The Yukon Quest dogsled race came mushing through Dawson last week on its annual run from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Fairbanks, Alaska, and it lived up to its billing as one of the biggest events on Dawson’s winter social calendar. The Quest is considered second only to the Iditarod in prestige, and I’ve heard tell locally that some mushers consider it the more challenging race. It covers 1,000 miles of mostly empty country in about nine intense, sleep-deprived days, with fewer checkpoints than the Iditarod trail. 

In any case, Dawson’s the midpoint, and the mushers and their tireless dogs spend 36 mandatory hours resting and getting their dogs checked by vets at a campground across the Yukon from downtown. They arrive at all hours of the day and night, sledding up the frozen river and then over the embankment to a waiting banner and crowd right in front of the Dawson Visitor’s Information Centre, a warehouse-sized log cabin that serves as checkpoint, media centre and social hub while the Quest is in town. 

You’d have to be a pretty diehard dogsledding fan to catch all the arrivals, but I did see a few of the teams come mushing in. What was most striking was the dogs themselves, their calm, eager disposition as they trotted down the checkpoint track, their feet often covered in little booties and their muzzles caked with ice. The mushers would call them to a halt, and mostly they would just stand there, expectant, as the Quest officials dug through the sleds to make sure the mushers were still carrying all their mandatory equipment.

One or two of the dogs might flop down and stretch and scratch against the packed snow, and some of them gnawed at their booties, but for the most part they looked like their only thoughts were on getting going again. Nearly 500 miles into a 1,000-mile marathon through frozen wilderness, the dogs looked like they’d just finished a warm-up jog through the park.

Sled dogs, to my surprise, are not big hulking huskies but mostly small, wiry animals, smaller and leaner than your typical suburbanite’s black Lab. They apparently thrive on the cold — this year’s race, with temperatures around 0 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer, was considered a bit hot for the dogs (and some of the bulkier mushers). They are, by all appearances, perfectly suited to running almost nonstop for days at a time across frozen rivers and through empty snowpacked forests.

I was reminded of one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Klondike gold rush — the grueling trek from the port at Skagway, Alaska, over the forboding White Pass to the headwaters of the Yukon River. In 1897, as the first great wave of prospectors flooded into the Klondike, the path was transformed into what Jack London would call “the Dead Horse Trail.” (The London quote and all other historical detail here are drawn from Canadian historian Pierre Berton’s "Klondike," the definitive history of the gold rush.)

A great many of the would-be Klondikers had little or no experience with pack horses. Still, the horse was the default long-distance transportation choice of its time, and so horse traders made easy money selling horses to new arrivals who disembarked at Skagway. They sold tired old horses and horses who’d never been broken or toiled under a heavy pack. More than anything, though, they were dealing in animals utterly out of their element in the Yukon. They were ill-suited to the steep, narrow, rocky trails of the route and powerless against the frosts of early autumn. Their exhausted bodies — often wracked with sores or broken limbs — were either left for dead where they collapsed along the trail or were abandoned sick and dying by the score as the trekkers neared the Canadian border. (The North West Mounted Police at the detachment there were shooting wounded horses on sight, which appears under the circumstances to have been an act of mercy as well as civic order.)

Once the gold-rush stampeders of 1897 and 1898 finally reached Dawson, they soon discovered the innate superiority of sled dogs, animals that had been providing transport in the region for generations. By 1910, a Nova Scotia import named Percy DeWolfe was making regular mail deliveries by dogsled along a hundred-mile route between Dawson City and Eagle, Alaska. (DeWolfe’s indefatigable work for nearly 40 years as Dawson’s mail carrier is commemorated in the Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race, a dogsledding race in late March; I spent a couple days of the Yukon Quest layover volunteering for the fundraising concession stand for the Percy, about which more in a future post.)

There is a whole sort of subgenre of sustainability studies called “appropriate technology,” and it strikes me that the Klondike experience with horses and sled dogs provides a handy analogy for the topic. There are still precious few horses in the valleys of the Yukon, but dogsleds make their Quest runs every year with arguably more ease than other form of transport. They aren’t slowed by heavy snow or cold or the low-lying cloud that regularly strands passengers at Dawson’s airport. Sled dogs are much more than mere tools, of course — the deep reciprocal affection and almost intuitive communication between mushers, handlers and dog teams is truly a heartwarming thing to witness — but if tools are understood as the means to a solution, then sled dogs are in this sense the transportation tool most perfectly calibrated to the Far North’s unique geographic conditions.

Think of it, perhaps, as biomimicry by analogy: When you’re looking for a sustainable solution, ask yourself whether your tool is a horse out of its element or a sled dog thriving on an epic trek across the frozen Klondike.

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MNN tease photo of sled dogs: Shutterstock

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