Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Alaska: Made by Special Dogs of No Special Breed

Craig Medred, the Outdoors Columnist for the Alaska Daily News (now there's a good job) writes that grade school kids who are promoting the Malamute as Alaska's state dog are "barking up wrong tree":

In no state in the nation has the common canine played a more important role than in Alaska, and for that reason the students at Anchorage Polaris K-12 school and Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, deserve a heap of praise for their efforts to make the malamute the state dog.

The only problem is they've got the wrong pup.

Not that there is anything wrong with the malamute, an historic Alaska breed believed to trace its roots back to the first wolves domesticated by Natives of the Arctic Coast. It's just that there's a much better candidate:

The sled dog.

Yeah, that's right. The basic, generic, unpretentious sled dog.

He or she might be a malamute or part malamute, or a Siberian husky or part Siberian husky, or a German shorthair or part German shorthair, or an Irish setter or part Irish setter, or a Targhee hound or part Targhee hound, or a cross between a black-and-white dog and a mongrel.

Whatever the case, this dog is the essence of all that is best about the 49th state:

• We don't care where you came from.

• We don't care what you look like.

• All that matters is that you can perform.

For the Mahlemut Inuits of Kotzebue Sound back in the days before the white people arrived in Alaska, the malamute was that dog.

For the adventurers and prospectors who first opened Alaska up to the rest of the world, the "Esquimax'' dog or the "Indian'' dog was that dog.

For the men who hauled the freight that helped build the early gold mines that were Alaska's economy before the oil began to flow, the "big dog'' -- be it a mixed breed of Saint Bernard, husky, Newfoundland, or what-have-you -- was that dog.

Over the years, almost any breed of dog more than 20 pounds or so seems to have served time as an Alaska sled dog.

"Gillie Jacko had a bunch of Airedales,'' wrote the late Gus Jensen, an Athabascan elder from Iliamna Lake. Jensen once hauled the mail by dog team from Iliamna to Pile Bay Village, Pedro Bay, Chekok and Goose Bay. Bill Vaudrin, a writer and Iditarod veteran who died tragically at the age of 32 in a 1976 car accident, got Jensen and a bunch of others to detail their memories for a book titled "Racing Alaskan Sled Dogs.'' Jensen lived through the period when the sled dog was to Alaska what the horse was to the West.

The sled dog, in all shapes and sizes, opened the frontier.

"I remember old Charlie Dennison from up at Lake Clark was trying to haul a 1,200-pound boiler home from Roadhouse (Iliamna) for his sawmill,'' Jensen wrote. "He son, Floyd, had 13 big dogs that time. He used to brag he threw away 80- and 90-pounders. But he got stuck.''

Dennison called for help. A massive towline was lashed together. Other dog teams were called in for muscle. Thirty-five canines of all sorts ended up harnessed to the stuck sled.

"Young Harvey Drew had great big, mixed-breed dogs -- Saint Bernard, husky, malamute, German shepherds -- and I was running nine big mail dogs,'' Jensen wrote, "(and) those Airedales of Gillie's were up front barking and yapping, and that sled mowed down everything in its path, snapped dry trees 8 and 10 inches through like they were kindling."

The sled dog was the workhorse of the historic early Alaska.

Eventually, of course, the internal-combustion engine came to replace man's best friend as the power of the North, but the sled dog had by then earned such a prominent place in our history that it will never go away. The sled dog is still out there today running for competition or for fun, and he or she remains very much the any-dog that made Alaska.

"The best cross I ever had was a springer (spaniel) with a Johnny Allen (husky) bitch,'' Gareth Wright, the legendary dog breeder from Fairbanks, wrote in Racing. Wright's Aurora huskies -- a cross between Irish setters, wolves and Siberian huskies with some hound and only-Gareth-knows-what-else rolled in -- helped him win the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race and the Open North American Championship in Fairbanks back in the day. But the reign of the Aurora husky didn't end there.

Aurora huskies helped power Wright's daughter, Roxie Wright, to the first Fur Rendezvous win by a woman and towed grandson Ramy Brooks to victory in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The Wrights were a dominant force for a long time in Alaska sled-dog racing, and who knows, but that they might not have been more so if Gareth had bred more of those springer-spaniel crosses.

