Just as with the sports of running and skiing, dogsledding didn't begin as a sport at all, but as a normal method of transportation. The native people of the frozen north have had a working relationship with dogs for thousands of years. It was natural then that the Inuit people and others brought sled dogs with them when they crossed the Bering Straits into North America.
Much more recently, when European immigrants began to travel in the frozen north, they too saw the value of this method of transportation. Native and newcomer alike used sleds for hunting, trapping, transporting freight to outlying villages, or, during the gold rush, for transporting gold if they were lucky. They were also used for mail delivery. As early as 1873, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police even patrolled the frontier by dogsled.
At times, dogsledding has even been a necessary survival skill in the north. This was true in January of 1925, when a diphtheria outbreak threatened to wipe out the small northern village of Nome, Alaska. With little or no immunity, and very little antitoxin, the native inhabitants seemed doomed. The closest serum was at the Alaska Railroad Hospital in Anchorage, but to get it there meant a journey of over 670 miles across the water and ice of the Iditarod trail. A pack of serum was sent by railroad from Anchorage to Nenana, and then a relay of 22 volunteers transported it by dogsled, getting it to Nome in five and a half days.
Dog sledding is also known as mushing, a term that derives from the French word 'marche', which means 'march', 'run', or 'go'. Although a popular image for dogsledding may involve a man wrapped in furs yelling 'mush' to his team of dogs, 'mush' is rarely used as a command, since it has too soft a sound. Instead, when he wants the dogs to go, the musher yells 'hike!' or sometimes 'all right'. To turn right he yells 'gee!', and to turn left he yells 'haw!' 'Easy!' means to slow down, and he yells 'hike!' again or makes a kissing sound when he wants to speed up. 'Whoa' means he wants to stop, and 'on by!' means to pass another team or something else that's in the way.
Today, because of the snowmobile, airplane, and other modern conveniences, few depend on dogs or dogsleds for transportation or survival. Dogsledding lives on mainly as a sport. Various dogsled races have been held over the years, from sprints to long distance runs. Dogsledding has even been featured in the Winter Olympic Games as an exhibition sport, first in the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games, and then again in the 1952 Oslo Olympics. Undoubtedly, the most famous dogsled race today is the Iditarod.
The Iditarod trail is an old mail and supply route dating from the gold rush days of Alaska. It runs approximately 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome, making this race the longest dogsled race in the world. When the race was first run in 1973, the wind chill factor fell to 130 degrees below zero, and many believed that no one would ever reach the finish line. They were proved wrong when the winner crossed the finish line nearly three weeks after starting. Although nowadays, the winner can usually finish in about nine days, the Iditarod remains a grueling test of endurance, and a reminder of an important part of Alaska's history.
So while dogsledding will probably never be a popular activity in the warmer regions of the world, all of us can admire the ingenuity of whoever first thought of using man's best friend as a means of transportation and survival.