What is an Alaskan Husky*??
Lets start at the beginning. A recent study (2002) suggests dogs were first domesticated in Asia.
The first North Americans were Paleo Indians (descended from Asians) who crossed the Bering Strait and headed south. In any event, we do know that some 10,000 years ago, primitive man began
taming wolves. The resulting village 'dogs' were some of the first to form the timeless canine/human bond. For an excellent page on the prehistory of Arctic People of North
America, click here. That was only the beginning. It is estimated that the first dog teams were used 4,000 years ago, in northern
Siberia, their use a result of pressures to travel further to find game. Dogteams naturally became a means of survival for our Native people in the treeless, frozen tundra of North
Special thanks to the Cleveland Museum of Art for this image by Leon Cogniet
Legends tell of the historically tough demeanor of domesticated village dogs, direct descendants of the first gentled wolves. It is said the natives occasionally tied females in season outside the village, to keep the blood of wolves in their stock. The natives, as tough as the dogs they drove, used many means to subdue and train their teams, as witnessed by early adventurers ~ and a unique animal evolved, so necessary to Inuit survival, under such extreme conditions.
Photo courtesy of Channel 6 Denmark
Previously 'untouched' by external influences, the Inuit witnessed the first coming of whites with the search for the North West Passage, and the whaling trade of the 1800's. Disease took it's toll among the natives, but they tenaciously survived - much better than their visitors, who experienced heavy losses due to the arctic environment. As much as it is human nature to adapt, the whites eventually learned from the Inuit, and slowly but surely, put down roots in their land. This last frontier of North America was soon to drastically change, just before the turn of the century.
In 1867, the United States acquired the Russian colony, Alaska, and by 1880, gold was discovered the frozen landscape of what was later known as "Juneau". Within 20 years, the Gold rush was to forever change the destiny of the sled dog of the north, and the natives of Alaska. Their home became the destination of fortune seekers from across the globe. Within an 8 year time frame, over $40 million in gold was successfully mined.
Special thanks to the
Alaska Icefield Expeditions
A vast range of breeds appeared in Alaska because of the Gold Rush. Many dogs were being transported to the frozen state, and used for travel to the furthest reaches of the wilderness, in search of fortune. Irish and English Setters, Siberian Huskies from Russia, canines of every variety - the demand for dogs outweighed their supply in this northernmost state - it was a very strange era indeed, and makes for some great story telling! Everyone has heard of Jack London's 'Call of the Wild' - a must read for dogsledding enthusiasts!
After the Gold Rush, Alaskans, both native and white, continued in age old tradition to make good use of sled dogs, for travel, hunting and traplines, and most significantly, for mail delivery. During the frozen months, when ships couldn't reach Alaska's harbours, dog team mail carriers, in relays of 300 miles each, transported mail over 1000 miles of Alaskan terrain. Often, they were carrying a thousand pounds of mail at one time, and it is said they would arrive in Nome, frisky and ready to run again.
To read more about the mail teams, visit this link
With a vast range of breeds now common throughout the state, the original 'village' dog of the natives began to
sport a new look. Of course, in remote areas, you have to make your own fun - racing your dogteam was soon a big social event for the yearly calendar. So by 1908, races popped up all
over the remote communities of Alaska.
Scotty Allan, with Baldy in lead, in the 1910 All Alaska Sweepstakes
( note what appears to be a Llewellyn Setter in point, just behind Baldy)
Thanks to Alan Stewart, at the Cairngorm Sled Dog Centre for Scotty's images!
The Allan and Darling kennel was historically one of the best known racing kennels in Alaska. Pictured here is Esther Birdsall Darling, who wrote many stories about life in Nome during this era. Her exciting tales of sled dogs and racing always surrounded true events and seem quite factual. This fabulous image shows the part that women must have played in the settling of the frozen state. Having read many of her books, I would say the dog in the centre could be a Llewellyn Setter, one breed she mentions frequently in her stories. He could very well be the very first 'Aurora Husky', a line later embraced and developed by Gareth Wright.
