a “musher”. The Malamute dog teams bred by the native Inuit and Eskimo peoples were the best dog teams. They were known for their amiability despite being strongly inbred with native species of wolf. They were also known for their “ice sense” and “game sense” which could help a musher avoid danger or find food in a pinch.

However the demand for dogs was soon greater than the supply and unscrupulous importers captured many an American pet for sale in the Klondike at high prices. Thus it is that the Yukon sled dogs were mostly a mongrel breed. The Indians had never bred their dogs for beauty, but rather for stamina and the ability to survive in harsh conditions. For the newcomers almost anything with four legs and a bark would do. Thus gold rush Alaska saw the introduction of a wide variety of bloodlines to use as sled dogs. These dogs were then tested in the crucible of the trails. Many dogs and some drivers did not survive, but those that did were strong and able to adapt. This is very likely the reason that Alaskan Huskies are widely considered the best sled dogs in the world today.

Jack London has immortalized the “impressed” or captured pet, turned sled dog, in the character of “Buck” in his novel White Fang. And the sled dog is a recurrent theme in most of his Klondike stories. Stories which I highly recommend as entertaining reading in the vein of adventure with a strong dose of realism. A few decades after the gold rush the presence of strongly bred sled dogs proved a salvation of sorts to the people of Nome. When that city was struck by diphtheria during the frozen in months in 1925 the only supply of serum to cure the disease was 1000 miles away overland. About 350 miles could be covered by railroad, but the remaining 650, only by dogsled. Volunteer drivers and dog teams carried the serum through in just over 5 days in temperatures exceeding 50 degrees below zero. This miraculous feat is commemorated every year in the form of the Iditarod dogsled race.

Soon after 1925, airplanes relieved the sled dogs of their last important duty of carrying the mail, and most teams today are for racing, recreation, or tourism, but the bond between the driver and the dogs, although perhaps no longer a matter of life or death, is still a strong and satisfying one. The dogsled holds an important place in the History of Transportation in cold climates from perhaps as far back as the Stone Age and up to the early 20th Century.

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