Saturday, March 13, 2010

Do They Still Use Sled Dogs in Alaska?

By Linda Cole

Alaska is a land that has not changed a lot over the years. Since joining the union in 1959, it is still one of the states with the lowest population. It's a land of beauty with mystery hidden in the landscape and behind every snowy hill. It’s a place where having survival skills and knowledge about the animals who share their home with the people make all the difference in the world. The heyday of the sled dogs is gone. They are no longer needed to move supplies and mail from village to village. So why do they still use sled dogs in Alaska?

For centuries, sled dogs were the best form of transportation available in Alaska. For many people living in the wild territory, the sled dog was their lifeline between villages or when out on the trail hunting. In the 1960s, the sled dog was largely retired from service and replaced with snowmobiles and airplanes to transport heavy loads and provide faster travel times between villages. However, just like someone who loves to saddle up a horse and ride the rich history of the old west, there are still those in Alaska who hitch their team up for a day of quiet and solitude with only their dogs for company.

Today, sled dogs are mainly used in Alaska to provide tours for recreational purposes. Visitors to Alaska have a chance to experience firsthand what it was like to travel by a sled pulled by a team of dogs. Gone are the days of requiring dogs to travel 80 miles a day hauling heavy shipments of gold or supplies. The mail route is silent as teams no longer need to deliver the day's mail. The Inuit Indian tribes have replaced their dogs for the most part with the snowmobile, although sled dogs are still used to a lesser degree to transport them to their hunting grounds.

There's no question that teams of sled dogs can be more valuable to those who have to travel large distances as compared to the snowmobile which requires gas to move. Dogs are quieter and can detect wild animals that may be lurking in the area. If any are around, the dogs can provide needed protection. A dog's instinct cannot be overlooked when it comes to being able to stay on a trail and knowing how to avoid dangerous cracks on frozen lakes as well as knowing when it's best to stay off the ice.

Sled dog racing has been around for centuries. Just as thoroughbred horse racing captivates people in the lower 48, dog racing draws spectators from around the world who come to watch and take part in the races. However, not everyone agrees with horse racing or dog racing. I know dogs used in sled dog races are bred to run and thoroughly enjoy it. I had the joy and honor of owning two Siberian Huskies and can attest that they loved to run any chance they got. Bred as working dogs, sled dogs are happy doing what they do best – just as herding dogs love to herd and search and rescue dogs love to use their exceptional nose to find someone who is in need.

My concern for any animal is how they are treated and cared for. Dogs can become injured while racing. Traditionally, northern dogs were the only breeds used in Alaska because they were able to withstand the harsh temperatures and climate of this arctic state, but today, a variety of breeds can be found among dog teams competing in sled dog racing and marathons.

The northern breeds and others that are trained as sled dogs love to run. Balancing safety and risk to the dogs cannot take a back seat to man's desire to race. I believe the dogs are monitored to insure their health and well being, and are being attended to by the people who own the dogs.

Today's role for the sled dogs in Alaska has changed from being a vital mode of transportation to recreational and sporting activities. Sled dogs will probably always be a part of the Alaskan landscape because it's their extraordinary history that made life possible in Alaska.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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