Courtesy of Bert-Jan Elfrink
published in Mushing Magazine (www.mushing.com)
March 1, 2006
By Sandy Moore
Some breeds of freight dogs (such as the Siberian Husky, Samoyed, and Inuit sled dog) were developed over centuries. Human and dog depended on each other in the harsh arctic environment. Dogs had to come when called, accept the harness, identify seal blow holes for the hunter, corral polar bears until the hunter(s) arrived, and be dependably friendly to their humans.
Both human and dog life was not easy. The average lifespan of an Inuit sled dog, for example, was five years and the dogs commonly died of injury and illness. Some of the not-so-old stories I’ve read tell of a lead dog being whipped repeatedly for a disobedient act; a female giving birth while working in harness, dropping her pups in the snow as they were born only to be immediately eaten by the following dog team; and a puppy being placed with a baby to keep the baby warm while the family traveled.
While some of these tales may seem horrific, I believe they offer a glimpse into the immense challenge of Arctic life. How close to the edge Arctic people and their dogs lived! Dogs that would not come were shot or starved to death. There was no room for a dog that could not pull its weight. The end result of this survival-based breeding program is the toughest dog in the world.
Freight dogs became widely used for running traplines and hauling white man supplies in the 1800’s. Again, their ability to run in open country, pull heavy loads, camp out, stop on command, and common sense about trail dangers proved invaluable.
Freight dogs were an integral part of Arctic life until the 1950’s or so when snowmobiles became available, and the Canadian government conducted a fairly complete extermination of sled dogs in an attempt to control canine disease.
The more I read and talk with other mushers, the clearer the picture of “freight dog” becomes. Freight dogs need to be strong to pull heavy loads over long distance in harsh arctic weather. The freight dogs I have known had excellent feet, thick, “double” coats, and were solidly built. In addition, freight dogs need to be mentally tough, able to pull heavy loads for hours without losing focus or melting down. It takes a stubborn dog to handle going 6-8 mph (maximum speed for many freight dogs) all day in a howling white-out, and then spend the night curled up in the snow.
There are a number of dog breeds that would be classified as freight dogs. According to www.samoyed.org, the Samoyed breed from east of the Ural Mountains in eastern Russia was bred to help their humans herd reindeer and pull sleds. While Samoyeds we see today are all white, the original Samoyed could be black or brown and white. This breed is not a fast dog, compared to today’s racing dogs, and is not often seen in a race setting. Samoyeds are credited with accompanying various late 1800/early 1900 polar explorers and adventurers such as Fridtjof Nansen, the Duc d’Abruzzi, Roald Amundsen, and Ernest Shackleton.
The Siberian Husky was developed to efficiently pull moderate loads over long distances in low temperatures throughout eastern Siberia. As a result the Siberian Husky is smaller than many freight dogs and has successfully transitioned into a racing dog. Leonhard Seppala is perhaps the most well-known Siberian breeder and musher, and his lead dog, Balto (who made the original “Iditarod Run” in 1925), lives on as a statue in New York’s Central Park.
I have read of evidence as old as 900 years that shows the use of sled dogs in North America. The Inuit sled dog (also known as the Canadian InuitEskimo dog or Greenland Husky) has links back to the Thule and Dorset Inuit people and the original migration of people from Asia across the Bering Sea to North America. The Inuit sled dog of today remains a primitive dog, generally not suited as a house pet, but a shining star when it comes to pulling heavy loads (often twice its weight), in the world’s worst weather. These dogs are often referred to as the “Sherman tank” of the sled dog world. A wonderful source of information and photos about these exceptional dogs is Toadhall Kennels www.mts.net/~toadhall/index(a).htm.
The Polar Husky was developed by Arctic explorer Will Steger for his polar expeditions. According to the polarhusky.com website, Polar Huskies are a mix of Malamute, Greenland Husky, Siberian, Alaskan, Mackenzie River, Canadian Eskimo, and Antarctic dog. I have seen several polar huskies weighing in at over 100 pounds, although a wide range of sizes is possible.
A modern and rare breed of freight dog is the Chinook, which began when a Greenland Husky/Mastiff cross named “Chinook” was born in 1917, in New Hampshire, USA. Chinook and some of his offspring accompanied his breeder and musher, Arthur Walden, hauling freight for the 1927 Byrd Antarctic Expedition. Chinooks are known for their tawny color, gentle nature, determination, and strength. Males typically weight about 70 pounds with females tipping the scales at about 55 pounds. A more complete history of this interesting dog can be found at www.chinook.org along with photos.
