Flights are cancelled. Highways are icy. You’re tired of shoveling your driveway. What’s a person to do for reliable transportation in the middle of winter, besides sell their snow boots and move to Florida?
Well, folks up in Alaska and other northern locations have been getting around with the help of sled dogs for centuries. They always start in the cold, never need an oil change, and – unlike your Toyota Camry – jump with joy when they see you.
Okay, so the average suburban American is probably not going to get a dog team and sled, then yell “Mush!” every morning on the way to work. But it’s fun to dream. And while we’re thinking about sled dogs, here are a few fun facts about these amazing animals and the unique form of transportation they still provide to remote communities across the frozen North.
- They’re bred to pull and run. Most sled dogs are one of two breeds: Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes. These breeds are athletic, hardy, and have the instinct to pull a sled and run over the snow. They’re also very intelligent, a must-have quality for a dog that must respond to verbal commands from his handler amid all the noise and commotion that accompanies pulling a sled over a long-distance trek.
- They eat a LOT. Most domestic dogs kept as pets only require about 1,700 calories per day to maintain their good health. But sled dogs, with their intense workload and sub-freezing environment, can eat as much as 10,000 calories every day. When the weather gets really cold (think -50 F°), their handlers make a special stew of hot water, dried kibble, and an extra protein source.
- Sled dogs can handle the cold. If the weather gets much below 60 F°, most of us are grabbing a sweater. If the mercury dips to the single digits or – banish the thought – below zero, we are wearing everything we own and still complaining about the cold. But sled dogs are built for the coldest weather. Their unique double coat consists of a coarse outer fur and a dense, soft inner layer of hair for insulation. Their paws have extra thick pads, and their fluffy tail is curled around to protect their noses when they sleep outside.
- They helped save the residents of an entire town. You’ve probably seen, or heard of, the famous sled dog Balto, who was memorialized with a statue and, later, a feature-length animated movie still enjoyed by today’s children. He was the leader of a team of dogs that helped relay life-saving serum to the remote Alaskan town of Nome in March of 1925 when a diphtheria outbreak threatened the lives of the townspeople, especially the children.
- Sled dogs transported supplies during the Yukon Gold Rush. Between 20,000 and 30,000 prospectors made their way across the wilds of Alaska in hopes of striking it rich after gold was discovered there in 1896. Teams of sled dogs hauled food, mining equipment, and other supplies across the harsh terrain for the miners, making their quest for a better life possible.
- They also helped with military efforts. Sled dogs are kind of awesome. They keep showing up in historical accounts of really important things. For example, in the mid-1700s when the Seven Years War broke out between France and Britain over the American territories, French Canadians harnessed dog teams to haul cargo over the frozen northern terrain.
Even if you’re not trading in your sedan for a team of Huskies, you can still get the mushing experience by taking a day trip (or longer) with one of the many companies in Alaska that offer tourist excursions. Check online for more information.