We might be slightly deluded if we relied on Yukon Cornelius from the 1964 Christmas classic “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer” to teach us about dog sledding. Throughout the movie, Yukon Cornelius says, “mush, mush” to the dog sled team. Do mushers say this literally? You might be surprised that they are actually called “mushers”. So why are they called “mushers” and where did the idea of yelling “mush, mush” came from to get their sled dogs running? Let’s find out.
In North America, dogs have been used to pull sleds for at least a thousand years, and in Siberia, it is thought that they started using dogs for sledding purposes as much as three millennia ago. But we have to go through the history in a fast-forward mode to get the first “mush”.
The origin of this term “mush” dates back to the 16th century when Jacques Cartier claimed the Gaspe Peninsula for France. Claiming is one thing, and the ruling is another, given that there were many people living out there already. The clashes between the French and various native groups became commonplace in the region. While they battled occasionally, they also picked up a few things from one another. The French soon adopted the practice of using sled dogs to pull sleds in the region. By the 18th century, it became a common means of transportation during the winters in the northern areas of New France.
In 1749, Peter Karm, who was traveling through Quebec, noted that in winter, it is customary in Canada for travelers to tether sled dogs to the little sleds. Sled dogs were commonly employed by poor people on their winter-journies. Almost all the wood that is fetched out in winter is carried by sled dogs. He also saw that some little sleds were made for ladies to ride in. These little sleds were drawn by a pair of dogs, and they were faster than anybody could think of.
With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France gave up most of its territories in North America to Britain. Now you must be wondering what does this have to do with sled dogs and mushing? Let’s kill your curiosity and tell you why it was important for you to know. The French sled dogs drivers used to command their dogs by saying “marche”. When the British took over, the command became “mush”. The first instance of this term, “mush”, popped up in 1862.
To conclude, the English dog sledding term “mush” led to the creation of the term “musher”. Musher was the name given to the sled dogs’ driver. However, the term “mush” is not used anymore as many mushers believe that it is too soft of a sound to be used as a distinctive command.