No doubt you have been spending many sleepless nights wondering
how dog mushing began. After extensive research, including
in-depth interviews with experts who died long before I was
born, and a substantial amount of juice of the barley, I am pleased
to present this paper, the fruits of my research. The author
apologizes in advance for any accuracies, and readers are encouraged
to point these out to me so that they may be expunged in a later
publication. This monograph will discuss mushing as it relates to
dog-powered sports, not as it relates to things like romantic films
("ugh. Too mushy").
Word history can make a fascinating topic for any subject of
interest. As is usually the case, the history of the word "mush"
provides a fascinating glimpse into utterly irrelevant
The term derives from the PigLatin "Ush-May", which at the time of it's creation meant `activity for fools with more drive than sense`. The written history of the term originates from The Book of Kibble, one of the texts that was not included in the official Biblical canon for the New Testament coming out of Constantinople. Ironically, it's next appearance in print is from the press of Gutenberg in the book he printed after completing his monumental Bible. We only know of this work as it is referred to in various subsequent texts; the tome was titled, "Gutenberg's Goode Jokes" and was said to contain the third funniest joke ever written. It is not known if mush was part of the joke; but it was certainly found somewhere in the book. There are, alas, no known copies of this book surviving.
The word seems to have been transported to Scotland around 1500, where is was spelled "Mooush". Seventy years later it was in the same locale where the first known mushing event took place. This is a nice segue into the next section titled,
In 1570, give or take a few hours, in the town of St. Iver Mectin,
deep in the Scottish countryside, the man who ran the local public
house ("pub") had a problem. It seems that he did not have
enough spirits in his pub to slake the thirst expected from the
locals watching the big "Who's Columbus?" parade, which had
become a big event a generation or two earlier. The event was
expected two weeks hence, so (according to legend) he grabbed his
eldest son, a big, strapping lad called Rodney, known for his
physical prowess but not his intelligence, to purchase spirits from
the local distillery run by a man named, "Mr. Wizkey". The
still was known to be about two tenths of a mile away, further than
his son had ever traveled before. The lad set off for Mr. Wizkey's
still with a small wagon and the family dog. He arrived at Mr.
Wizkey's establishment and purchased a barrel of the proprietor's
finest, which was named after the proprietor. The lad sampled the
wares and set off for the return journey, so the good folk would have
sufficient Wiskey's Drink for the upcoming celebrations. He stopped
to sample the wares again; three days later he managed to make it
back home with his dog pulling the wagon and the barrel half
To this very day people still commemorate the Idiot Rod in a race held in Alaska. The origins of the race have long been forgotten by most, now confused with a humanitarian effort dating from the early part of the 20th century, but the name remains remarkably unaffected by the ensuing years.
Of course this single incident did not create the entire family of dog pulling sports. For example, in Scandinavia, the year 1781was a particularly nasty one for snow moles, known locally as "Skeees". Skeees would quickly dig holes in the snow and find the Lutefish the locals had buried. Lutefish are still around today: their odor is most off-putting. Skees would dig up the lutefish and consume their wrappings, leaving the lutefish themselves on the top of the snow. This generally made the air smell pretty disgusting, so the resourceful Scandinavians created a breed of dog that would actually bore holes in the deep snow and chase the Skeees to the surface. Once there the locals would trap them and mail them to Italy. Because of the deep snow the locals would transport their dogs in backpacks while riding specially fabricated bicycles through the snow. This activity - which morphed significantly when it became a sport - was known as Skeee-Boring. The modern English name (Skijoring) is a perversion of the Scandinavian.
The modern sled is a product of the royalty of ancient Egypt. In those days, sleds were carried aloft by fleet footed slaves, while the lone passenger would ride on the bed of the sled. For longer journeys, the passenger would usually bring a pillow and have a nap. The slaves meanwhile would continue to move the passenger and the bed over very long distances. These slaves were highly prized for their physical prowess. Even today, when sleds are pulled on the ground by teams of dogs, we still speak of the sled as resting on runners.
The really, really wealthy of ancient Egypt would build miniature versions of their sleds and place favored pets on them. While cats were a more popular pet in ancient Egypt, we believe that is how dogs first became associated with sleds. It was somewhere during the thousands of years it took for sleds to move from ancient Egypt to more snowy climes that the dog morphed from passenger to engine. The precise details of this transformation are lost, but it is assumed that some wily person figured out it was more fun being pulled by a dogs while in a sled than pulling dogs in a sled.
Space limitations prevent me from discussing other pulling events like wait-pull (which originated when dogs used to pull elevators up to a floor: a handler would tell them to "wait " until passengers disembarked, when remaining passengers would be pulled up to the next floor) so don't ask, and how the term "mush" came to refer to dog sledding. Maybe next time.
Copyright 2011 by Gary Hughes-Fenchel