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While they have been replaced by snowmobiles and aircraft for many uses, dogsleds are still useful for navigating rugged, snowy terrain.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.
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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."

­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.