URSA Showcase: Arleigh Reynolds explains science, history of sled dogs

World champion dog musher Professor Arleigh Reynolds addresses his attentive audience about the importance of sled dog culture in Alaska in the Schiable Auditorium during the monthly URSA research showcase. Max Erickson/ Sun Star

World champion dog musher Professor Arleigh Reynolds addresses his attentive audience about the importance of sled dog culture in Alaska in the Schiable Auditorium during the monthly URSA research showcase. Max Erickson / Sun Star

Max Erickson / Sun Star

Arleigh Reynolds, associate dean of the department of Veterinary Medicine and champion of the Anchorage fur rendezvous delivered an URSA research showcase showing the importance of Sled Dogs in the history of Alaska.

Reynolds informed the audience of how sled dogs saved Nome from diphtheria in 1925 in what was called the Great Race of Mercy. With Alaska only possessing two planes during this time and the conditions deemed too hazardous to use them, over land was the only option left to deliver the diphtheria antitoxin.  Thus the decision to use sled dogs was made.

Twenty mushers brought the antitoxin from Nenana to Nome in a nearly 500-mile trek. The journey was brutal, with temperatures from 50 below to 90 below as well as elevations of 5,000-feet, which led to the death of several dogs.

Without this antitoxin the town’s population of 10,000 people was expected to be halved at the least. These mushers were hailed as heroes and are honored in modern races as well in the sled dog culture.

“Dogs hold together the web of traditional culture in a modern world,” Reynolds said before he brought up one way in which this culture is kept alive: The Frank Attla Youth Care and Sled Dog Program. This program focuses on establishing the care of sled dogs in children’s schools fostering a sense of responsibility, culture and fun.

His presentation brought up how dogs are incredible athletes, burning up to 11,000 calories in a day during races—the equivalent of a human eating 20 big macs—while still working in tandem with their fellow dogs.

Reynolds spoke about how we can learn from dogs on multiple levels. He gave an example of a study in Australia where top athletes were put on a high-fat diet (similar to dogs) and after a six to eight week transition period these athletes performed better than before. However, every athlete said they would refuse to perform the experiment again due to the harshness of the transition period.

“When you work with sled dogs there are so many different levels that you connect with those dogs and when you see what they do, it’s humbling, it’s awe inspiring,” Reynolds said.  “The neat thing is that there is always something new to learn every day, it’s never boring and when you’re standing on the sled looking at those dogs, 16 of them all running in harmony and just wanting to keep going and going, it is like a living breathing moving work of art. It is like a ballet or a symphony, it moves you, it just moves you.”

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