The first race organized by non-Natives was the brainchild of George, the son of Scotty (Alec) Allan. (originally, Allan was from Scotland) The first event was a race for children. Sleds consisted of chairs strapped to skis, among other interesting concoctions! Baldy of Nome, a leader of the Allans, piloted George to victory in the first race.
This little race inspired the townsfolk, and soon became a weekly event, shortly thereafter evolving into to the first running of the "All Alaska Sweepstakes" in 1908. It took five days to finish the 408 mile race, and it was won by a team of Malamute crosses bred by Albert Fink, and run by John Hegness. Scotty Allan, a huge supporter and one organizer of the race, was to win the second event, in 1909. Baldy of Nome led the way, and eventually became one of the most famous sled dogs in history. During this fledgeline year of racing, the Nome Kennel Club was founded, as a direct result of this new obsession.
Many people don't know this, but the Alaskan Husky was a very important part of the war effort in WWI. Scotty Allan, and Rene Haas, (an Alaskan who returned to his homeland of France to serve as Captain) in 1915 transported 135 Alaskans from Nome to France* to serve in the Sled Dog Division of the French Army, during a terrible winter campaign. In one tour, the teams transported 90 tonnes of ammunition to the front. (*Courtesy Nome Nugget)
One story written by Esther Birdsall Darling (of the Allan and Darling Kennel) details the TRUE
story of a grandson of 'Baldy of Nome'. Lead dog 'Navarre' made history when he won the French Cross* for heroic duty during the war - a story which will inspire you, from this often
forgotten era of sled dog history. Twenty eight of Baldy's offspring were sent overseas. (*Courtesy Nome Nugget)
Follow this link to find the book, available at Series Books
The War couldn't dampen the Alaskan spirit, or Alaska's passion for racing, and events continued to serve to shorten the long winters, and ease 'cabin fever'. Competitions were open to any breed, and every type of dog, from "Village Dogs" to Wolf crosses, to Siberian Huskies (raced by Leonard Seppala) and even Irish Setter crosses (raced successfully by Scotty Allan) were put into harness and put to the test. Mushers strove to win, and the Alaskan Husky evolved swiftly, every generation seeming to exceed the last, running faster, and harder, and longer.
Several 'lines' of dogs dominated the race circuit over the coming years. Scotty Allan's "Baldy of Nome" became a legend, and his offspring much prized individuals. Natives were a strong force in the races, and villages pooled their dogs, with a spokesman racing them. It was huge competition for every resident, and they were fiercely proud of their wins. Different 'strains' of the breed were developed by each of the villages, both native and white. Gradually over time - each village offered up their fastest, toughest, and healthiest dogs ~ and from this phenomena, our Alaskan Husky of the new millenium was born.
In 1925, when Nome was threatened by a Diptheria epidemic, Alaskan mushers came to the rescue. Children were dying, and outside help was unavailable except by team. Leonard Seppala and his Siberians set out across Norton sound. Together with a battery of brave relay teams (many of them mail carriers) the mushers raced against time, the goal being Nenana, 670 miles distant, where serum awaited pickup and delivery to the stricken village.
The drivers and their brave teams of dogs, who endured the terrible winter conditions, and raced on with little sleep or food, worked together to complete their mission in time to save countless victims, and secure a significant spot in Alaska's history.
Image of Seppala's team, courtesy of Gary Lee Philips
In the 1950's, motorized vehicles were quickly appearing in the last frontier, and a trend towards replacing sled dogs was well underway. Over time the sled dog has been nudged out by more modern snowmobiles and bush planes, trucks and trains. But the legends live on in gruelling races organized throughout the State of Alaska, and in the Yukon Territories of Canada.
The Iditarod, and the Yukon Quest, two long distance races of over 1000 miles, run every year across the frozen tundra and continue to test the mettle of the world's finest Alaskan Huskies, which CONTINUE to evolve. So, from a wolf like village dog, absolutely necessary for survival, to a mixture of just about every breed from Siberians to Setters, and finally, to a streamlined champion of one of the world's greatest sports, the Alaskan sled dog has evolved over thousands of years of change. The Alaskan Husky is the progeny of man's attempts to conquer his environment for his own purposes, whether it be for survival, or entertainment.
