Story Time with Aunt Phil: Sled Dogs
Wintertime in Alaska is synonymous with dog mushing. Historically many different races test the strength, stamina and ability of mushers and their teams from December through February.
But long before men and dogs teamed up to race across Alaska, dogs proved themselves in this rugged country. Sled dogs have a long and illustrious history from the early days of Native settlements to the gold-rush booms during the 1890-1900s.
When the Russians arrived on Alaska’s shores in the mid-1700s they found dogs in the villages. Natives of Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland and Siberia used dogs as winter draft animals for centuries. Russians found Alaska Natives using dogs to haul sleds loaded with fish, game, wood and other items.
The Natives ran ahead of the dogs as they guided them on the yearly trips between villages and fish and hunting camps. Russians improved the dog sled system by adding handlebars to sleds and harnessing dog teams in single file or in pairs. They also trained the dogs to follow commands given by sled drivers and introduced the “lead dog” or leader. Russian exploration via dog teams was limited to Alaska’s coasts, as well as along some rivers, and followed existing Native trails between villages. Both Natives and Russians found frozen rivers also made useful winter trails.
Extensive use of dogs for long-distance transportation developed as gold discoveries were made in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Stampeders quickly learned that dog teams were worth their weight in gold. Thousands of dogs were imported from the Lower 48 to help prospectors and adventurers reach the gold fields. By the turn of the century, dog teams were helping cheechakos blaze new trails to establish law and order, develop mail routes and transport gold-crazed prospectors to new strikes.
When winter came, some miners hooked up their dogs and pulled Yukon sleds loaded with needed supplies to make camp at promising locations. They then spent the winter thawing ground and digging gravel. At spring breakup, the prospectors sluiced the hoped-for gold from pay dirt. At season’s end they built rafts or poling boats and floated with their dogs back downstream to the trading posts or towns. This is the way the land was prospected.
The men and dogs blazed trails throughout the Turnagain Arm Mining District as well as from Valdez to Fairbanks, from Seward to the various prospects in Southcentral Alaska and in Alaska’s Interior and Seward Peninsula.
By 1905, dog teams were carrying mail over 180 miles of trail between Seward and Susitna Station, a steamboat stop on the lower Susitna River that served as a supply point for dozens of mines in the foothills of the Alaska Range. The system of trails extended as goldfields were discovered to the north in the Talkeetna Mountains and the Yentna River drainage.
And when gold was discovered along the Innoko River around 1906-1907, another trail was forged that would become one of the most famous sled dog trails in history – the Iditarod Trail.
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