6 historical facts you probably didn’t know about sled dogs

6 historical facts you probably didn’t know about sled dogs

Dog sledding in deep snow
Same view today and a thousand years ago

Did you know that the very first domesticated animal was, who else but the dog. Man’s best friend has been our loyal companion possibly for up to 30 000 years. As a point of reference, horses were first domesticated about 5500 years ago

The earliest dogs were tame wolves, which humans started to breed for different purposes as time went on. At first the dog was primarily used for guarding purposes – alerting people when strangers or wild animals would approach their settlement. Later on dogs were bred to accompany humans for hunting trips to alert, attack and pick up the game. In addition to breeding wolves to guard and hunt with us, humans bred dogs to look more pleasing to the human eye, which is why we find dogs so doggone adorable!

When humans started to inhabit more remote areas, including the harsh subarctic areas of the world, they took their loyal friends with them. In these nearly unattainable areas the dogs became absolutely essential for survival by providing a mode of transportation for both goods and humans themselves. A sled pulled by dogs became the best way to transport food and supplies when waterways could not be used inland or due to ports being frozen in.

Huskies racing in snow
Wilderness Tour racing

Today, guests at Äkäskero can experience the ancient mode of travel through arctic wilderness by taking part in our week-long Wilderness Tour. For 5 days we will depend on our sled dogs to take us from one cabin to another, crossing up to 60 km a day in the pristine taiga and through the fells that dot the North-Western Lapland of Finland. As the surrounding landscape is so untouched by modern society, you will get a very good idea of what it was for people in bygone eras to live and survive in exactly the same conditions.

If you are left in awe by these magnificent animals, and want to learn more about them first hand, come and join us this autumn for sled dog training and nature activity week! For €450 (sponsors) and €650 (normal) you get to join us for a full week of autumn training with our dogs, and learn everything you ever wanted to know about sled dogs. Learn more about the week here!

For your information and entertainment, we have gathered a few historical anecdotes and peculiarities about sled dogs and their history as humans’ companions. Enjoy!

1. The origins of the word ‘mushing’


Mushing means the act of driving a dog team, be that on a sled or a kick-bike or even a quad bike, and in any terrain. The word originates from French occupied Canada from the 1600s, where young French men would go and live with the indigenous peoples to learn their way of life in the extreme conditions of Northern Canada. The word literally comes from the French command Marche! Walk! Which turned into Mush! in the mouths of English speaking Canadians.

2. Sled dogs are banned from Antarctica since 1992


First arctic explorers arrived in those icy shores with sled dogs. The unimaginably harsh conditions of both North Pole and the Antarctica were possible to defy only with the help of sled dogs, who were able to withstand the freezing temperatures and trail-less vastness of these unmapped polar regions. The famous polar explorer and first man to reach North Pole, Roald Amundsen, drove sled dogs on his expeditions, and his exploration of the Antarctica was planned around a team of 97 sled dogs.

Sled dogs were used for transportation and companionship in the Antarctica all the way up until 1992, way after the invention of motorised vehicles that could withstand the hostile environment. However, sled dogs were banned altogether from the continent in the early 90’s by the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, to protect its unique and fragile ecosystem. Dogs, who are not native to Antarctica, could possibly endanger the native fauna by bringing canine diseases with them that could transfer to the local seal population. Better safe than sorry of course, but that meant the end of using sled dogs in Antarctica. Not to worry however, sled dogs are used in areas they are and were native to still to this day.

3. Bringing mail and law and order into the most inaccessible parts of the world


Sled dogs in morning fog
“Going anywhere in any weather”

The use of sled dogs has enabled human life and the building of societies in the northernmost places in the world. Before the time of the snowmobile or helicopters, sled dogs were particularly important in accessing the inaccessible. They were less expensive than horses, significantly easier to care for, but most importantly, they were a lot more equipped to pull large loads in freezing temperatures and deep snow where there were no trails or roads available.

The sled dogs have not only been used by indigenous people, but were used all the way to the 20th century by governmental authorities for mail delivery and police and border patrols, where horses simply could not be used. Think about it, getting your bills and postcards delivered by arguably the cutest postmen possible, the happy and furry kind (with boundless energy)! To this day there are areas in Alaska, Canada and Greenland, where sled dogs still help people manage their everyday lives and enable the habitation of those remote corners of the arctic world.


4. The Era of the Sled Dog


The Gold Rush in Alaska in 1800s and 1900s renewed interest in the use of sled dogs for help with transportation of goods, as most gold camps were utterly inaccessible during winter time. If anything was to move anywhere in the Alaskan wilderness, it would move on sleds pulled by sled dogs. That would be everything from doctors, medicine, tools, news and mail, books and fancy fabric for the sheriff’s wife’s new dress – you name it! The era of the North American Gold Rush which largely coincided with the era of Polar Exploration led to the renaissance of interest in sled dogs, and this era was nicknamed, you guessed it, as the Era of the Sled Dog.

5. The Sami people believed dogs to be the only animals with souls


Sled dog covered in snow
Lance facing the elements

The first people arrived in Finland around 11 000 years ago, and they brought the domesticated dog with them. At this time the area was still partly covered by a huge ice sheet, the remnant of the last ice age that was still blowing its freezing winds across the inhospitable land. Summers were short and winters long, harsh and snowy. The dogs were used not only as hunting partners to hunt bears, beavers and seals, but also to pull sleds to move haul back to the camp from the hunting grounds.

The indigenous people of Finland, the Sami, believed that the only creatures on earth who had a soul were humans and dogs. The Sami respected and valued their button-eyed companions deeply, as they felt the dogs were the thread that connected humans with the surrounding nature. The dogs’ unmatched ability to sense phenomena that humans could not, let the Sami to believe dogs can also sense the presence of the supernatural: The gnomes, the elves and other spirits of the world. The dog has a stellar role in Sami folklore as the unwavering and loyal friend, who always manages to save the day. A tell-tale of the respect the Sami had towards their companion, are archaeological findings of dog burials.  The loyal friends have been buried with the utmost care, and deep enough into the frozen ground to ensure wild animals would not get to the remains of the valued family member.

6. The hero sled dogs of Nome, Alaska – Togo and Balto


Togo the hero dog
Togo in 1925 (Photo: George Rinhart/Getty Images)

You may have heard of this story before, but it is such a great story it deserves an honorary mention. In 1925 the town of Noma in Alaska was in peril: The town was facing an uncontrollable epidemic of diphtheria. There was no medication left in the hospital storage and the population of 10 000 people were under serious threat of being wiped out by the disease. The town was inaccessible from every direction as sea was frozen shut, aircrafts were not developed enough to fly in those conditions, and roads were snowed in. And time was running out. Government officials decided to try the impossible in desperation – A team of 150 sled dogs ran the distance of 1085 km from Nenana to Nome, using a mail delivery route, in 5,5 days to deliver the antidote to the townspeople of Noma. The route normally took 30 days to travel, but the serum was estimated to last only 6 days in the cold conditions of the trail. There was no time to waste.

Two hero lead dogs, Togo and Balto, led the expedition into Noma through the brutal landscape in record time. They were experienced lead dogs, intuitive and confident in erratic conditions. The serum was delivered in time and the town was saved. A bronze statue of Balto (who lead the last 55 km into Noma, and picked up all the credit) stands to this day in New York’s central park as an homage to the animal we as humans have depended on throughout our history, and to whom we owe a debt incalculable.