An Athabascan Native, George Attla, put his village of Huslia on the map in the mid - 1900's by conquering championship after championship. Despite a fused knee, caused by crippling bone tuberculosis experienced as a child, George Attla broke all the records. In 1958 he ran his first Fur Rendevous, and won. George worked for years producing a distinct strain of Alaskan Husky. The result was dubbed "The Huslia Husky", and George, "The Huslia Hustler". The dogs weren't the only ones to share the fame and fortune! To this day, "Attla" dogs are a much sought after strain of Alaskan Husky, their line denoting toughness, and great speed.
Other drivers, like Gareth Wright, developed
their favorite lines, Gareth's eventually becoming known as the "Aurora Husky". These dogs are said to have decended from the 'Flying Setters' of the Allan & Darling Kennels. Famous
leaders such as "Pluto" and his brother "Longnose" are just two Wright bred hounds, and they are most definitely two main contributors to the blood of today's finest racing Alaskans, passing on a
decidedly 'houndy' look, and quite often, blue eyes and white faces.
Be that as it may, Attla dogs and Wright hounds are still, without doubt, Alaskan Huskies. This breed had its roots in the past, but it is special in that anything that races hard, and helps achieve a win, has enough merit to be included in the gene pool, thereby contributing to the breeds' ongoing evolution. The stud book will never be 'closed' on this breed of dog, and that is what makes it so unique as a 'breed'.
In part because of this freedom to evolve, the Alaskan Husky is not recognized as a 'purebred' by any Kennel Club. If it is anything, the Alaskan Husky is a performance dog, and to try and judge it by a written standard, in a show ring, would be to destroy it. With little consistency in looks, and one of the only common features being their talent in harness, the variety in the breed is one of it's most endearing traits - variety being the spice of life, of course!
So as long as the mushers run their races, and continue to breed their best dogs to run harder, further, and faster, there will always be a demand, and an accompanying price tag, to go with each individual pup. No governing body required - it is a self-regulated breed. There are as many 'bloodlines' as there are racers, and each is known for it's strengths or weaknesses, and some common running traits. Yet, they are all Alaskan Huskies, or, as they are often referred to - 'ALASKANS'.
It's almost not fair to mention names, as there have been countless record setting racers, who have over time, greatly impacted the Alaskan Husky as a breed. But it wouldn't be fair to NOT mention some of the names of the legendary races who shaped the breed in the past 50 years - Doc Lombard & Harris Dunlap, Roxy & Charlie Champaigne, Susan Butcher, Martin Buser, Rick Swenson, Dee Dee Jonrowe, Hans Gatt, Tim White, Egil Ellis, Ross Saunderson, (to name but a few) Recognized and respected by today's mushers, these drivers have focused their energies into their sport and excelled, and carved themselves a niche in history be breeding, training, and driving some of the finest Alaskans to grace a trail.
Each kennel eventually becomes known by their wins - and their lines are valued based on these race records. So, in today's racing circles, you can pay anywhere from $100 - $5000 for a good dog, with the right bloodlines. Often, it is well worth the expense, and in Ontario today, there are many world class 'lines' available, due to the resources of some very dedicated racers, who have imported the best lines from original Alaskan stock.
One could ask, if I buy an 'Alaskan' from a Canadian breeder...is he still an 'Alaskan Husky'? Absolutely. The breed may have become popular in countries outside the frozen state - but just as an 'English' springer spaniel is an 'English' breed, so to will the Alaskan husky always be 'ALASKAN'.
One could argue, how do you know the breeder is being honest? How do you know the pup is really from the bloodlines represented? In the ongoing tradition of a small peer group, being well aware of the goings on of their competitors - integrity is rewarded. While it is not unknown for people to try and 'pass off' a pup as being from such & such well known parent - everyone seems to find out about the deception, and the seller doesn't receive much business, once word gets around. It is in the best interest of mushers to represent their dogs fairly - their good name precedes them! So, when an Alaskan is sold, it's records are handed down personally - usually, the dog comes with a hastily scribbled pedigree, with the names of it's famous ancestors outlined in it's family tree. The purchaser is usually buying directly from the owner of the champion whose blood he is seeking, or, from someone close to the champion - deceptions would be difficult, and most certainly, foolhardy on the part of the seller.
