Dogs have been used to power vehicles for centuries, and have been especially important in the discovery, exploration and settling of cold Northern territories like Canada, Alaska and Greenland. These dogs, however, would have meant nothing without the invention of the dog sled, which was the central instrument of the endeavor and of a sport that is still alive today. The Inuits were among the first people to use dog sleds for travel and exploration; they developed their cold-terrain vehicles out of flexible woods found in the Antarctic region. Inuit dog sleds were crude vehicles driven by a pack of sled dogs, and were an important part of Antarctic exploration and the migration of indigenous people across the polar North.
The Inuit dog sled originated between 900 and 1100 A.D., when the Thule civilization began to migrate from Asia to to Greenland across the frozen Bering Strait, Dog sleds have been used in travel and exploration ever since. Inuit dog sleds played a big role in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. An iconic expedition to the South Pole, led by the Norwegian explorer Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen, implemented the use of traditional Inuit dog sleds to cross the brutal terrain. Although dog sleds seem to be a crude way of traveling in today’s motorized economy, families were still using them to travel between Greenland and Canada all the way up to the late 1960s, and dog-sled racing is still a popular pastime in many polar regions in the North.
An Inuit dog sled is a toboggan or luge-like vehicle that is pulled by a team of purebred sled dogs and driven or guided by a trained human driver called a “musher.” These dog sleds were traditionally made from various types of woods like birch or ash, but modern sled-makers have experimented with other materials, like aluminum and fiberglass. Inuit dog sleds are used to travel across the difficult terrain of ice and snow, and are generally the type of sleds used by the indigenous people of Arctic regions like Greenland, Canada, Russia and Alaska. Inuit dog sleds are pulled by a pack of Qimmiq (also called Inuit Husky dogs), Gronlandshund or Canadian Eskimo dogs.
There are several types of dog sleds, based on the length of a hunt, the style of exploration and the number of dogs in a team. The most common Inuit dog sleds are the basket sled–whose sled bed is raised above the surface of the snow–and the sprint sled, whose sled body is of only a minimal weight and is very short. These sleds create less drag, and are therefore typically used in dog-sled racing. Other types of dog sleds are the toboggan sled–which is identified by a closed body that is only slightly raised, and is designed to glide over deep snow–and the freight sled, which is designed to be sturdy rather than fast. Both the toboggan and freight sleds have runners that extend past the head of the sled, where the driver can stand in order to direct his sled team. The most common Inuit dog sled, which is subsequently the most traditional, is known as the “komatik”; it differs from most dog sleds in that it does not have runners for the musher to stand on. Instead, the sled is designed so that the driver lies down, facing forward.
Traditional Inuit dog sleds were made with a mid-range floating basket, where the driver would sit or lie, facing forward. These dog sleds were equipped with a runner–the bottom sole of the sled, made from a single piece of birch or another wood product. It is bent slightly up at the front and lined with sheet iron to help withstand harsh terrain. The stanchions are the frame or skeleton of the sled, which help to keep all of the other parts together. Attached to the stanchions are the brush bow, which extends past the front of the sled and serves as a bumper; the basket or sled bed, which is used for freight, supplies or to carry the driver; and the top rails, which support the sled’s frame and the weight of the basket. The sled is complete with a set of brakes; they can be anything from a set of hooks attached to a rope that anchor into the snow when thrown, or a blade attached to the center of the sled’s body that can be released by stepping on a spring located near the driver.
While dog sledding for migration and exploration purposes has been supplanted by advancements in technology and the development of motorized vehicles for cold-weather terrain, that does not mean the activity will fall by the wayside. Many famous dog-sled races, like the Iditarod in Alaska and the Moose River Run in Maine, still occur annually in many parts of the polar regions in the North. The website Call of the Wild claims that one advancement in dog sledding has arisen from tourism. More and more people are exploring the potential of dog sledding for vacation fun and sport. With new reality television shows that feature dog sledding airing on stations like the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, its popularity will only grow.