As long as there is snow, there's bound to be someone somewhere running a team of dogs through it.
Mushing is a recreation that has peaked and ebbed over the last thirty years - the 1980's being a high point, when almost everyone in America had at least heard the word Iditarod and watched the race between Rick Swenson and Susan Butcher with an interest that was reminiscent of the Riggs and King tennis match of the '70's. Many new mushers joined the bandwagon during this period, and hobby farmers were suddenly raising sled dogs instead of chickens.
"Man would not be on the face of the earth if it had not been for the domestic dog," says Edward Dallas, as we visit with him at his home in Deerwood, Minnesota. Ed had a 10-minute stint as "Gunnar Tveit" in the Disney film Iron Will, and he had this to ask us: "What possessed the dog to break away from the wolf, the jackal, the fox, and step into that circle of light cast by our cavemen ancestors' campfire? Something had to possess him to say, 'I will step inside that circle.' And when he did, I think it was a bond that was set for the rest of time."
These sentiments expressed by Dallas, a veteran dog musher, could probably be echoed by canine lovers all around the globe. But especially by dog mushers, who by choice spend the greater part of their day with their dogs. Sled dogs are mainly Alaskan Huskies, a Heinz 57 dog bred to pull and travel. "They were bred out of the Siberian Husky during the gold rush days," Dallas explains, "with Indian dogs, and other big dogs in the arctic, and a wolf thrown in here and there."
To appreciate how far the breed has come, one has only to read Colonel Philippe de Trobriand's colorful account from his journal in Dakota Territory, 1867:
The sled dogs which will carry our letters to Fort Totten during the winter arrived today... The breed of dog used to drag the sleds is tall on its legs, very closed coupled, covered with thick hair, half dog and half wolf in appearance... Of the nine dogs that make up our three teams, one is black and white, positively a griffon because of the length and stiffness of its hair; another of blackish color looks like a mastiff. They seem to be taciturn in temperament... unsociable, undemonstrative, seem surprised at nothing, and look on things that happen around them with a lordly indifference. Don't pet them if you are tempted to; you may not be able to get away with it. If the attempt bores them, they move away with an expression that shows how they feel; if it displeases them, they draw back their lips and show their long fangs without changing position or growling. Apparently they scorn useless words...
Like their masters, the dogs have a marked preference for French: they have been brought up, trained, and commanded in French, and the easiest way to get acquainted with them is to talk to them in French. I suppose it is because of this fact that I had the privilege of petting them at our first meeting... Although they are perfectly free, they never come among the tents. They are philosophically contented to sleep under the carts near the corral, and if Alexander were to come to ask what he could do for them, no doubt they would answer (if they could talk) "Get out of my sun."1
Today's huskies are a sturdy lot, weighing no more than 40 to 45 pounds, and can run like a Thoroughbred. Generally, they are friendly and eager, with plenty of high energy and ambition. Which is something they need plenty of if they're pulling the sled for today's serious musher who trains for just one thing: the Iditarod. Dubbed, "the last great race," the 1,158 mile trek across the Alaskan wilderness is considered the Super Bowl of sled dog races. Beginning in Anchorage, the race typically takes about ten days and retraces an early Alaskan supply route that connected towns on the coast to inland mining towns. Dogs generally run about 125 miles per day, with veterinarians at checkpoints along the way examining each dog for injury and signs of illness.
Iditarod entries are from all over the globe, while mushers range in age from 20 to 80. And then there are the women - more of them every year. Ever since Susan Butcher grabbed four Iditarod wins, women have been giving the Big Race a second look. A result of this was a popular T-shirt that read: "Alaska - where men are men - and women win the Iditarod."
But controversy sprang up a few years ago when some mushers were accused of inhumane treatment of their dogs. A two-time Iditarod racer was charged with 14 counts of animal cruelty after a crate full of dead and dying puppies was found in the back of his pickup. Prosecutors said the man hit the puppies over the head with the blunt end of an ax. The racer said the puppies were "surplus" dogs he didn't need. In the world of dogsled racing, it is known as "culling" - weeding out the dogs too big, too aggressive or too old to make the team. Or as David Wills, Vice-President of the Humane Society of the United States, puts it, "This is the ugly side of the industry." The Iditarod can last up to two weeks, and about a third of the 1,500 dogs that start the race are flown out because they became sick, injured or exhausted. At least one to three dogs die in each Iditarod.
I asked Ed Dallas if the Idirarod's $50,000 purse didn't tempt a lot of racers to push their dogs beyond their capabilities.