I have often been asked "If I cross a Siberian with a Hound, will I have an Alaskan Husky? I don't think many would argue that the answer is "no". The Alaskans of our time have as many as a dozen (or more) generations of proven racing stock behind them, and their abilities in harness are now (more or less) genetically stable. So although an Alaskan might not have come directly from the state of Alaska, it will have generations behind it's bloodlines who did.
So, now that we know why some Alaskan Huskies look like hounds, and some look like pointers, and some look like wolves.....how do you know if you've got a good one? In my experience, a good Alaskan will hook up, even as a pup, and throw itself into harness, pulling enthusiastically with the team from the very first hookup, for a short run. There are some that take some time to adjust, but in my opinion, a good dog will have it from the start. It never ceases to amaze me just how genetically primed these dogs are - it is as natural to them as pointing a bird is to the setters. A tight tug line is the ultimate indicator of just how good an Alaskan really is....and the final test, how he performs over the long haul, in the event for which he was selected.
Here is a typical Alaskan in 2004 - strong and muscled and fleet of foot, he can run all day long.
With proper 'bloodline' selection, good training, and skilled feeding and conditioning, (and a driver with a few smarts) a team of good dogs will perform well in whatever race type for which you train and condition it.
Alaskans are not just for the big timers, they make an excellent familly project as well. There are many races in North America. There are small ones geared for novices, and huge ones fought over by the bigshots. A smooth running team is a pleasure to drive, no matter what your goal.
There are as many 'styles' of Alaskan Huskies as there are races, and each type of race attracts a certain 'type' of Alaskan Husky. For example,
- the 'houndier' types, with lots of leg, & a very smooth, highly extended RUNNING gait, are best suited to SPRINT RACING (teams attaining speeds of up to 35 mph, in short fast races which range from 4 - 20 miles in length);
- the larger, somewhat heavier coated, but still 'sprinty looking' types are suited to MID-DISTANCE RACING (teams attaining speeds of up to 20 mph, in moderate distance races from 20 - 100 miles in length);
- and moderately built, double coated dogs, with a ground covering trot and lope, incredibly tough feet and a tougher stomach to match, are the professionals in LONG DISTANCE RACING(teams attaining average speeds of up to 14 mph, in very long, tough races of from 100 - 1200 miles in length).
So, for each type of race, the Alaskan Husky has evolved to suit, and if you are good musher, in your selection
of dogs, you look for the proper balance of
(drive and toughness)
(conformation geared towards efficiency of movement)
(feet that don't crack or develop sores called 'fissures')
and try to put together a team of dogs as consistent in these characteristics as possible. The ultimate goal is a team so consistant that they run smoothly and in unison, often shaving time differences down to fractions of seconds.
It deserves mention here, that often, a fabulous 'rec' team of Alaskans can be the ultimate goal of the musher of the new millenium. Dogsledding is extremely enjoyable, and many seek only to hit the trails and enjoy an afternoon of peace and quiet. To this end, one can often acquire retired Alaskans, who can make their personal dogsledding experience an absolute joy. Most of our Alaskans here at the kennel are dogs with a significant racing history, some big winners in their own right. What better way to retire a dog from racing, than to give it a home where it is cared for, and run for pleasure?
A trip to our dogyard will show you, these dogs really love what they do, and to allow them to perform is to make them very happy, and give them something to look forward to every day!
So, there you have it! In the year 2004, the Alaskan Husky has evolved into a highly specialized critter, with a gentle, good natured and trainable temperament. Most Alaskans retain some wolf like characteristics - they howl in groups, they can stomach almost any kind of food, they have excellent, tough feet, and are well adapted to the cold. They are fantastic companions, and provide pleasure for recreational mushers and racers alike. An obsession for some, a passion for others....at the centre of it all, is the Alaskan Husky, a dog engineered with the changing times.
*Some notes taken from "Travellers of the Cold" by Dominique Cellura
*special thanks to Anne Millbrooke for facts & editorial suggestions