History of sled dog sport

Dog sledding has only been recognized as a discipline since the beginning of the 20th century.

In fact while the Gold Rush was going full swing in Alaska, groups of dogsledders formed and wanted to compare their teams’ strength and speed. That’s about all it took for the sport to be created…

THE FIRST RACES IN ALASKA

The competition was quite lively among dog sled teams and gold seekers and ultimately led to the “Nome Kennel Club,” which was founded in 1907 in Nome (in North-West Alaska).

Its purpose was simple: for “official” races to be run smoothly by providing the necessary material organization and establishing strict rules. One year later, Albert Fink, a lawyer from Nome set up the regulations for the very first official competition called the All Alaska Sweepstakes:

  • all leaders must be members of the Nome Kennel Club.
  • all dogs must be registered with the club.
  • the leader can have as many dogs as he wants, but all dogs that start the race must be brought to the finish line, either harnessed in the team, or on the sled.
  • the dogs shall be identified and marked at the starting line in order to avoid substitution during the race.
  • if two teams become too close together during the race (one right behind the other), the team that has been caught must immediately yield the way by stopping and waiting a certain amount of time before continuing the race.

In accordance with the rules, the “mushers” (or team leaders, from the French marche, which means to walk or to go forth) began the race from Nome to Candle and back to Nome, which is approximately 408 miles (650 kilometers).

Five days later, the first teams arrived in Nome and a sporting legend had been born. On this trail of ice fields, high mountains, frozen rivers, tundra, forests, glaciers, etc., a young Norwegian immigrant named Leonhard Seppala became the greatest name in dog sledding. With his team of Siberian Huskies, Leonhard Seppala would win the All Alaska Sweepstakes in 1915, 1916, and 1917.

One of his competitors, beaten and discouraged would later write,

“This man is superhuman. He passed me every day of the race and I wasn’t dawdling. It didn’t even look like he was driving his dogs, but I have never seen dogs pull so hard. Something was going on between him and his dogs that I will never be able to explain, something supernatural, some kind of hypnotism…”.

Between 1908 and 1915, dog teams evolved. The first huskies were imported from Siberia and with John “Iron Man” Johnson as a musher, a new record was set in 1910 (74 hours, 14 minutes, and 37 seconds).

In 1911, Scotty Allan won the race with a team of Alaskan mixes (hybrid of Malamutes and Setters) in approximately 80 hours during a terrible blizzard. Another big name in the beginning sport of dog sledding, Scotty Allan ran 8 sweepstakes and won 3 of them, took second place three times, and third place two times.

As for Leonhard Seppala… what can we say? This extraordinary man brought respect to the sport and his best lead dog, Togo, is known by mushers all over the world. He won many races and in New England met a young veterinary student named Roland Lombard. Another great name, “Doc” Lombard continued to run with his dogs and thanks to him, dog sledding in North America grew in leaps and bounds.

To this day, he has won more Anchorage World Championship titles than anyone else. He was also the first president of the International Sled Dog Racing Association in North America (ISDRA). Finally, among all of these names making up the history and veritable essence of this marvelous sport, we must mention George Attla, an Athabascan Indian from Huslia, Alaska. George Attla won every race in existence and his book Everything I Know About Training and Racing Sled Dogs is the musher’s Bible.

A wonderful, but little-known film called“Spirit of the Wind” tells the story of this extraordinarily brave Indian: George Attla experienced all of his adventures with only one good leg; he had lost the use of the other one in a childhood disease.

EVOLUTION OF THE SLED DOG SPORT

In North America

Since the beginning of the 20th century, races have grown in number in the United States and Canada, leaving their Alaskan birthplace. A second birthplace of races appeared in New England, with the foundation of the New England Sled Dog Club in 1924. In 1932, the Olympic Games of Lake Placid allowed Dog Sledding as a demonstration sport, which was an instant success with the large group of spectators present.

The second world war definitely slowed progress in the development of competitions, but they later returned even stronger thanks to the increased number of clubs. The Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers should be mentioned because their leader Robert Levorsen was president of the ISDRA from 1971 to 1974. 1971 is also an important year because it was then that the governor of the state of Alaska officially declared dog sledding as a “national sport.”

The main races in North America

  • Today it is hard to count the number of competitions taking place each winter in North America. The largest are as follows:
  • Fur Rendez-Vous World Championship (Anchorage, Alaska)
  • World Championship Sled Dog Derby (Laconia, New Hampshire)
  • World Championship Dog Derby (Las pas, Manitoba)
  • Open North American Championship (Fairbanks, Alaska)
  • Surdough Rendez-Vous (Whitehorse, Yukon Territory)

All of these races are yearly events attended by tens of thousands of spectators. The races are run in three legs of 25 to 70 km depending on the category (number of dogs), on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, partially or completely in the snow-covered streets of the cities. But the sport has also changed with the development of very long races, the most famous being:

  • The Iditarod, the “Last Great Race on Earth,” the longest (1,049 miles in theory, but actually more than 1,800 kilometers!), the hardest, the most famous because of its prestigious history since it was started in 1973.
  • The Yukon Quest, which follows the Yukon River from Whitehorse, Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska for nearly 1,300 kilometers.
  • The Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, which takes place over 800 kilometers  in Minnesota
  • The Montana Race to the Sky, the Labrador 800.

