After 100 years, the husky still reigns
By Doug O'Harra
In many ways, the evolution of Iditarod dogs repeats mushing history. A similar transformation occurred in Nome after the Gold Rush, whenmushers first began to race their freight teams.
The original Native dogs -- stocky Eskimo ''malamutes'' of the coast, rangy Indian ''huskies'' of the Interior -- had been joined by blue-eyed Siberiandogs brought by 19th century Russian traders. Then the Gold Rush lured just about any dog large enough to pull a sled, resulting in an explosionof cross-breeding and experimentation.
Gold-rush era missionary Hudson Stuck wrote in his 1914 book, ''Ten Thousand Miles on a Dog Sled,'' that the original Native sled dogs alreadyhad been extensively mated with setters, pointers, hounds, mastiffs, Saint Bernards and Newfoundlands, creating ''a general admixture of breeds,so that the work dogs of Alaska are an heterogeneous lot . . .''
The very best, according to the conventional wisdom of the day, were big, beefy, furry and tough.
As if to prove the point, a team of big malamutes won Alaska's first major sled dog race, the 1908 All Alaska Sweepstakes, a 408-mile dash fromNome to Candle and back. The massive haulers won the second race, too, but a team of smaller, more compact Siberian huskies took the third,overturning the idea that mushing required large dogs.
Teams of Siberian huskies quickly dominated the new sport and its premier race. A team of Siberians driven by John ''Iron Man'' Johnson dashedmore than 100 miles a day to set the course record of 74 hours, 14 minutes and 22 seconds -- a record never bettered. Leonhard Seppala'sSiberians won the Sweepstakes three years in a row. Siberians dominated the teams that carried serum across Alaska in 1925 to end the diphtheriaepidemic in Nome. And Seppala's famous leader, Togo, was a Siberian.
The notion that the world's fastest sled dogs came from Yukon-area villages became an axiom of the sport, a rule reinforced scores of times over theyears.
Famous examples include Native musher Johnny Allen, who dominated races around Fairbanks in the 1930s, as well as a whole series of racersfrom around Huslia. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Gareth Wright, a Nenana-born Athabaskan, began breeding Yukon-Tanana river dogs(many from Allen's stock) with a mixture of Irish setters, Siberian huskies, Targhee hounds and other dogs. The result was the ''Aurora husky,'' ared-coated, floppy-eared, blue-eyed animal that looked a bit goofy, although there was nothing goofy about their performance.
''They have a phenomenal desire to work,'' Wright wrote in the 1970s. ''Because of their gaits, running 20 mph is nearly effortless for Aurorahuskies.''
Over a 40-year period, Wright or his daughter, Roxy Wright Champaine, raced the ''Aurora huskies'' or their descendents to victory in every majorsprint race in Alaska.
But Wright's dogs were only the most recognizable strain of husky. Using dogs from his village of Huslia, George Attla won his first Anchorageworld championship in 1958. He went on to win the Fur Rondy an unprecedented 10 times, and the Fairbanks North American race eight times.East Coast veterinarian Roland Lombard, who won nearly as many championships as Attla, was known for traveling to villages to buy breedingstock.
© Copyright 1997 Anchorage Daily News -- All Rights Reserved -- This article appeared originally in Iditarod 25: Tales from the Last Great Race, published as a special section to the Anchorage Daily News on February 23, 1997.
|Copyright © 1996-1998 -- Anchorage Daily News -- All Rights Reserved|
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