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Snowmobiles & Sled Dogs

by Murray Lundberg



    In the days before a road system existed in Alaska or the Yukon Territory, the rivers and lakes provided access to most areas in the summer, and again once they froze. But in the winter, deep snow provided a new challenge for travelers. For both Natives and newcomers, dog sleds were generally the transportation method of choice during the long winters.

    In the 1890s, it was widely thought that any problem could be solved with the proper application of "science," and traveling in the snow was an early target for inventors. In Alaska, the first experiments with machines able to travel on snow and ice occurred during that period, with varying degrees of success. These machines ranged from sleds with large sawblades that cut into the ice, to propeller-driven sleds, steam tractor-trains and even a bizarre device that pulled itself along with a huge screw that gripped the ground.

    In Alaska, and to a lesser degree in the Yukon, the arrival of airplanes in the 1920s was the beginning of the end for commercial dog teams. Contracts to deliver the mail by dog sled provided a stable revenue base for many freight haulers, and when the mail contracts were given to bush pilots who could offer faster and cheaper service, most of the dog mushers were driven out of business.

    The use of large tracked vehicles for freight hauling had become fairly common in Alaska and the Yukon by the mid-1930s, but not until the late 1950s did rapid advances in technology result in the small, light machines that we now know as snowmobiles.

    Starting in the early 1960s, a cultural revolution took place in the Far North as the dog sled teams which had been the main method of transportation far back into the mists of time were replaced by the new machines. In hundreds of villages in Alaska and the Yukon, the singing of thousands of out-of-work huskies was drowned out by the noise of screaming gasoline engines.

    In recent years, fond memories from the past, a desire to get back to basics, or a love of Northern dogs, has prompted a rapidly-growing number of people to return to the use of sled dog teams for recreation or for racing. Dog mushing was adopted as the State Sport in 1972, when, after it had appeared that the sport may be headed for extinction, a major resurgence was underway.

    With that resurgence of interest in mushing, the community of Tok, which has the longest sledding season of any road-accessible community in Alaska, has become the "Sled Dog Capital of Alaska."

    As a sport, sled dog racing has probably occurred for as long as men and dogs have been working together; fast and/or powerful teams have always been a source of great pride in Northern communities.

    The first "official" race was the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, held in 1908. It covered a 408-mile route from Nome to Candle and back, and is credited with being, not only the first race run to modern standards, but also the reason for the importation of the first Siberian Huskies to North America. In 1910, John "Iron Man" Johnson and his team made the trip in the astounding time of slightly over 74 hours.

    There are now hundreds of races held each year in Alaska and the Yukon. These range from short sprint runs to the world-famous Iditarod and Yukon Quest marathons. The Iditarod, which began in 1973, covers an 1,150-mile route between Anchorage and Nome, and the Yukon Quest, promoted as "The Toughest Sled Dog Race in the World" has been run between Fairbanks and Whitehorse since 1984. It takes the efforts of thousands of volunteers to put these races on, and around the world, hundreds of millions of people watch the Iditarod and Yukon Quest on television.

    The thrill of riding behind a powerful team of huskies can be experienced in Tok and at dozens of other kennels throughout the North, winter and summer; just have a look at this list of Sled Dog Tour Operators.



This Harley-Davidson was converted for snow travel and ridden from Whitehorse to Mayo in March 1925
Yukon Archives: William S. Hare collection #6731

This article and photo are from The Alaska Highway by Murray Lundberg, and are reprinted here with permission.