Meet the Man Saving Alaskan Malamutes—and With Them, Inuit Culture

Alaskan malamute dogs with man in snowshoes
Feeling soft? Joe Henderson would like a word.Angus Mill Photography

Joe Henderson thinks the Alaskan malamute is getting soft. Too much breeding focused on the show ring and not enough on pulling heavy loads has made the once-burly sled dog dainty and cute.

“I’m worried we’re losing what makes these dogs special,” says Henderson, a 60-year-old diesel mechanic and resident of North Pole, AK, outside Fairbanks.

In a quest to keep the breed from disappearing, in February Henderson set off on an unsupported, 800-mile sled dog trip with 22 malamutes, three sleds and more than 3,000 pounds of dog food. His destination: the Upper Colville River, a remote area of the Brooks Range.

As of press time, he was still trekking. Henderson planned to reach the remains of a 9,500-year-old village site, home to some of the oldest evidence of domesticated dogs in North America—ancestor of the malamute. “It’s brutal country,” he says. “No one travels up there in winter.”

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If anyone can save the malamute, it’s Henderson. Almost every winter since 1983 he’s completed a multimonth sled dog expedition. Running, skiing and snowshoeing beside the dogs—Henderson never rides on the sled—he came to appreciate how the Inuit of northern Alaska bred the dogs to pull heavy loads in the deep snow and harsh conditions of the Arctic. Rather than the wiry sled dogs preferred by racers, the ideal Alaskan malamute has large oval paws for traction in soft snow, wide hips for leverage and big bones to support strong muscles.

Older caucasian man wearin black banie and sunglasses with white and black fleece and beard covered in ice
Angus Mill Photography

“They’re like a Clydesdale horse,” he says.

It used to be easy to find them in any northern Alaska village, but as snowmobiles replaced sleds, the dogs disappeared. At the same time, Henderson noticed most malamute breeders in the south were selecting for small and adorable traits.

“Of the thousands of malamutes in the show ring, very few are capable of Arctic travel,” he says. “The breed is threatened.”

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That’s where his expedition comes in. On his way to the Colville River, Henderson is documenting the attributes that enable the malamute’s unique capabilities. He hopes his efforts will convince breeders to preserve the breed’s special traits.

“To lose a dog breed is like losing a part of our human heritage,” he says. “If Alaskan malamutes can’t pull heavy sleds in Arctic conditions, then we lose a piece of the Inuit culture.”

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