Dogs have been helping man to survive in the challenging Alaska climate forever. Everyone has seen photos of Eskimos being pulled by dog sleds, but the native people also used dogs for chores like hauling a harpooned whale out of the water and up the beach. As Europeans came to Alaska for fur and gold they learned that they could not survive without the help of dogs. They formed dog teams and followed the Iditarod Trail that had been laid out by the local natives. Sled dogs were used to deliver the mail to isolated communities. The stereotypical dog sled dog looks like a Siberian Malamute and they were imported for the task, but originally any dog would do.
One of the most famous events in Alaska mushing occurred in 1925 during a diphtheria outbreak in Nome. Native children were especially vulnerable to white man's diseases and the nearest vaccine was in Anchorage. It could only be sent as far as Nenana by train. Since both available planes were under repair, a group of dog teams relayed the canister of serum the remaining 674 miles in five days preventing an epidemic in the middle of deepest winter.
In the 1970's a movement began to preserve and honor the Iditarod Trail and the race from Anchorage to Nome that we know today began. A museum in Wasilla honors the dog athletes and the men and women who compete with them. We watched an extremely defensive film about it all. We expected the film to celebrate the joys of racing and the love the mushers have for their dogs, but it clearly responded to the criticisms of animal rights groups.
The race has changed a lot since the early '70's. These days the food the dogs eat (10,000 calories/day) is deposited at 26 check points along the route and the dogs have little to pull but the sled and musher, who often jogs along side or pushes the sled with his leg. At each stop the dogs are checked by veterinarians and removed if they are ailing in some way or have lost the desire to race. Teams generally start with 16 dogs and have finished the race with as few as five. If the dogs run for five hours, they rest for five hours. They can easily cover 100 miles in 24 hours with alternating periods of running and resting. The 1,000 mile race is obviously tiring for them, but it sounded like they get more rest than the mushers. The dogs wear booties to protect their feet and coats when they weather requires, especially when they are resting.
The movie we saw insisted that the dogs love to race. They are not tied into their harnesses and can back out of them when they want. We watched tourists take a short ride with the dogs and their enthusiasm was obvious. They could barely contain their excitement and took off like a shot. The only dogs that looked unhappy were those left behind in their dog house. Since speed is of the essence in today's racing world, Siberian Malamutes are seldom used and the dogs are a mixed breed and selected for the qualities that will make them fast. They look slim like marathon runners and average about 50 pounds. Mushers can tell whether a puppy has the desire to pull and run and only train those who show this inclination. A good lead dog sells for $10,000 so this sport requires some major investment. Although the Iditarod is the most famous, there are many shorter dog team races held in Alaska and Canada. Typically fifty teams compete and some mushers and teams are from other countries. One year a Swiss man won.
To round out our animal experiences here we also went to a reindeer farm. Reindeer are farmed caribou and lived here with an elk herd and a moose that was hand raised from infancy. All the reindeer grow antlers and this time of year they are covered with fur and blood vessels and very sensitive to the touch. As the fur falls off, the antlers harden and the males use them to fight with each other and establish who will father all the offspring. The pregnant females have antlers to protect their babies. When these tasks are accomplished, all the antlers fall off. Every year the new rack is just a bit bigger than the one before it. We lifted a disposed rack and were amazed how heavy it was.