Alaskan Malamutes were developed as bigger dogs to haul heavy loads long distances. According to the Alaskan Malamute Club of America (www.alaskanmalamute.org) the Alaskan Malamute typically weighs in at 65-85 pounds. One history I read (www.angelfire.com/on3/happyhuskies/main.html) says the Alaskan Malamute originated with Mahlemut Inuit people near Kotzebue Sound, Alaska who used the dogs for hunting. In the 1800’s the Alaskan Malamute found additional work hauling supplies for gold miners during the Alaskan gold rush.
A year ago, a freight musher friend, Linda Fredericksen, introduced me to her new puppy, a Hedlund Husky. From Linda, I learned that the Hedlund Husky is an Alaskan Husky line developed from Siberian, Alaskan interior village dog and old wolf. Native Alaskans, Nels and Rose Hedlund, homesteaded in Illiamna in the mid-1900’s and bred racing dogs, which, at that time, meant dogs that could handle difficult trail conditions and heavy loads. Both Nels and Rose have died, and Kim Fitzgerald of Wasilla, Alaska, continues to develop and maintain this rare line.
According to Donna Dowling, Fairbanks Alaska, the “Mackenzie River Husky” is a breed of mystery and misconception. In an informative piece she wrote for Sled Dog Central (www.sleddogcentral.com), she comments that the name “Mackenzie River Husky” probably originally referred to a strain of husky from a village in Mackenzie River area (a large area by any means). However, unknowing tourists took to calling all huskies by that name, thus muddling historical information about the breed. Again, these dogs were used for hauling freight. Dowling writes that the dogs weigh 70 to 125 pounds.
The Alaskan Husky is not considered a “pure” breed because the very nature of the breed is for the breeder to breed in any dog containing characteristics that are desirable. Modern Alaskan Huskies may contain such diverse breeds as Greyhound and Border Collie, in addition to the more traditional northern breeds. It depends on the breeder’s goals for his or her kennel.
Theoretically, any dog can be a freight dog if it exhibits the appropriate characteristics of thick coat, good feet, wariness of trail danger (open water, uneven snow surfaces), ability to pull heavy loads for long distances often at slow speeds.
There is also some variation in how a dog is trained to freight as opposed to racing. For example, a freight dog needs to be trained to stop on command in case the musher has to snowshoe ahead to break trail or pause at a trap to remove the trapped wildlife. This sort of training would be counter-productive to the racer.
In comparison, a race dog needs to be strongly motivated to go at all times and trust that the trail will be safe. The racing dog trusts that the musher will not drive the dog into danger. A freight musher trusts her freight dogs to alert her to danger.
As another example, last winter I was visiting some mushing friends up in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. One of the group was a racing musher with her racing team. The rest of us were freight mushers. We’d had some heavy snows and were keen to get out a break trails. Our racing friend elected to stay in camp for fear her dogs would injure themselves trying to run through the deep, treacherous snows. This was not a problem for our freight dogs that were slower moving, took shorter steps, and were alert for trail danger.
There are other breeds of dog that are excellent at pulling heavy weight, but not as well-suited for pulling sleds long distances as the northern breeds. For space reasons, I will not address those breeds in this article.
Freight dogs today
Today the life of the average freight dog has changed. Snowmobiles have replaced dog teams, and the ever-evolving world of racing has favored the smaller, faster dog. The big, strong freight dog of the early 1900’s is rarely required nowadays.
Most freight dog mushers are recreational, using the dogs for camping trips, for example. However, there are still some mushers using freight dogs for running traplines in the bush or polar expeditions. Many freight breeds have become house pets, although the number of web sites dedicated to “Secrets to Solving Siberian Husky Problems” leads me to think that the transition to house pet has not been easy for these high energy, hard working, independent-thinking dogs.
Recently the Points Unknown Kennel, Watertown, Minnesota, donated three Inuit sled dog puppies to a village on Hudson Bay to help reestablish the breed among its native people. I received a copy of an email that told of the older couple who received the puppies, and how the woman recalled these puppies were indeed the same as the dogs she remembered as a girl before the government extermination program in the 1950’s.
Anecdotally, many recreational mushers do not appreciate the wild nature of some freight dogs, preferring to breed for quieter, calmer, less volatile dogs, more amenable to the increasingly suburban environment in which many mushers live. I believe that the hope for survival of the freight breeds in their original form depends on the use of the dogs as they were intended: for heavy loads over long distances in severe weather. These spectacular dogs represent a delicate communion between man and wild nature.
The author wishes to thank Linda Fredericksen, Ted Heistman, Helen Newman, and Tim Socha for their insights into the freight dog. Freight mushers will find a non-racing community on-line with the oldschooldogs chat group on Yahoo.com.
Sandy Moore lives in the Rocky Mountains near the town of Nederland, Colorado. When she’s not running the dogs, she works as a chimney sweep and Pilates instructor. She worked in arctic and alpine research for many years and can relate to how the sled dogs love wild weather as much as she does.