Any man who wandered through boyhood with a dog can easily revive the sweetest parts of his past by visiting among the great sled dogs of Alaska. An Alaskan husky is just about what every boy's dog should be: furry and lovable and stoical, trusting yet skeptical, abiding in the faith that however bad today has been, there is always tomorrow—which may be even worse.
Although it has been a state for 17 years, Alaska is still a sprawling confederation of men and moose, sustained in large part by government checks and pipeline promises and loosely bound together by such modern appliances as the microwave telephone, the Bell helicopter, the Cessna 180 and the snowmobile. In the technology of the red-hot present, the sled dog is an anachronism, but not a museum piece. Like Sam Colt's simple old six-shooter, the Alaskan dog lives beyond its time because it is a very efficient and durable item.
On a good trail a modest-powered snowmobile can get 30 miles out of two gallons of gas. On an equal weight of high protein and oil, a good seven-dog team can go 70 miles in a day hauling 350 pounds and can keep going at that pace for a fortnight. When it is pegged down for the night in arctic winter, a Cessna needs a heater hung under its cowling to keep its vital parts from sticking together. The sled dog makes it through the night at minus-40� by curling into a headless, legless ball.
In extreme cold, when the body temperature of a man drops below 95�, the controls of his system begin shutting off heat to the hands and feet, surrendering the extremities to try to save the rest. Endowed differently, the sled dog suffers relatively little from frostbite. On a long haul in the worst of times, a dog may become so dehydrated that the skin of its withers, when pinched up on its back, will stick to itself. Its feet may become raw from iceballs formed between the pads and from rough mileage over ice, but usually the dog keeps going until all of it gives out. When one piston pops on a Cessna, that is it. When a snowmobile dies 40 miles from anywhere, you cannot eat the carburetor. When one dog in a team fails, the rest carry on, nourished if need be by the carcass of their brother.
The sled dog for certain has come a long hard way in the company of man, possibly accompanying him across the land bridge from Asia back in glacial times. No one really knows how long northern men and dogs have been together because the records were poorly kept, and a lot of the good early data is probably buried under 20 feet of mud in the Bering Sea. The greyhound, a distant cousin of the husky, is depicted in reasonable facsimile in 5,000-year-old carvings in the Egyptian tomb of Amten. The husky's line can also be traced back almost 4,000 years, but because it lived among men who left only occasional scrimshaw on bone and tusk, the clues as to what its ancestors looked like and how they served man are fragmentary.
In arctic cultures, when it was sometimes necessary to put feeble and aged kinfolk out in the snow as they became a burden, the dog obviously was not cultivated simply as a lovable chum. Because their skulls have been found in middens, it is speculated that early Eskimos raised dogs to eat, and considering the marginal economy of the primitive Eskimo, they probably were eaten. Whatever their worth may have been as dinner entrees or as hunters, pack animals and sled-haulers, there is little doubt that long before there was a Darwinian theory or Mendelian Law, the dogs of the north were being selectively bred by the dure process of elimination, the weak perishing, the deadbeats disposed of and the top dogs retained as working partners in the constant business of survival.
Despite its years of isolation and the fact that three separate strains are now pedigreed, the working and racing sled dog of today is more mongrel than ever. Since the coming of European man and his grab bag of canine varieties, just about everything has gotten into the husky blood. In a single good team there may be pure Siberian and Malamute, and mongrels sporting the features and pelage of half a dozen breeds: the slant eye of the wolf combined with the snout of a German shepherd; the pale blue eye of the Siberian showing in a mongrel with the lop ears and tawny coat of a retriever—all in all a mishmash of the sort that would give a genetic fanatic the fits. The most to be said with certainty along these lines about the best Alaskan huskies today is that there is probably not much Chihuahua or dachshund in any of them.
A few years back, Darrell Reynolds, an Anchorage musher, tried mixing the blood of the dingo, the fast and very smart wild dog of Australia, into his sled team. The urge to pull and keep pulling now and forever is bred into the Alaskan husky, and any good musher can tell if a mongrel rookie on his gang line has too much lazy blood in it. On irregular terrain, where the main weight of the load may shift back and forth among the tandem pairs of dogs on the gang line, if one dog is goldbricking there will be too much slack showing too often and for too long in its individual line. When Reynolds bred a dingo bitch to a pure Siberian and put one of their offspring on his team, the half dingo (fittingly named Aussie) seemed to be pulling, but was it? Having been an officer in Alaska's correctional institutions for some time, Reynolds is no dumbhead when it comes to cunning. To find out if Aussie was giving its all, Reynolds tied a cotton string to the half dingo's harness and led the string back to his position on the sled runners. By hauling lightly on the string, Reynolds could produce slack in Aussie's tug line. After only a few days at the slavish game of sledding, the half dingo had found out how to make its effort look good traveling uphill or down dale. Reynolds tried a dog of the next generation—one-quarter dingo—and discovered he still had too much gold-bricking brains on the line.
Bill Vaudrin, a half Cree-Chippewa musher born and raised in Akron, Ohio, got several of the mongrel dingoes bred by Reynolds and lent one to a trapper in southwestern Alaska who found it to be a dandy moose dog. Using its dingo smarts, the borrowed mongrel would set out of a morning, find a moose and herd it back within easy rifle range of the trapper's door. (Since bagging moose in such a fashion is unsporting and a definite no-no in the eyes of game wardens, the names of the trapper and mongrel are being withheld until the statute of limitations runs out for them.)
Despite the explicit function bred into it, the Alaskan husky is still all dog, lusty and rambunctious. After 40 miles in sweltering subarctic weather—say, 25� above—a sled dog may sprawl out on the snow limp as a rag doll, but his libido is unaffected. Many a fine sled-dog litter has been conceived because a musher bedding down his exhausted team left slack in the picket line, allowing boys and girls to mingle. In such impromptu get-togethers there are often more boys than girls, and that is why quite a few sled dogs have scarred muzzles and tattered ears.