History of Sled Dog Racing
Dog & Driver
The heritage of the sled dog is a
long and proud one, stretching back thousands of years. The
people of the North were dependent on these animals for
protection, companionship, hunting, trapping, and, most of all
transportation. Sled dogs enabled explorers such as Byrd, Peary,
and Amundsen to explore the frozen wastelands of two continents
and played a vital role in bringing civilization to the
snowbound areas of the world.
As early as 1873, the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police were bringing government to northern
frontiers with dog-team patrols. Throughout Alaska and Canada,
mail teams delivered the news to outlying settlements.
One of the proudest chapters in
sled dog history was written in 1925. In January of that year, a
case of diphtheria was discovered in Nome, Alaska, and the
supply of antitoxin in that city was inadequate to stave off an
epidemic. A relay of 22 native and mail teams forged through the
rough interior of Alaska and across the Bering Sea ice to bring
the serum to a grateful citizenry.
In New York City's Central Park
stands a statue of Balto, who led one of the relay teams,
commemorating the Nome Serum Run. The inscription reads:
Dedicated to the indomitable Spirit of
the sled dogs that relayed the
antitoxin 600 miles over rough ice, treacherous waters; through
Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in
the winter of1925. Endurance. Fidelity. Intelligence.
Today, few of the inhabitants of
the Far North are dependent on dogs for basic survival. However,
the same intimate relationship between driver and dog still
exists and is demonstrated in the sport of sled dog racing.
The First Race
The first sled dog race probably
occurred when two trappers challenged each other's team and
dashed theft dogs over the ice fields of the frozen north. The
records of formal racing date back to 1908 with the first
running of the All Alaska Sweepstakes, a distance of 408 miles
from Nome to Candle and back.
The winning driver that year was
John Hegness, with a time of 119 hours, 15 minutes, and 12
seconds. By 1910, entries had increased considerably, as had the
speed of the teams. The winner of that race was John (Iron Man)
Johnson, with an (as yet) unbroken record time of 74 hours, 14
minutes, and 37 seconds.
Enthusiasm for sled dog racing
spread rapidly throughout Canada and the United States. As early
as 1909, exhibition teams were performing in the north east and
a short time later, in 1917, the first
race ever held in the "Lower
48" was staged in Ashton, Idaho. The sport was briefly
interrupted during the two World Wars, as dogs and drivers were
pressed into the service of their countries. In spite of this,
the sport was destined to emerge again and flourish. Today, the International
Sled Dog Racing Association lists members from
Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands,
New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland and the United