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Dogsledding Today

Racing

It is a quite remarkable sight to watch teams of huskies race without any form of encouragement, other than the voice of the musher. Their energy and determination to run and run at high speed for many hours is a testament to their breed, welfare and fitness. Race Officials are very strict about ensuring animal welfare. There are random tests to check that performance enhancing drugs are not used. The Race Officials also monitor other aspects of how the dogs are treated and looked after. As in many sports, sleddog racing pioneers new technology, training techniques and dietary considerations that in time filter down to how we feed and look after our domestic dogs.

Most races are governed by one of three international organizations. In Europe ESDRA (European Sled Dog Racing Association) is the governing body of the sport.

Campfire was appointed by ESDRA to organise the Millennium European Championships. Campfire Adventures worked closely with the municipality of Nurmes in eastern Finland to manage the whole event; finding sponsors, organising TV crews, providing the trails and race infrastructure, designing VIP programs, supporting the work of the Race Marshal and Race Vet, and making sure the racers and huskies had what they needed.

Tourism

The majority of tourists who experience a dog-sled ride do so for only 30 minutes and half of that time is spent as a passenger. These are the taster rides organised to cater for visitors to the ski and Santa resorts. By their nature, these trips are very impersonal and the musher and passenger are little more than a load to be pulled around a 10 km trail.

Campfire coined the term Husky Safari in 1995 by being one of the first companies to design week-long, touring dogsledding holidays in Finland based on the format of the horse riding safaris we were organising in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Our husky safaris enable guests to properly get to know the joy of driving a team of huskies. After a couple of days with your team the bond between musher and husky really starts to kick-in. It is a very different experience as the musher feels a part of the husky team and knows how to work with the team. The huskies really pick on this.

History of Dogsledding

Chukchi of Siberia

Recent DNA analysis has shown the Siberian Husky to be one of the oldest breeds of dog. It was trained and used as a sled dog as long as 2,000 to 3,000 years ago by the Chukchi in the far north-east of Russia, Siberia. There is faint evidence of dog sleds being used by other ancient people living in the snowy north, but the use of sled dogs by the Chukchi in Siberia is the best documented.

Many religious ceremonies and iconography built up around the huskies. The Chukchi believed that huskies guard the gates of heaven, turning away anyone who has been cruel to a dog.

Siberian Huskies when not pulling sleds were companions for the children and families. They often slept inside. Temperatures at night were referred to in terms of the number of dogs necessary to keep a body warm; a two dog-night, a three dog-night. This close interaction with the families, no doubt, accounts for much of the gentleness in the Siberian Husky personality today.

Evolution of the Siberian Husky

Although the Chukchi's permanent home was inland, their hunters roamed the tundra and the coast of the Arctic Ocean. Seal was one of their main sources of food. The hunters' load was not so heavy as to require large dogs capable of pulling great weight. Instead, they needed a dog that could withstand extended exposure to low temperatures, pull a light load quickly over long distances, and spend a minimum amount of energy in the process. The less energy the dog used on its work, the more it had left to protect it from the weather. Quick, small working dogs that were intelligent enough and social enough to work in teams proved to be most suited to the work and terrain. They had to be hard, eager workers that had enough common sense and dedication to their task to keep from constantly tangling themselves in the lines of the sled.

The Chukchi dog's most important trait was its instinct and desire to run, seemingly endlessly. Because of its moderate size, it was able to run far and fast. A large number of smaller dogs pulling the sled was preferred over a few larger dogs. The Chukchi were able to breed a dog that combined all these traits. Today's Siberian Husky characteristics can be traced back to those dogs.

Decline of the Chukchi

In the 1700s, Russian Cossacks began a march across Siberia to conquer the land and gain control of its resources, primarily fur. Most of the people living in the northern area were rather primitive tribal groups unable to compete with the advanced weaponry of the invading Russian army.

The Chukchi people known as the Apaches of the North were not able to resist in a face-to-face confrontation, but their sled dogs always kept them one step ahead of the advancing military forces. They could not fight, but they could outrun the Russians very effectively. The Chukchi were accustomed to the Siberian weather; the Russian soldiers were not, and the Russians suffered great losses.

