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How Mushers Work

While they have been replaced by snowmobiles and aircraft for many uses, dogsleds are still useful for navigating rugged, snowy terrain. Above, an Inuit hunter drives his sled on a hunt. See more pictures of dogs.
David McLain/Getty Images

Whether for exploring, for mail deliveries or just for recreation, people have been ­hooking up dogs to pull their sleds across snow and ice for thousands of years. Known as mushing, the practice of driving dogs in arctic conditions can be traced back to well before 1000 B.C.

"Mushing" refers to driving over snow with a dog sled. One or more dogs pull the sled, with the "musher," the person standing on the sled, on board. The word "mush" comes from the French "marchons" or "marche" meaning, "let's go" or "go."

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­First used for transportation and to carry goods, dogsleds were later used by explor­ers on Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, by police to patrol gold mines in the late 1800s, by competitors in races starting in the early 1900s, by the military during both world wars and by tourists on adventure outings.

Eventually, snowmobiles and airplanes began to replace sled dogs. But in 1925 they were needed to transport diphtheria serum from Nenana, Alaska to Nome, Alaska, to stop an epidemic -- something that modern machines couldn't accomplish in the treacherous conditions.

There are still some practical reasons for choosing sled dogs over other forms of transportation (such as snowmobiles and airplanes); dogs have good instincts, can be more reliable and less prone to failing in bad weather, and can cross negotiate rough environs more easily.

So what makes a person choose to drive dogsleds across dangerous frozen terrain? Is it nostalgia, or the unbreakable bond between driver and dogs that comes from being together for hours on end? Or is it perhaps the determination to conquer an awe-inspiring feat, to race hundreds or thousands of miles in horrendous conditions?

Read on to find out more about mushers and their dedication for this dangerous sport.

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Sled dogs take a break from the Yukon Quest 1000 Mile International Sled Dog Race
Sled dogs take a break from the Yukon Quest 1000 Mile International Sled Dog Race
Pete Ryan/Getty Images

There's no one reason that people decide to get into mushing, but many say that once you try it, you're hooked -- that there's nothing like being surrounded by wilderness with only the sound of the dogs and sled flowing over snow and ice.

Most of today's mushers engage in competitive racing. Dogsledding may have started for utilitarian reasons, but eventually mushers challenged each other to see whose dogs were the best. The competitive sparks first flew in an organized race in Alaska in 1908, when sled dog owners in Nome, Alaska, held the first All-Alaska Sweepstakes, a 408-mile (657-kilometer) race from Nome to Candle and back. The first race in the continental United States, the American Dog Derby, was a 55-mile (89-kilometer) competition in 1917 in Ashton, Idaho. Years later, in 1973, the "Last Great Race on Earth," the 1,000-mile-plus (1,609 km) Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, swept through Alaska. Commemorating the 1925 diphtheria serum run from Nenana to Nome, the Iditarod has become the most famous of all sled dog races.

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Estimates on the numbers of mushers who now compete in sled dog races are in the tens of thousands (around 40,000 in 2003), with competitors hailing from dozens of countries [source: Sullivan, Jordan].

While the Iditarod's fame overshadows other races, there are many more. For example, there's the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest race, which begins in Fairbanks, Alaska, and ends in Whitehorse, the capitol of Canada's Yukon Territory. There are other notable races in Alaska, though they are much shorter (as noted by the mileage in the race titles), including the Copper Basin 300, the Tustumena 200, the Kobuk 440 and the Kuskokwim 300. In the continental U.S., mushers compete in Montana's Race to the Sky, Minnesota's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon and the Laconia World Champion Sled Dog Derby in New Hampshire, among others.

Some races take place on dry land, and in addition to endurance races, sled dog events include sprint races, weight pulls (in which dogs try to pull the most weight) and freight races (in which dogs try to pull a weighted sled the fastest).

While mushing is a popular pastime in Alaska, it's not the only place with sled dog enthusiasts. In the U.S., people compete in sled dog races in Montana, New Hampshire, Michigan, Minnesota and other states. And in countries around the world, there are dog drivers, with Norway, Sweden, France and Germany topping the list of European countries where sled dog racing is popular [source: Sullivan, Jordan].

Mushers in Alaska's Iditarod race hail from other countries (including France, Canada, Germany and Norway) and from some of the lower 48 states (including Oregon, Colorado, Montana and Minnesota), but a good portion are native Alaskans. They are primarily Caucasian. They cover all age groups but more than a third of the mushers competing in the 2008 Iditarod are under 30 years old [source: Sullivan, Jordan]. There tend to be more men competing than women, but mushing is known as a gender-neutral sport (25 females, out of 110 entrants, have signed up to compete in the 2008 race). In the past, female mushers have won the race, as have mushers from outside Alaska.

