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Mushing & USFSS History
By Tim White

Sled dogs have coexisted and cooperated in partnership with humans for many thousands of years in the northern regions of North America and Siberia. Archeological evidence puts the earliest date at over 4,000 years ago. Some anthropologists suggest that human habitation and survival in the Arctic would not have been possible without sled dogs. In the Southwest of what is now the United States the first Spanish explorers encountered Indians who used dogs as draft animals pulling travois. They remarked that these dogs were an integral part of the Indians' culture. In fact, in many North American Indian cultures the relationship with dogs was central to their style of life and the introduction of horses occurred in parallel without replacing or diminishing the cultural importance of dogs as respected associates and partners.

Sled dog activities as recreation and friendly competition may have existed for almost as long as the relationship between dogs and humans in the regions where snow was a seasonal probability. The first written account of a race was an informal challenge between travelers on the route from Winnipeg to St. Paul in the 1850s. In 1886 the first Saint Paul Winter Carnival (Minnesota USA) featured sled dog races and ski competitions as part of the festival to glorify the attractions of winter in Minnesota. Sled dog races have been part of the Winter Carnival to the present day. The most memorable event was the 1917 race from Winnipeg to Saint Paul on which a Walt Disney movie (Iron Will) was loosely based. In reality the race that year was won by Albert Campbell, a Metis Indian from The Pas, Manitoba, followed by his brother in second place.

At the turn of the century the attention of the outside world had been drawn to the far North, Alaska and the Yukon, by the Gold Rush. The first major sled dog races to receive world wide attention were organized in Nome, Alaska, as the All-Alaska Sweepstakes. Scotty Allan was a Scotsman who had come to North America as a handler for work horses and then joined the prospectors in the Klondike as a dog musher freighting supplies in to the remote mines and camps. He played a major role in the organization and focus of the early races in Alaska. It was Scotty Allan’s experience and understanding of working animals that helped to determine the course of the first races in Nome and of the sport these races inspired, insisting on the paramount importance of dog care. The All Alaska Sweepstakes races and the concurrent festivities were reported in the New York Times and other major newspapers. In addition to Scotty Allan, another musher who first came to prominence in Nome, Leonard Seppala, went on to have a major influence on the development of the sport.

By the 1920s returning gold miners had brought sled dog racing to New England where it prospered. The Gold Rush influence was felt throughout North America, even where mushing was already a popular sport. In the region around The Pas, Manitoba, where racing had continued since the teens, the style of harness changed from the traditional trap line tandem hitch with horse collar harnesses to the new Alaskan gangline with dogs in pairs and lightweight harnesses entirely made from webbing or lamp wicking. These were the glory years for sled dog racing during the 1920s and 1930s. The top professional mushers were often sponsored by prominent businesses or businessmen and the teams traveled across the continent by rail in boxcars, from New England to races as far west as Ashton, Idaho.

The attention given to mushing and its popularity in the news media made it a natural consequence that the first Winter Olympics held in North America would feature sled dog racing as representative of sports that originated on this continent. The 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games included Sled Dog Racing as a Demonstration Sport. The contestants ran 7-dog teams 25 miles each day for two days. The winner was a French Canadian from The Pas, Manitoba, Emile St. Goddard whose duels with Leonard Seppala on the trails were already legend. Second was the Norwegian by way of Alaska, Leonard Seppala, and third was a Russian by way of Brooklyn and Manitoba, Shorty Russick.

Despite the international character of the participants in the race in Lake Placid there was little activity outside North America except in Norway where the use of dogs for military supply and ambulance work beginning at the time of the First World War had been transformed into a sport. The influence of Nansen and Amundsen who used sled dogs in the North and South Polar regions was also important in establishing a Scandinavian sled dog sport. In the 1952 Oslo Olympics sled dogs were featured again as a Demonstration Sport, this time in the form of pulka races where the driver accompanies the dogs on skis behind a toboggan or pulka.

Mushing in its many different forms has gradually spread around the world since that period. In 1992 the International Federation of Sleddog Sports (IFSS) was officially incorporated as a way to focus the efforts of many national, local and international organizations on the goal of Olympic recognition and alignment of mushing with other mainstream sports through the General Association of International Sports Federations(GAISF) - Sportaccord. IFSS is recognized by GAISF and in all countries as the world governing body of sled dog sports. For more information visit the IFSS website at www.sleddogsport.

In the 1950s and 1960s the use of working dogs was gradually disappearing throughout North America. Airplanes and snowmobiles eliminated the need for sled dogs as transportation. One person, Joe Redington Senior and one race, the Iditarod, more than any other factors were responsible for preserving mushing and continuing its traditions. Critics at the time said the only reason he and Dick Mackey started and put so much effort into the Iditarod was that their dogs and teams were too slow to be competitive in the existing sprint races like the Open North American Championship (Alaska) and Anchorage Fur Rondy. Perhaps Joe Redington more than anyone else sustained and revived the true spirit of dog mushing as a way of life and the joyful working partnership with sled dogs that it had always been, at a time when, with the use of snow machines and other machinery, the dogs’ traditional role in transportation and subsistence and the tradition itself was disappearing. The Iditarod is not simply the most reported and recognized sled dog race in the world; it is a living monument to Joe and his vision and appreciation of the spirit of mushing. The famous Serum Run in 1926 to deliver diphtheria vaccine to Nome, Alaska, embodies the spirit of the sport, especially since this event is commemorated each year with the Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome.  

USFSS, formerly known as the United States Sled Dog Sports Federation, traces its roots to 1988. It was formed then in order to present representation for US mushers to the International Federation of Sleddog Sports (IFSS) and the US Olympic Committee (USOC).  In 2001 it was reformed under its new name, USFSS. It was officially incorporated in 2003 in the state of Alaska and gained non-profit status in 2007.  

USFSS is involved in all dog powered sports. This includes Nome style (practiced with a dog sled), Nordic (skijoring and pulka) and dryland (canicross, scooter, bikejoring), and weight pull. Recreationalists an well as the elite of the sport are equally important. Competitive racers and weekend sled dog campers are all part of USFSS.

USFSS also solicits sponsorships for US National Championships and acts as a clearing house for information and referral. It is  the selection body for sending US teams to compete in the World Championships.


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