In the early 1900s the Tsar was overthrown and replaced by the Communists who set out to get rid of elite aspects of Russian life. By the 1930s, the Communist forces reached the Arctic North. Because Chukchi dogs were revered highly and desired by the Chukchi people, those in the tribe that bred and maintained the finest dogs had assumed a leadership position. Such people were viewed as hindrances to the forces of collectivisation, and most were imprisoned or killed. In a matter of a few years, nearly all the Chukchi Siberian Huskies disappeared from Siberia. The sea just north of where Siberia meets Alaska is still called the Chukchi Sea, keeping their name alive. Before the decline of the Chukchi, the reputation of their little sleddogs had already spread throughout the world.

Siberian Huskies in Alaska

In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, when the Chukchi were still thriving, polar exploration was capturing the world's attention and adventurers came to the yearly Markovo Fair, held on the Anadyr River on the Siberian peninsula. This gathering included the Chukchi and other dog-breeding tribes, such as the Koryak - all of whom probably had some part in creating the pool of animals that eventually became the Siberian Husky.

In addition to the need of the Polar Explorers for sleddogs to support their expeditions, local sleddog races in Alaska were evolving into large events with numerous entries. A lawyer named Albert Fink undertook the task of regulating the dogsled events and helped to formalize the sport. In the mining towns there was a lot of gambling on the outcome of the races.

William Goosak, a Russian fur trader, acquired a team of Siberian Huskies at the Markovo Fair and took them across the Bering Strait to race in the 1909 All Alaska Sweepstakes, a 408 mile race which had just been established as the main sleddog race.

William Goosak's Siberians were about half the weight of the local sled dogs and much smaller in stature. The local dogs had been bred to haul heavy freight and the Siberians were given little chance by the gamblers and spectators. They were laughed at and given 100-to-1 odds against them winning.

The team finished third against the experienced dogs and drivers and the Siberian's speed and enthusiasm attracted a lot of attention and respect.

Siberian Huskies Dominate

Charles Fox Maule Ramsay, the fifth son of the 13th Earl of Dalhousie, had come to Alaska from Scotland to supervise the family investments in the gold fields. Ramsay was a competitor in the 1909 race and having seen Goosak's small Chukchi dogs he chartered a ship and went to the Markovo Fair, selecting 70 of the best dogs there.

He split these into three teams for the 1910 race. One team driven by John 'Iron Man' Johnson, a Swedish Finn (aka Finn-Jann), came in first. Fox Ramsay came in second and his third team of Siberians, driven by Charles Johnson, came 4th.

Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who was the first man to reach the South Pole, began planning an expedition to the North Pole for 1914. His friend, Jafet Lindberg, also a Norwegian, and co-owner of the largest mining company in Nome, offered to buy and train the dogs for Amundsen. Lindeberg bought what was left of the Siberian imports and their offspring. This group of sled dogs was turned over to Leonhard Seppala, an employee of Lindberg's, to be trained for the upcoming expedition.

In 1914 Amundsen gave up his North Pole trek due to the start of World War I. Seppala, with the encouragement of the Pioneer Mining Company, continued to train the Siberians, entering them in the last four All-Alaskan Sweepstakes races; in 1914, 1915, 1916, and 1917.

In the 1914 Sweepstakes he failed to finish the race after getting caught in a blizzard and nearly going over a two-hundred-foot precipice along the Bering Sea coastline.

He won in the 1915 Sweepstakes by over an hour and repeated this victory in 1916 and 1917. Seppala, 'the little man with his little dogs', as he became known, became a legend in Alaska, using the Siberians to haul freight and supplies, and setting many new race records.

Diphtheria in Nome

On January 21, 1925, several Inuit children in Nome were diagnosed with diphtheria, a disease that was still common, widespread, and greatly feared. Without anti-toxin to combat it, the highly contagious disease would quickly spread to all of the children in Nome.