"Sure, there are some individuals out there, the way there are in any walk of life, that don't take care and attention of their dogs - or their kids," Dallas agreed. "But most mushers know you have to take care of your dogs, or you're not going to go anywhere or win anything...
The race is only the cover story," he continued. "America wants a winner. But there are smaller triumphs in this world that never get recognized. To most mushers it's being out there with your dogs, doing something that you love to do. A lot of people who run the Iditarod only do it once. They cross over the state of Alaska, a thousand miles, and go up against some of the worst conditions you'll ever see in your life, just to finish the race. It's an inner thing that a lot of people have lost. Or maybe it's genetics, getting back to our roots...travel, conquest."
One of the ways Dallas "gets back to his roots" is by running Minnesota's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, a 500-mile race along the rugged North Shore of Lake Superior. The race commemorates the life of John Beargrease, the son of an Ojibwe chief and a member of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe. From 1887-1900 he hiked, sailed, rowed, and during the winter, traveled by dog sled, delivering mail up and down the North Shore between Two Harbors and Grand Marais.
Recently, I had the privilege of reading the journal of pioneer Harold Strang, a neighbor's great uncle whose family was a neighbor to the Beargrease family. Harold and John grew up together and were constant companions especially during their teen years. Of this time Harold writes:
Our Indian neighbors, the Beargrease family, were never afraid of hard work. The boys were always cutting timber for the lumber mill or working the farms, and one of them in particular, John, was my best friend. I remember when times were hard, his family would bring us generous portions of venison and fresh fish, always dressed and ready for the pan. And his mother would make the most delicious maple cakes for us kids, which we came to love as much as the Indian children.
Over the years, John taught me all about Indian lore, and how to make bows and arrows, canoes, and especially how to hunt and fish. I learned from him how to read the signs of mink, muskrat, beaver, fox, otter and wolf. John was also the best hunter I ever knew. Once when we went into the woods together, three deer started across a slashing with leaps and bounds, then disappeared. John stood perfectly still and after a few moments raised his rifle toward some brush. I looked as hard as I could and I never saw them, but then John fired and got two of the three deer with just two bullets. It was always like that. He never missed. And when I asked him how he did it, he just shrugged and said he could smell them. The knowledge along this line has stood me in good stead many times during the years that followed. Often when I showed a bundle of furs to my native friends, they would grin and call me the 'white Indian.'
John Beargrease played a pivotal role in the development of the North Shore. For many, his weekly deliveries provided the only link to the outside world. His visits represented a lifeline to the people along the shore who depended on him and were never let down. Beargrease retired in 1900 and spent his remaining years in Grand Portage. He and his wife raised ten children. He died in 1910 from pneumonia contracted after rescuing another North Shore mail carrier whose boat was caught in high waves on Lake Superior.
"I guess I'm the essence of innocence trying to finish the Beargrease," Ed Dallas says about the race. "But maybe that won't happen until the year I don't have fun, grind the thing out, get serious." Serious is not a word most mushers would use to describe Dallas' previous Beargrease forays. Sliding into checkpoints, he delights fans by punching his fist skyward and shouting, "I'm not last yet!" And if you're throwing a bonfire party somewhere along the route, Dallas is likely to pull over and chat awhile. John Pattern, a musher and friend of Dallas, says Ed was born about a century too late. "He would have been perfect back in the Gold Rush days, hanging around the campfire and talking to the likes of Jack London or John Beargrease. Deep in his heart he'd probably like to win a race. But it's just as important to him to make people laugh."
Last year Ed Dallas did try to finish the Beargrease. He spent the entire summer and fall training under the supervision of a former Beargrease winner. He got serious. He lost weight. He was ready to grind the thing out. But on the second day of the race, when the temperature fell to -35 and howling winds with chills of -60 kicked up snowdrifts and whiteouts all along the route, his veteran lead dog, Kit, sat down in the middle of the trail and simply looked at him. She had had enough. So Dallas, who had trained for months, packed up his gear and took his dogs home. "Some mushers would have replaced her," Ed said. "But she's been with me in every race I never won. There's no way I would let another dog take her place now."
There are mushers out there who might never win a race. They may never take themselves too seriously either. But they will care for their dogs and enjoy being out there with an animal they consider their equal.
1Philippe Régis de Trobriand, Military Life in Dakota, translated and edited by Lucile M. Kane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1951), pp. 77-79.
If you would like to find out more about dogs, here's a site, www.dog-pictures.co.uk/, for dog breed information and much more!
Copyright ©1997 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller
February 11, 1997