What makes a good musher may have less to do with physical abilities than with mental toughness. Winning mushers possess a competitive spirit, a desire to be in the wilderness and a strong connection with the team of dogs, though they also are in good physical shape and have stamina. Unlike in other sports, where physical build is important, people of any weight and size can be dog drivers. Women with lower body weights than men, and therefore less weight for the dogs to pull, have captured Iditarod race wins, but heavier mushers may be stronger and at an advantage for handling dogs. A good musher has strong survival skills and is resourceful, handy and diligent. He or she might need to fix a busted sled brake, fend off an angry moose or wait out a violent storm.

Generally, certification or permits for mushing are not required -- anyone can trot out his or her dogs for an adventure -- but there might be other legal hurdles to clear: For instance, mushers need to obtain overnight permits for stays in Alaska's Denali National Park.

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Mushers have to be ready to take on all kinds of frozen terrain, such as the frozen Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories.
Mushers have to be ready to take on all kinds of frozen terrain, such as the frozen Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories.
Gordon Wiltsie/Getty Images

There's a lot to know before heading out on the trail, a lot of expenses and a lot of time and sweat. A musher preparing a team of sled dogs for a distance race carefully plans out a training regimen. Building up endurance takes place over many months, with training runs and competing in shorter races. A team preparing for the Iditarod usually covers 2,000 to 3,000 miles (3,219 to 4,828 km) before the race. Since dogs can only pull a sled over snow and ice, mushers training on dry land use an all-terrain vehicle in place of a sled.

Mushers work to get themselves in good physical condition before a race, too. They may need to run behind the sled at certain points in the race, and the frigid conditions on the trail can take a toll on their bodies, so being physically fit is an advantage. Biking, jogging and other forms of exercise are among the ways mushers stay in shape.

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Among other things, a musher getting ready for a race needs to know how to handle and care for the dogs, how to hook up the ropes (lines) and harnesses, how to balance on the sled and how to command the dogs. Wilderness skills -- dealing with wildlife, camping out, judging weather conditions -- are vital. Since many mushers live in Alaska or cold regions, they're fairly used to the snow and cold.

Rookies in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race are required to attend a two-day seminar on dog care, food-drop preparations, training plans and logistics strategies. Still, their inexperience can be troublesome when trying to stave off frostbite, care properly for dogs, and decide when to rest and when to mush.

Each year, some mushers withdraw before the race even begins for various reasons, from injuries to financial difficulties, and several more scratch from the race once it's underway.

As with any sport, there is a lingo among mushers. In addition to knowing a handful of common commands to direct the dogs, mushers use terms like dropped dog (dog who's been removed from the race and left at a checkpoint by the musher), dog in basket (one who's riding in the sled because of injury or fatigue), stove up (a musher or dog who's injured) and trail (to request the right of way on the trail) among themselves.

While some competitive mushers have veterinary backgrounds, most have learned how to care for their dogs without formal training. For those who grew up in a family of mushers, they've been around dogs enough to know how to care for them. Others learn from more experienced mushers, from veterinarians, and from resources such as guidelines by the organizations Mush With PRIDE (Providing Responsible Information on a Dog's Environment) and the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association. Mushers who aren't trained veterinarians rely on professionals for medical care of dogs, but they also know how to resolve some issues themselves, such as applying salve to a dog's hurt feet. Mushers also regularly massage their dogs. Before and during the Iditarod race, veterinarians examine all the dogs and provide care as needed.

The relationship between dogs and mushers is a tight one. The amount of time they spend together at home, in training and during races fosters a bond that leads many mushers to consider their dogs part of the family.

In the next section, we’ll look at what it’s like for mushers during a race.

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Mushers have close relationships with their dogs, and often put their needs before their own.
Mushers have close relationships with their dogs, and often put their needs before their own.
Paul Souders/Getty Images

When mushers compete in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, it is primarily a feat of one musher and a team of dogs. They rely on their training and skills, and, to a much lesser extent, the race officials and the sportsmanship of other mushers, to reach the finish line. In the Iditarod, they may only accept outside assistance for certain instances, such as recovering a loose dog or an entire team of dogs.

The Iditarod rule on sportsmanship states, "Any musher must use civil conduct and act in a sportsmanlike manner throughout the race. Abusive treatment of anyone is prohibited." And the good Samaritan rule states, "A musher will not be penalized for aiding another musher in an emergency. Incidents must be explained to race officials at the next checkpoint."

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While there is competitiveness among mushers, there's also a camaraderie and bond between them. There is certain trail etiquette - helping track down a lost dog, sharing supplies when someone's in need, parking dogs off trail when taking a break, and generally watching out for each other. Each year, the recipient of the Fred Meyer Sportsmanship Award is chosen by his or her fellow mushers.