After telegraphs asking for help were sent to Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seward, and Juneau, the only serum in Alaska was found to be at a hospital in Anchorage, nearly 1,000 miles away. A train would be able to transport the medicine part of the distance to the town of Nenana, but after that, transportation methods were almost non-existent.

Pack-ice prevented delivery to Nome by ship, while frequent blizzard conditions prevented transport by air. In fact the two aircraft that might have been able to deliver the medicine had been dismantled and stored away for the winter. A way needed to be found, and quickly, to traverse the remaining 674 miles between Nenana and Nome. It was decided that the fastest and most reliable way to transport the anti-toxin was by using a relay of dog sled teams. It was estimated that the trip could take up to 13 days to complete.

In Anchorage, the serum was packed in a cylinder, wrapped in an insulating quilt, and then tied up in canvas for further protection. The package left Anchorage by train on Monday, January 26 and arrived the next night in Nenana, where it was turned over to the first musher and his dog team.

Seppala left Nome eastbound with 20 Siberians to meet the serum in Nulato, over 300 miles away on the Yukon River. Due to increased urgency for the medicine, the dog team relay continued west beyond Nulato and Seppala met a team carrying the serum package on the eastern shore of Norton Sound. In spite of already having run all day, and in the midst of a blizzard, Seppala turned his tired team around and, with his great leader Togo, made the perilous run back across the Sound to Golovin.

More than 20 mushers and their dog sled teams eventually took part in a Pony Express-type relay, battling against very low temperatures and winds that were sometimes strong enough to knock over both the dogs and the sleds. On February 1, 1925, the package was handed off for the last time to a musher named Gunnar Kassen in the village of Bluff.

Kassen's sled dog team, led by Balto, set off to cover the final leg to Nome. A blinding blizzard began, dropping temperatures even further and generating wind gusts in excess of 50 mph. Kassen found himself unable to navigate and almost gave up all hope of making it to Nome in time. But his lead dog Balto knew the trail well, and following his instincts, led the team through the cold and the snow. Balto was a Siberian husky born in 1923 in Nome, Alaska. He spent the early part of his life as part of a dog team that transported supplies to miners in the surrounding area.

Over the next 20 hours, Balto slowly led his sled dog team over the final 53 miles. On February 2 at 5.30 AM, the team finally arrived in Nome. The dogs were too tired to even bark, but the serum had successfully been delivered, only seven days after leaving Anchorage.

Fame

The press had been following the story for days. Balto and the team instantly became famous. Balto appeared on the front cover of newspapers all over the world and shortly afterward appeared in a short Hollywood movie 'Balto and the Race to Nome'. Kassen took Balto and the team on a nationwide tour, which concluded with the unveiling of a life size statue of Balto in New York City's Central Park on December 17, 1925. Sculpted by F.G. Roth, the bronze sculpture is New York's only statue commemorating a dog.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Anchorage to Nome held every year since 1973 commemorates this famous delivery. After the Serum Run to Nome, Seppala was also a national hero and he marched in parades and posed for glamorous photographs in his equally glamorous furs. The publicity provoked a challenge from Arthur Walden the polar explorer and adventurer. He challenged Seppala to come to New England to race against his locally famous Chinook dogs, a strain of large, Mastiff-types he had developed from a single dog. This dog, named Chinook, gained fame on Admiral Richard E. Byrd's first Antarctic expedition. Walden became Byrd's chief dog handler on that voyage, was the president of the New England Sled Dog Club, and was generally considered unbeatable. Seppala accepted the challenge.

The two teams were boarded at opposite ends of the same barn the night before the race. According to a witness, 'at one end were Walden's great big Chinooks, while at the other were these sweet, little, kind of foxy Siberian dogs who stood up on their hind legs to greet you'.

As the two teams lined up the contrast was striking. The Chinooks weighed-in at 90 to 100 pounds, the Siberians at around half that weight. The Siberians easily won the race, beating Walden's team by more than seven minutes over the 25 mile course. Two weeks later, Seppala won the more prestigious New England Point To Point, 3 day race near Laconia. Seppala went on to establish a breeding kennel and the Siberian Husky formally became a recognised breed.

