It was likely the highlight of the trip! Or course, we’re all dog lovers but our time with the dogs and the team at Black Spruce Dog Sledding was unforgettable from start to finish. My expectations of dog sledding had certainly been informed by watching Cornelius in Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer as he cracked the whip and shouted, “Mush!” to get his dog team moving. And so, I wasn’t surprised when our Black Spruce guides explained that the sleigh driver is known as the musher and the dogs become intimately familiar with their voice and commands.
Sled dogs have been used in the Arctic for over a thousand years and, mostly in years past, were critical for transportation and hauling supplies to inaccessible areas. Sled dog teams are still in use today in some of the rural areas of Alaska and are the highlighted athlete at the famous Iditarod race in which we learned our guides compete.
The sled dogs breeds were an assortment of Alaskan Husky, Malamute, and Siberian Husky, weighing between 40-60 pounds each. These highly conditioned athletes who were selected to pull our sleighs had unique personalities that ultimately influenced their position on the sledding team. Our guides explained that the dogs are selected for their endurance (with some capable of running up to 1,000 miles per week) as well as their temperament.
But back to Cornelius’ exclamation of “Mush!” At the time of the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France gave up most of its holdings in Britain and North America. And the French word for “walk” is “marche”, a command used by the French to get the sled dogs moving. It is speculated that when the British took over, “marche” became “mush!” which then led to the term “musher” as the name for the driver of a dog sled. Black Spruce does not use the term “Mush!” due to the difficulty of hearing the sound when the dogs are barking or the wind has picked up. Instead, they use distinctive commands like “Hike!” for “go” and “Whoa!” for “stop.”
After greeting our dogs, the team was hooked up to our sleigh, our training on the commands and how to use the brake was complete and with a gentle jerk we left the fairy light strewn compound of Black Spruce and began making our way through snow laden evergreens. The dogs ran furiously, joyfully barking, with tails wagging. As we entered the first sharp turn on the trail the guide warned us to shift our weight in the opposite direction of the sleigh and to bend our knees. No sooner than she said it but I realized the full wisdom of her instruction as I was at risk of being thrown from the sleigh. Tamping down on the break slightly I felt the team slow. The soft shushing of the sled over snow and the gentle breeze was exhilarating as we made our way across the Alaskan landscape with the golden glow of the sun sitting low on the far horizon.
Mary Beth I have a passion for creating and experiencing unforgettable moments and sharing those with others. I hope that this story has helped you experience one of those moments.