Being prepared with adequate -- but not too much -- gear is a critical component of the Iditarod race. Mushers are required to pack a sleeping bag, an ax, snowshoes, and a cooker or pot and fuel for boiling water. They outfit themselves in attire that will protect them from the harsh elements, including warm boots and eye goggles. Ski poles, a gun, a headlamp and food are among other race necessities. Some supplies are shipped ahead to checkpoints along the race route, but others are carried in the sled and in coat pockets.

The Iditarod's race rules require that "some type of sled or toboggan must be drawn" but the specifications are up to each racer. Typically, the sleds used weigh around 100 pounds (easily twice that once loaded with gear) and cost around U.S. $1,500. They have a basket where gear is carried and a tired dog can rest, and are outfitted with a braking device. Mushers stand on the sled's runners, which are usually made of wood and covered in plastic or Teflon and extend out from the sled's basket.

During a race, mushers often put the well-being of their dogs ahead of their own. Tending to the dogs' tired bodies, getting them fed and settled into a bed of straw, all comes before feeding and resting oneself.

Mushers nap on top of their sleds while on the trail or in sleeping bags in cabins at checkpoints, catching 15 minutes to two hours of sleep here and there. Some mushers prefer to camp on the trail, away from the checkpoints, finding it calmer. Due to exhaustion, mushers sometimes fall asleep while mushing, but that can be dangerous for both mushers and dogs.

Iditarod mushers send food for themselves and their dogs to checkpoints along the course before the race. The food has been precooked and frozen, and can then be warmed up when it's time to eat. They snack on the trail and eat bigger meals at the checkpoints. They nosh on everything from pizza and steaks to lasagna and chicken. They also sometimes eat meals provided by volunteers and villagers along the trail, or from eateries in the towns.

Mushers typically feed their dogs before they feed themselves, with meat being the main ingredient, and other fats, oils, dry dog foods and vitamin supplements included. They use a cooker or pot and boiling water to warm the food.

For the mushers' and dogs' health and well-being, they are required to take checkpoint breaks during the Iditarod race. There is a mandatory 24-hour stop as well, but where and when that happens is up to each competitor. Two other eight-hour stops at designated checkpoints are required. Beyond that, racers are free to trudge on, making fatigue basically unavoidable.

The physical and mental demands for mushers are high. Frostbite can set in. Snow blindness, broken bones and illnesses are other hazards. Lack of sleep can bring on hallucinations. They can make a wrong turn and end up lost, desperately trying to rejoin the trail.

In an emergency, other mushers, race officials and Alaskans in villages along the trail and the Iditarod Air Force (made up of more than 30 volunteer airplane pilots), may come to a musher's aid.

The costs of racing dog sleds are not just physical. Being a competitive musher can be very expensive. Paying for dog food and care, gear and transportation adds up quickly, and U.S. $20,000 a year in expenses is not unlikely. Some mushers lease dog teams from others rather than own and take care of the dogs year-round.

The top finishers in the big races take home a good chunk of change, but for later finishers, $1,000 here and $1,000 there might be all they earn from sled dog races in a year. In 2007, Iditarod race winner Lance Mackey won $69,000 plus a pickup truck (valued around $40,000). Mackey also won the Yukon Quest in 2007, earning him $40,000.

For many mushers, the sport is a part-time business or hobby. Others run kennels and focus on sled dog competitions year-round. Most racers find sponsors to help foot the bill.

For more information on mushers and related articles, please see the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • 2007 Media Guide. http://www.iditarod.com.
  • 2008 Iditarod Race Rules. http://www.iditarod.com.
  • Casey, Brigid, Haugh, Wendy. "Sled Dogs." 1983. Dodd Mead & Company.
  • Coppinger, Raymond, Coppinger, Lorna. "Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution." 2001. Scribner.
  • Lloyd, Barbara. "Sled Dog Racing; Iditarod's Icy Odyssey Is Butcher's Highway." New York Times. March 6, 1994.
  • McHugh, Paul. "A Dog Beat Dog World." March 16, 1998. San Francisco Chronicle.
  • Medred, Craig. "Top Teams from 2004 Will Return." December 3, 2004. Anchorage Daily News.
  • "On Your Own: Female Mushers Drive Toward Success." March 6, 1989. New York Times.
  • Ring, Elizabeth. "Sled Dogs: Arctic Athletes." 1994. Millbrook Press.
  • Robson, Douglas. "More Red Cells May Help Athletes. How About Dogs?" March 13, 2007. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/13/sports/othersports/13iditarod.html?_r=1&ref=sports&oref=slogin
  • Sullivan,­ ­Kevin and Jordan, Mary. "Dog-Sledding, Like Climate, Heating Up." January 12, 2008. Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/11/AR2008011103986.html
  • Ward, Alex. "A Classic Race: Man and Dog Vs. Alaska." New York Times. February 24, 1985.

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