The Breed Characteristics

Siberian Huskies exhibit a wide range of their wolf ancestors' behaviour. They howl rather than bark. Siberian Huskies are highly intelligent, which allows them to excel in obedience trials. They tend to be very observant on the actions of people around them and have been known to mimic common household activities such as turning on lights with their paws and opening doors.

Siberian Huskies are still used as sled dogs and are popular in races restricted to purebreds. They are faster than other pure sled dog breeds such as the Samoyed and the slower but much stronger Alaskan Malamute. Today the breed tends to divide along lines of racing Siberians and show Siberians.

The Siberian Husky's coat is thicker than that of most breeds of dogs, with two layers: a dense undercoat and a longer topcoat of short, straight guard hairs. It protects the dogs effectively against harsh Arctic winters. It is able to withstand temperatures as low as -50C to -60C.

The name 'husky' is a corruption of the nickname 'Esky', once applied to the Eskimos and subsequently to their dogs. The term Mush is a corruption of the French Marche, to walk.

Alaskan husky

The Alaskan husky is not a breed of dog rather it is a type or a category. It falls short of being a breed in that there is no preferred type and no restriction as to ancestry; it is defined only by its purpose, which is that of a highly efficient sled dog. Specialisations in type exist within the breed, such as freighting dogs, sprint Alaskans and distance Alaskans. Most Alaskan Huskies have pointy ears and a tail that curls over their backs, meaning they are in fact classified as a spitz-type dog.

The Alaskan is the sled dog of choice for world-class dog sled racing sprint competition. None of the purebred northern breeds can now match it for sheer speed. Demanding speed-racing events such as the Fairbanks, Alaska Open North American Championship and the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous are invariably won by teams of Alaskan huskies, or of Alaskans crossed with hounds or gun dogs. Hounds are valued for their toughness and endurance. Winning speeds often average more than 31 km/h over three days' racing of 32 to 48 km each day.

Alaskan huskies that fulfil the demanding performance standards of world-class dogsled racing are extremely valuable. A top-level racing lead dog can be worth $10,000 to $15,000.

Alaskan Huskies that are used for speed racing are moderate in size, averaging perhaps 21 to 25 kg for males and 17 to 19 kg for females. Some of them superficially resemble racing strains of the Siberian husky breed (which is part of the Alaskan husky genetic mix).

Colour and markings are a matter of total indifference to most racing drivers; Alaskans may be of any possible canine colour and any pattern of markings. Eyes may be of any colour and are sometimes light blue. Coats are almost always short to medium in length, never long, and usually less dense than those of northern purebreds like Siberians; the shorter coat length is governed by the need for effective heat dissipation while racing.

Alaskan Huskies tend to vary greatly in personality as much as in colour and appearance. However, generally speaking, the Alaskan Husky is a very affectionate dog, bred to cuddle with other dogs as much as with people. The Alaskan puppy will often walk right up to a strange dog and attempt to instigate a cuddle session. They are incredibly athletic and keeping up with the Alaskan Husky energy level is a full-time job.

The phenotype for Northern Breeds describes what works in the Arctic:

  • Thick, waterproof, double coat
  • Bushy tail he can curl around his nose to warm his breath while sleeping
  • Long nose to warm the air before it reaches his lungs
  • Moderate stop to create nasal passages which further warm the air before it is drawn into the lungs
  • A seasonal oil deposit under his eyebrows which moves when he shakes his head and helps to shake off accumulated snow
  • Thickly furred, prick ears to prevent frostbite
  • Long legs to get through accumulated snow
  • Stubbornness and an independent streak a mile wide
  • Ability to think for himself in order to survive in a hostile environment
  • Pack mentality that helps hunting and pulling (i.e. community survival)
  • Friendliness to strangers (lack of guarding instinct) in a nomadic community where people come and go frequently
  • Howls, to communicate across large distances with the rest of the pack/family
  • Almond shaped, obliquely shaped eyes to keep them from freezing in the cold wind