The rise of stage races

Finally, a new course has appeared more recently (1996), based on the European model of long distance races in stages (created with the Alpirod in 1988), the International Rocky Mountain Stage Stop Sled Dog Race, which takes place in January in Wyoming. This 12-stage competition with night rests or bivouacs and in which certain dogs may be left to rest during certain stages, is without a doubt the type of competition that is most likely to be developed because of its way of respecting the dogs and more effective prevention by veterinary teams, unlike what happens in a long distance race with check points.

As a result other legends were born, other great names appeared such as Joe Redington, Sr., “Father of the Iditarod,” “Doc” Lombard, the veterinarian, Eddy Streeper (multiple champion in the world of speed), Rick Swenson (six time winner of the Iditarod), Libbie Riddles (first woman to win the Iditarod in 1985, elected athlete of the year in the United States) and Suzan Butcher (four-time winner of the Iditarod). Alaskan resident and French doctor Jacques Philip is listed among these names because of his numerous victories in stage races and because he and his famous dog Byron also led a team of dogs at an altitude of more than 6,000 meters (1,830 feet) on top of Mount McKinley!

All of these great competitors remain in the hearts of today’s mushers.

SLED DOG RACES IN SOUTH AMERICA

Dog sledding has only recently appeared in South America, but the first official competition on snow was held in Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina in 1993, which also included some Chilean trails shows great promise for further development in the region.

Dominique Grandjean was its chief veterinarian till the race disappeared a few years later. The Andirod, in the area of Bariloche (Argentina) folloowed, but did not make it on a long term. Only in the years 2010 a rece through the Andes, between Chile and Argentina started; Delphine Clero, chief veterinarian of Lekkarod, did run it in 2013.

SCANDINAVIA, ANOTHER NEST FOR THE SPORT

If there is a birthplace for dog sledding, it is Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland) where the most popular discipline was originally not dog sledding, but rather the pulka, a sport that brings together cross country skiing and sledding.

The skier is attached by a cord to his team of one to three dogs pulling a small ballasted vessel. In this discipline, which is directly derived from ancient hunting methods, the Scandinavians prefer to use hunting dogs (Braques, Pointers, Setters) since they are:

  • faster in shorter distances (7 to 15 km) (11 to 24 miles)
  • better psychologically adapted to solitary efforts

This “other” use of hunting dogs entails other precautions, which may sometimes seem comical, but are useful to protect the short-haired dogs from the cold:

  • wearing a coat before and after the course
  • individual blankets for dogs during bivouacs

Sled Dog Sport in the Olympics

The Scandinavians have organized official competitions for nearly 70 years, since the pulka is one of the major sports in Norway and Sweden. In 1994, the Olympic Games in Lillehammer included the official organization of an international speed competition as part of the games’ cultural program. It was 600 kilometers long (the Femundlopet) and started while medals were awarded in the Olympics closing ceremony, which allowed the whole world to witness the first steps of an arctic expedition in which the teams would travel to Nagano, Japan, the site of the next Olympic Games.

Norwegian Finnmark is the site of an annual international competition,  based on the Alaskan Iditarod and  nearly 1,000 km  long: the Finnmarkslopet.

In the years 1990, Finland also developed a big stage race named “Scandream”, where Dominique Grandjean was chief veterinarian…but the race vanished away after a few years for financial reasons.

IN CENTRAL EUROPE

The Swiss Club of Nordic Dogs, founded in 1959 upon the initiative of Dr. Thomas Althans and the judge Paul Nicoud, established its mission as promoting the breeding and development of Nordic dogs breeds. This being the case, it seemed inevitable that it be in charge of the organization of dog sledding races and in 1965 the first Swiss “training camp” was held. It was the first opportunity for dogsledders to actually discover the sport as it is practiced in North America.

A winter course circuit was soon established in Switzerland (Lenk, Saint-Cergue, Saignelegier, Sils-Saint Moritz, etc.) and in Germany (Todtmoos, Bernau, etc.), which later spread to France in 1979 (the Schlucht). From that point on, courses continued to be created and the number of dog teams increased steadily.

Organizations were established in each country: the Trail Club of Europe in 1973, then a group of European federations under the authority of the ESDRA (the European Sled Dog Racing Association) in 1983. This last organization currently oversees all of the national organizations and is also responsible for the annual organization of European championships (the first ones took place in 1984 in Saint Moritz, Switzerland). These are now divided into two separate categories: speed (300 dog teams participate in 5 different categories) and medium distance (approximately 60 dog teams).

Birth of the first long distance stage race on earth: Alpirod-Royal Canin

In 1988 the largest European race was created and continued until 1996: the Alpirod-Royal Canin, a competition in stages that took place over 12 days and nearly 1,000 kilometers (1,600 miles).

For the first time in Europe, the best Alaskan dog teams participated in a race crossing the Alps into Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria… and won the first three competitions (Joe Runyan, Kathy Swenson, Roxy Wright). Starting in 1992, Frenchman Jacques Philip won the competition three years in a row, then Norwegian Roger Leegard and his team of “greysters” closed this important chapter in the history of the sport. Since the disappearance of the Alpirod, two new courses with stages have been created using part of the original trail: the Alpentrail in the Tyrol and the Alpirush in the Vercors.

Finally, 1990 marked a turning point with the organization of the first world speed championships in Saint-Moritz, bringing together the elite of the world of pulka and dog sledding under the authority of the newly founded International Federation for Sled Dog Sports (IFSS).