Dog sledding: Transportation meets legacy

The Iditarod Trail Race is where transportation meets legacy, and it all started with the dog sled.

Dog sledding originated in Indigenous communities in the Arctic, where they were an essential part of the culture and lifestyle. Until recently—and in some areas still today—dog sleds have been the main method of transportation during the winter.

Dog sleds have allowed people to hunt and travel farther distances and over the challenging terrains found across the Arctic tundra. Dog sleds are also often used as a type of freight transportation in Alaska. And we can’t forget about dog sled races like the famous, annual Iditarod Trail Race.

History of the Iditarod

The Iditarod was a historic trail in Alaska. Marking the 100th anniversary of Alaska being a US Territory, the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee—which was formed to look into historical events in Alaska—conceived the idea of a dog sled race that would take place along the course of this historical trail. The first part of the trail was cleared in the 1960s, and a few races were held, but interest in the race was quickly lost.

Iditarod Trail Race headquarters. Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Author davidd
Iditarod Trail Race headquarters.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Author davidd

Then, in 1973, a new race was born. With the help of the US Army, a new portion of the trail was cleared and the length of the course expanded. The racers, called “mushers" because of how they communicated with the sled dogs, still had to clear much of the trail on their own and were required to bring their own supplies. The race takes days and sometimes weeks to complete. Since 1973, the race has grown every year despite financial ups and downs.

Engineering a dog sled

Sleds come in many shapes, sizes, and designs. Some Indigenous mushers “still make their own sleds the way their ancestors have for centuries.” However, Indigenous designs vary according to region and local customs.

Traditional “qamutik” or sled.  Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Author Ansgar Walk
Traditional “qamutik” or sled.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Author Ansgar Walk

Some of the first Iditarod sleds, specifically from the long-distance race in 1973, were crafted entirely from wood—specifically birch wood. However, as the competition has caught a following over the years and the stakes have increased, many mushers purchase commercial dog sleds. These commercial sleds still utilize traditional “toboggan-style designs.”

Legacies of the Iditarod

As mentioned earlier, one of the reasons the Iditarod Trail Race was originally started was that it would allow for the preservation and reconstruction of an old freight route—the historic Iditarod Trail—which allows for travel between the Alaskan communities of Seward and Nome.

Mile 0 of the Iditarod National Historic Trail.  Photo from Tony and Sue Beeman
Mile 0 of the Iditarod National Historic Trail.
Photo from Tony and Sue Beeman

Those who played major roles in organizing the long-distance race had the specific goal of preserving not only the historic Iditarod Trail, but also preserving dog sled culture. For example, Dorothy Page, chairman of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee in the late 1960s, “opened the world’s eyes” to the Iditarod Trail Race.

Dorothy G. Page, the “mother of the Iditarod”. Photo from Iditarod.com
Dorothy G. Page, the “mother of the Iditarod”.
Photo from Iditarod.com

The amazing race today

Today, mushers travel along the restored trail from checkpoint to checkpoint by dog sled. The website notes this is very similar to how mushers traveled these freight routes over 80 years ago. Some mushers are so well-known to the race today that they can receive thousands of dollars a year from corporate sponsors.

Colleen Robertia off on her second Iditarod Trail Race. Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Author Frank Kovalchek
Colleen Robertia off on her second Iditarod Trail Race.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Author Frank Kovalchek

References

Related links

(Video) Iditarod kicks off with ceremonial start: www.washingtonpost.com/video/sports/iditarod-kicks-off-with-ceremonial-start/2018/03/03/3539881e-1f46-11e8-98f5-ceecfa8741b6_video.html?utm_term=.cf69c2ce256e

More about the race: www.britannica.com/sports/Iditarod-Trail-Sled-Dog-Race#ref980846

Anatomy of a Dog Sled: iditarodoutsider.wordpress.com/2013/02/14/anatomy-of-a-dog-sled/

Dog Sledge in Inuit Culture: www.climate-policy-watcher.org/canadian-arctic/dog-sledge-in-inuit-culture.html

Dog Freighting Litter: www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/litter-dog-freighting.htm

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer