Dog sledding is one of many activities you can try when you visit Tromsø. But did you know how far back in time people has used dogs for transportation and work?
A historical journey
No one knows exactly when, or who, first got the idea of using dogs for pulling sleds. However, archaeological evidence takes us back at least four thousand years – into Siberia and the northern parts of America. We also find scriptures of dog sledding in Arabic literature from the 900’s and in stories about Marco Polo. Especially where we today find northern Canada, there’s no doubt dog sledding was an important form of transport for the native Americans and the Inuit people – long before European colonists set foot on their land. The Europeans were fascinated, and we can read Peter Kalms enthusiasm in his book, written in 1749:
“In winter it is customary in Canada, for travellers to put dogs before little sledges, made on purpose to hold their clothes, provisions, & etc. Poor people commonly employ them on their winter-journeys, and go on foot themselves. I have, likewise seen some neat little sledges, for ladies to ride in, in winter. They are drawn by a pair of dogs, and go faster on a good road than one would think. A middle-sized dog is sufficient to draw a single person, when the roads are good.” (Kalm 448-9)
The European colonists quickly adapted the tradition, and the French Canadians used dogs for warfare during the Seven Years War (1756-1768). The dogs were cheaper than horses – and much more effective in the freezing cold. In Norway, dogs were used during the second world war. They served as ambulances through the woods and mountains, as well as delivery dogs supplying soldiers in the field.
Vital for reaching the South Pole
During his expedition through the Northwest Passage in 1903-1906, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen learned to use dogs for pulling sleds by the Netsilik population in Canada. Using dogs became one of the most important factors for success when he became the first to reach the South Pole, December 14th, 1911. Unlike his competitor, Robert Scott, Amundsen used dogs for pulling most of the supplies – giving the crew members less weight to carry. Scott reached the pole 34 days later by using tractors (which broke down or sank through the ice), Mongolian horses, and dogs that he didn’t know how to handle. Him and his crew did not make it back from the expedition.
Dog sled racing
Most likely, there has always been competition linked to dog sledding. However, the first ever documented race took place in 1850. It started in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with the finish line in St. Paul, Minnesota. A more famous race was arranged in Nome, Alaska, in 1908. It became a historical route when Norwegian native Leonhard Seppala delivered diphtheria medicine to the town. The journey has become an important part of American history, and you can find a statue of the lead dog, Balto, in New York City.
The most famous race in the United States, The Iditarod, first took place in 1967. Norwegian dog sledders was inspired by the race, and decided to establish the longest dog sledding race in Europe: Finnmarksløpet. The first time it was hosted, in 1981, only three teams participated. Today the race is so popular it is divided into three different classes, and thousands of spectators come to watch every year. This year, Finnmarksløpet will run from March 9th, and is 1200 kilometers long. The winner from 2017, Petter Jahnsen, used 6 days and 9 hours to complete the race.
Did you know? Dog sledding was a demonstration sport at three Winter Olympics: 1932 in New York, 1952 in Oslo, and in 1994 in Lillehammer. It never gained official event status.
Building dog teams
Traditionally, sled dogs were chosen based on their strength, size and stamina – criteria Roald Amundsen had for his dogs going to the South Pole. Today, dogs are bred for speed and endurance – weighing around 25 kilograms (55lb), and able to run up to 45 km/h (28mph). The most commonly used dogs in dog sled racing is the Alaskan Husky, or Siberian Husky.
Putting together a team of dogs requires you to select leader dogs, swing dogs and wheel dogs.
- The leaders are the most important dogs, and controls the direction and speed of the team.
- Right behind the leader, the swing dogs help the rest of the team through corners and turns.
- The strong wheel dogs are positioned in the back, and pulls the sled out of the snow to help the team start running.
- In bigger teams, the rest of the dogs are placed between the wheel dogs and the swing dogs.
The person on the sled is called a “musher”. The word originates from the French “marche”, meaning “to go” or “to run”, and was used as a command for making the dogs start running. For the English Canadians, the word “mush” was used. This evolved into what we now call the driver: The Musher!
Dog sledding in Tromsø
When you visit Tromsø, you have the chance to be a real musher. At the same time you will have an authentic Arctic experience! The friendly dogs love to run, as well as getting warm hugs during the breaks. You will get close interactions with the dogs and the guides, and you will experience the magnificent nature in a unique way. If you want to go dog sledding while visiting Tromsø Camping, ask the reception – and they will help you find the perfect experience! Read about the trip here
Kalm, P: Travels Into North America: J. Forester, translator: The Imprint Society; Barre, MA: 1972
Photos from a dog sledding trip with our partners, Aurora Alps