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Dog Sledding in Canada

The popularity of dog sledding in Canada is easy to grasp: the silence of the Canadian wilderness blanketed with a soft bed of snow absorbing all noise; the sound of the sled runners gliding crisply along the surface; the focused, panting, and hard-working dogs pulling in tandem; Canadian mushers providing direction to the dogs. It provides an escape from everyday life and offers a solitude that most other sports can't.

History of Dog Sledding in Canada

The International Federation of Sled Dog Sports states that archaeological evidence shows dog sledding in Canada, North America, and Siberia originated 4000 years ago. Around 1,000 A.D., the Thule Inuit migrated to Artic Canada from what is now Alaska bringing with them the first Canadian Eskimo dogs. The people and the dogs of this harsh region relied on each other for everyday survival. Researchers suggest that life in Northern Canada may not have been possible without sled dogs.

The Inuit used dog sledding as a means for transportation to trade, hunt, fish, and monitor trap lines in the Canadian Artic wilderness. As communities and outposts grew, they were used to deliver mail, supplies, and news. In the 1870's, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) began using them to patrol the northern Canadian wilderness.

When a diphtheria outbreak threatened Nome, Alaska in 1925, dog sled teams set out to retrieve the serum from Nenana. There is a statue of one of those dogs, named Balto, in New York City with an inscription that reads:

"Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dog that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice across treacherous waters through arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925". Endurance. Fidelity. Intelligence

This feat is commemorated through the annual Iditarod dog sledding race.

Canadian Inuit dogs were a part of world history by being chosen to make the trek to both the North and South poles.

Popularity of Dog Sledding

With the advent of the snowmobile, the reliance on using dogs for survival has decreased. There is, however, an increase in the popularity of dog sledding as a sport. When the Canadian winter arrives people from all walks of life are taking dog sledding holidays. Many lodges offering winter activities in Canada have added this sport to their packages. In addition, the growth of Canadian dog sled tour operators has been rising steadily.

Canadian dog sledding offers an environmentally friendly holiday for those individuals and families wanting to reconnect with nature. The dogs are friendly to adults and children alike. This is likely due to the history of man and dog relying on each other for survival.

Dog sled racing is becoming a fast growing sport gaining in popularity annually. It is estimated that 40,000 mushers worldwide participated in races in 2003, an increase of 15,000 people since 1997.

Dog Sledding Equipment

The sleds used for Canadian dog mushing are different than those used for Canadian sleigh rides. They are much smaller, of course, due to the relative size of the animals pulling them. In addition to warm clothing, the equipment required for dog mushing includes:
  • Sled
  • Dog harnesses
  • Sled bags to hold gear and supplies
  • A gang-line to connect the dogs and sled
There are various types of dog sleds depending on the goal of the dog sled driver. They include:
  • Basket sled which has a bed that is several inches above the snow and glides on two runners. It is used for long haul racing.
  • Sprint sleds are similar to the basket sled but have a shorter body. As the name implies it is used for shorter races.
  • Toboggan sled has a plastic bottom that glides across the snow. Although similar, they are separate from those used when tobogganing in Canada.
  • Freight sleds are heavier and sturdier and mostly used for hauling supplies.
  • The komatik is an Inuit sled where the hunter or racer sits or lies down.
The sleds have a runner at the back of the sled where the driver or musher can stand.

Sled Dog Breeds

Many dog breeds have been used for sledding and almost any dog can be trained to pull a sleigh. After all, John Suter raced the Iditarod with an all-poodle dog team. The northern breeds, however, are the dogs that excel in this sport. These dogs have evolved to be able to thrive in a challenging environment.

These artic dogs have been bred over centuries to withstand cold temperatures, endure pulling a sled up to 80 miles per day (130 km), and to reach speeds up to 20 mph (32 kmph). Due to limited food in Artic Canada, they developed efficient metabolisms and subsist on less food than one would imagine.

Northern sled dogs include (in alphabetical order):
  • Alaskan Husky
  • Alaskan Malamute
  • Inuit Sled Dog
  • Chinook
  • Labrador Husky
  • Samoyed
  • Siberian Husky
They are trained from an early age to run with the pack. This indoctrinates them into the dog sledding culture. It builds speed and strength in the young dog to prepare it for its future on the dog sled team. They build a deep, muscular chest with an efficient aerobic system that allows them to pull for hours at a time. The dogs truly enjoy the activity and can’t wait until the musher hooks them up to the gang-lines.

Dog Commands

The commands that dog mushers use may vary from driver to driver. If you are planning a holiday around Canadian dog sledding, the operator will teach you the commands necessary for that team.

The most common commands are:
  • Hike: Start pulling
  • Gee: Veer right.
  • Haw: Veer left.
  • Easy: Slow down.
  • Whoa: Stop.
  • On By: Pass another team or other distraction.
Canadian Races with Dog Team and Sled

With the rise in popularity of dog sled racing, Canadians and tourists can enjoy the spectacle from coast to coast. If you are interested in sampling the sledding culture, you can visit one of the many racing challenges offered across Canada.
  • Canadian Challenge – is a 12 dog 600 km (360 miles) race held annually in Saskatchewan.
  • Daaquam River International – Saint Just de Bretenieres, Quebec
  • Diavik 150 - Canadian Championship Dog Derby, Yellowknife, North West Territories
  • Gold Rush Trail Mail Run – based in Quesnel, British Columbia the race provides an opportunity to have an envelope delivered by dog team in celebration of the history of dog sledding.
  • Kearney Dog Sled Race – in Kearney, Ontario
  • Yukon Quest – 1,600 km (960 mile) race between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon
Canadian dog sledding is part of a rich heritage that helped tame a sometimes unforgiving land. The dogs themselves are like no other breed and are a joy to observe. Intelligent animals that also display an independent streak that was necessary for survival. This independence doesn’t get in the way of their deep love of their human family. They are gentle with children, making a dog sled holiday a family affair.

Whether you are snowshoeing in Canada, downhill or cross-country skiing, or snowmobiling there is likely a dog sled tour operator in close proximity. Give it a try and you’ll fall in love with the sport.
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