Each March, the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race is held in Alaska. In this annual competition, each musher is tasked with leading their team of 16 dogs from Anchorage to Nome, a feat that can take anywhere from 8 to 15 days. The terms musher and mushing are commonly used in the sport, and derive from the word mush, which most people know as a command used to make the dogs “go.” But just where does this word come from? Why do we tell sled dogs to mush?
We’ll break down where the term comes from, but first, let’s explore the history of sled dog racing a little more.
History of Sled Dog Racing in Alaska
People have been using dogs to pull sleds for thousands of years. It is believe the practice originated in Siberia or North America, where many Indigenous cultures used dogs to pull heavy loads.
In Alaska, parts of what would become the Iditarod Trail were used by the native Iñupiat and Athabaskan peoples well before European contact. However, the trail would reach its peak between the late 1880s and the mid-1920s, as miners arrived to dig coal and later gold. Mushing emerged as a popular winter sport, when most of the mining towns shut down.
Even during World War II, mushers and their teams of dogs were used to patrol areas of Western Alaska. However, in the 1960s, snowmobiles and other machines became more prevalent. The need for sled dogs to navigate snowy terrain became less important.
The Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Alaska becoming a US Territory, many were looking for a way to create a historical event for the state. Dorothy Page, chairman of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee, wanted to incorporate the state’s history of dog sledding into some sort of annual event. She came up with the idea to hold a race on a portion of the Iditarod Trail. With much research and labor, the trail was cleared for the first race. The event took place from 1967 to 1969, but failed to garner much interest.
It might have disappeared entirely, but Joe Redington, an avid fan of the event, worked to reintroduce the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race in 1973. The race has seen many financial ups and downs since it was brought back, but it has gradually grown over the years. It is now an event so large that only professional mushers can qualify, and these mushers now receive thousands of dollars from corporate sponsors. It’s the state’s biggest sporting event, and Alaska is now considered the Mecca of sled dog racing.
Why Do We Tell Sled Dogs to Mush?
Okay, so we’ve heard about mush, mushers, and mushing, but where do these words come from?
The term dates back to the 16th century, when French explorers came to Canada in an attempt to claim the Gaspe Peninsula (in Quebec). These Frenchmen had numerous encounters with Indigenous Canadians, and many practical skills were traded between the two cultures.
One of the things that the French adopted from the Native population was the practice of using dogs and sleds as transportation. For many years, the French would use the word marche, which translates to “go” or “run,” in order to get the dogs to move forward.
After the Seven Years’ War, Britain acquired many of these North American territories, and they would also become familiar with sled dog culture. With this change in ownership, the word marche evolved into mush. The person driving the dog sled came to be known as a musher, and the act itself became mushing.
Many of us are familiar with the word “mush” from seeing it on TV or in movies. It certainly is a term that has entered popular culture. It is important to know, however, that the word itself is rarely used in modern dog sled racing. While “mushing” and “musher” are still common, the actual “mush” command is seen as too soft of a sound. Most prefer more distinctive phrases, like “hike” or “all right.”
Sled Dog Racing Controversies
It also needs to be mentioned that recently, the Iditarod, and sled dog racing in general, have been the target of various controversies. From accusations of animal cruelty, infighting, and doping, to a full-fledged effort by PETA to end the race, it is clear that Iditarod officials certainly have to clean-up aspects of the event. In 2017, Wells Fargo announced that it would no longer sponsor the race.
Chas St. George, the Iditarod’s chief operations officer, feels confident these recent controversies can help serve as a turning point for the race. He sees it an opportunity to make changes that will attract a new generation of fans.
While supporters argue that claims of animal cruelty should be directed at a few bad mushers, and not the entire sport itself, protesters continue to show up at the event each year, leaving the long-term future of the Iditarod up in the air.