Mushing & USFSS History
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.