Unfortunately, he wrote, that "was an accidental breeding, and before I found out how good the pups were, I sold the female. There were six (pups) in the litter, and I ran them in 1947 when they were 15 months old and came in second by 4 seconds in the North American. ... Those were the toughest and fastest dogs I ever saw.''

They were special dogs, but of no special breed.

They were simply sled dogs of the sort you'll see line up on Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage for the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in March.

Look at these dogs closely, and you can see the blood of just about any dog you want to imagine in the mix somewhere: Huskies, hounds, retrievers, pointers and even, occasionally, what appears as if it might be some hint of the malamute or even the wolf. Here is the great melting pot of the canine world.

America, as President Barack Obama so well illustrates, might be the world's greatest racial and ethnic melting pot, but Alaska clearly holds the distinction in the canine world. The grand stage for man's best friend in Alaska doesn't revolve around Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show prettiness, where judges fret over whether a dog is true to its ancestor's breed.

No, the grand stage of Alaska centers on the sled dog trails where it really doesn't matter who your ancestors were; it matters only that you perform like Paul Gebhardt's "red dog,'' the 2000 winner of the Iditarod's Golden Harness award for the best lead dog.

Like so many others, red dog was a mix, a mongrel, a cross breed. But all of that became irrelevant because he was a first-class sled dog with a big heart, a powerful body and an overwhelming determination to please.

Alaska was, in part, built on the hard work of dogs like this.

They are the dogs that deserve our recognition for their role in our history.

Not this breed or that breed over which the fans of each could no doubt argue for days or weeks, but that easily defined dog that could be yours or mine or anybody's in almost any shape or size -- the sled dog.

Is that a great article, or what? A hat tip and big thanks to J.R. Absher for bird-dogging me to it!

This Iditarod Standard Poodle Team (they placed in the middle of the pack) ran from 1988 thru 1991. For more information (and a great song), click here.

Two teams of sled dogs in 1912: Siberians on the left, and mixed domestic dogs on the right.

A mixed set of Yukon sled dogs in 1922.

Frederick Cook, artic explorer, with a sled dog that looks like a collie in 1908.

This Dyer-Keen team set the record from Seattle, Washington to Nome, Alaska in 35 days in 1906.


Caveat said...

Great article!

As Coppinger pointed out in his book (he races), the best sled dog for racing weighs in around 40 lbs or so - big dogs overheat.

A Malamute would likely not see the end of a race like the Iditarod for that reason, but if you move at a more measured pace, the big dogs can pull heavy loads.

Have you seen show Malamutes lately? They are huge lumbering things, not to mention very heavy coated which wouldn't work out in terms of ice balls, etc.

The kids could use the Alaskan Husky - another name for a racy mutt that pulls sleds in races - and wins.

retrieverman said...

The Alaskan Malamute is a purebred bastardization of the indigenous North American Arctic Husky landrace, which is from Greenland to Alaska. The Alaskan husky breed is truly the main working dog of Alaska now, and I think it should be in consideration, just as I think the state dog for West Virginia should be the Mountain Cur, not the beagle as the mayor of Charleston suggested.

The only objection I can find that might lead to some controversy about choosing the Alaskan husky over the Malamute is that native Alaskans might want the dog that is supposedly genetically derived from their dogs.

A lot of dogs imported to Alaska from warmer climates and from non Arctic breeds froze to death, died from exhaustion, were killed by wolves. or just simply couldn't do the work. So those that were able to survive were tough animals indeed.

Also, there are lots of dog experts, namely Coppinger, who deny any wolf ancestry of these dogs. Somehow, I don't think that wolves are the main ancestor of any of these dogs, but I don't think it's impossible that sled dogs might not have a little wolf ancestry.

Sara said...

the base of the true interior husky was the interior native village dog, which evolved for thousands of years
and was damn special to villagers. mostly polluted now but still there are dogs that throw back to them. not mutts. Coppinger doesn't know squat about out dogs here, study R. K. Wayne