I grew up with a Siberian Husky. Bandit loved diving into and plowing through deep snow. I often wondered how he’d do pulling a sled.
Over the years, I’ve also enjoyed stories with people and dogs, together battling harsh conditions. Books and movies that illustrate an ancient alliance.
This dogsled fascination compelled me to volunteer at this year’s Gunflint Mail Run. The race is restricted to 300 dogs on 30 dog teams. Hungry teams that are fed by deep pockets, sponsors, and/or creative food sources, like road kills or butcher waste.
Animal-rights groups often criticize dogsled races as cruel. However, dog abuse isn’t limited to mushers. It’s unfair to condemn all sled dog races, dog shows, or breeders based on a few owners obsessed with glory or money. Using that extreme logic, one could argue no animal abuse would ever occur if we forbid humans from owning any pet. Yet that logic ignores studies that prove human interaction with dogs (or any pet) develops social skills and empathy toward people, let alone animals.
I do appreciate that critics have helped sled races get better at protecting dogs’ health and catching cheaters. Susan Butcher, a legendary Iditarod racer, helped show that well-cared-for dogs actually perform better. No one would deny though that long races test human and canine endurance. Injuries happen to paws, or from frostbite. Deaths happen from pneumonia (as one dog died from this year), vehicle collisions, or animal attacks (Susan Butcher lost two dogs and had thirteen injured in 1985’s Iditarod race when her sled team was attacked by a moose). Tragic accidents can happen when doing something you love to do. That doesn’t mean you should never leave home. So, perhaps critics should consider, “Do sled dogs enjoy racing?”
Anyone attending the Gunflint Mail Run would see dog teams eager to start, or wagging tails as they crossed the finish line. Those dogs loved running. Pulling. Feeling the wind and trees and snow rush past. Musher affection and respect for their pack was easy to see. The only tension was in the crowd, whose curiosity intruded on each team’s privacy. A family bond author Gary Paulsen ached for when he gave up dog racing, writing “How can it be to live without the dogs?”
As I and other volunteers waited at one of the crossroads, we didn’t debate the morality of pets and animal breeding. Instead, we joked and shared stories around a fire. We were dog lovers. Nature lovers. Lovers of older, simpler ways. When something approached, we scrambled into place. We formed a line that kept the dogs on the main path, or stopped cars or snowmobiles as sleds passed by. To honor each team’s effort, our claps and cheers echoed through the vast public forest around us.
When dusk became darkness, we spotted teams by their musher’s headlamp. A light that twinkled through the trees. Dogs also wore blinking LEDs or glow stick necklaces. These required safety lights made some dogsled teams seem like moving Christmas trees.
A few times dogsleds bunched up as one team passed or gained on another. Other teams were content to race for personal best times, not trophies. All raced to celebrate a unique winter alliance. Two species, united in purpose, hauling a load none could move alone.
As teams whooshed by, mushers shouted thanks (for volunteering), or “Haw” and “Gee” (steering the dogs). Once the team’s status was radioed in, cold, quiet darkness returned. In the silence, winds whistled through pine needles, sounding like waves on a beach. Amid these waves, faint northern lights even appeared. Their glow shimmered along the hazy Canadian horizon.
After three days along the Gunflint Trail, the dog city, population 300, melted away like a snowman. Gone, until next winter.
For fun, I made a video of 2019’s race. I hope all, even critics, can appreciate the bond between a musher and their dogs. Appreciate how teams train and test themselves. Appreciate how an old alliance enjoys a cold, starry night.
Other articles on Minnesota mushers:
All book covers and movie posters are from Imdb.com or Goodreads.com. Unless indicated, all photos are taken by Randy Haaland, ©2019, all rights reserved.
Background winter winds sound clip courtesy of a Creative Commons license from lwdickens at Freesounds.org: https://freesound.org/people/lwdickens/sounds/259969/