“I spent almost the entire winter freighting with my dogs to the outlying creeks, and so was away from civilization most of the time. There was more money in it than in ordinary freighting to the mines, and the life suited me better. I had to camp out, but this was less difficult now than formerly, as by this time we all had tents and stoves.”
— Arthur Treadwell Walden, ‘A Dog-Puncher on the Yukon’ (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928)
Intrepid teams of hardy sled dogs were the primary mode of winter travel in the early days of Alaska and the Yukon, and the colorful history of dog team travel in the north country was surprisingly well documented. From Archdeacon of the Yukon Hudson Stuck’s ‘Ten Thousand Miles with a Dogsled’ (1914) to the classic ‘Gold, Men and Dogs,’ by famous sled dog racer A.A. “Scotty” Allen (G.P. Putnam Sons, 1931), books filled with stories which seem almost unbelievable today were written by the very men who’d trekked the trails with their canine workhorses.
The central role which sled dogs played in the history and development of the territory of Alaska was well explained by cousins Gay and Laney Salisbury, in ‘The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic’ (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003): “…It was dogs and dog traction, for centuries the mainstay of Eskimo survival, that made this new world run. During the gold rushes, dogs brought the modern world to Alaska, hauling food, mining supplies, medicine, passengers, and gold across the network of rivers and trails that Eskimos and Athabaskans had been following for hundreds of years.”
To read the exploits of these early-day mushers is to venture back to a time when men depended on their dogs for their very lives. Driving a team of huskies for hundreds of miles through mountain ranges, across glaciers, over frozen lakes and rivers, and through vast unpeopled valleys required a caliber of strength and endurance almost unimaginable today. The long-distance mushers of today’s Iditarod and Yukon Quest sled dog races face similar conditions and challenges, but with vastly superior gear, and with a safety net of checkpoints and race officials tracking their progress. The mail drivers and freight haulers of old left civilization behind when they hit the trail, and they were on their own when trouble or tragedy struck, as it often did.
During the Solomon Derby, a race run from Nome to Solomon and back, Scotty Allan’s peerless leader Baldy somehow sensing that something was wrong, stopped the entire team, turned them and the sled around, and headed back down the trail in search of their missing musher. They found him lying unconscious on the trail, bleeding from a gash in his head. Scotty had been bending over to inspect a runner when he was hit in the temple by an iron trail marker and knocked off the sled. Revived by his anxious dog Baldy, the injured musher climbed back aboard his sled and they sped off to win the race. Scotty later credited Baldy for saving his life, and Esther Birdsall Darling, who was Scotty Allan’s kennel partner, immortalized the dog in her classic book, Baldy of Nome (A.M. Robertson & Sons, 1913).
In the frozen north, the singular capabilities of a good sled dog often meant the difference between life and death. In the Nome Daily Nugget newspaper, April 2, 1917, a poem by Esther Birdsall Darling told the tale of a heroic rescue which had taken place only a few weeks before. Sled dog driver Bobby Brown, working at Dime Creek on the Seward Peninsula during the winter of 1916-17, was badly mangled in a sawmill accident. The man who would later become a legend in the north country, Leonhard Seppala, was nearby with his team, and he loaded the injured man onto his sled, wrapped him in wolf robes and set out for the nearest hospital, at Candle, over fifty miles away. With a dog named Russky in the lead, they made the hospital and delivered Bobby Brown to the doctors, but his injuries were too great and he died a few days later. The final stanza of Darling’s epic tribute read:
Man’s pluck, and the strength of a dog team–
“On Russky! We trust to your pace.”
There’s the flash of a light–then there’s Candle in sight–
And Seppala beats death in the Race!
The mail drivers, freight haulers, and other early mushers faced danger on a regular basis, but it was just part and parcel of their job. By 1901, a network of mail trails throughout Alaska was in use, including a system that followed almost the entire length of the Yukon River. Adolph “Ed” Biederman was a contract mail carrier between the towns of Eagle and Circle. Delivering the mail on the Yukon River by dog team over the 160-mile section took six days one way, then a day’s rest, and six days back. Biederman ran this route thirteen times over the course of each winter, with loads of mail often exceeding 500 pounds, following a string of roadhouses located at intervals along the river. In 1937 the Washington Daily News reporter Ernie Pyle, who would later gain fame as a war correspondent, wrote about the intrepid musher: “The things Biederman has been through would fill a book. I suppose no man knows more about sled dogs, or winter weather, or making his way alone in wild country.”
By 1916 Ed Biederman and his wife Bella had built a cabin midway between the two towns, which later became a hospitality stop on the Yukon Quest sled dog race. In his classic book about the Yukon Quest, Yukon Alone (Henry Holt & Co., 2000), John Balzar tells a story about Ed Biederman which had originally been related by Ernie Pyle: “The story is told of the summer of 1925, when Ed lost his dog team in a barge accident on the river. That winter, he had to rely on a new team of inexperienced dogs. Lacking trail experience, they pulled him onto thin ice and he broke through to a warm spring below–mushy overflow. It was 42 below and Ed’s feet froze before he could pry off his boots and built a fire. He knew he was in for it. He had frozen his feet before, but this time he knew it was for good. . . . A doctor amputated the fore parts of his feet, a little at a time. He was back running the mail the next winter.’”
Men weren’t the only mushers in early-day Alaska and the Yukon Territory; women like Mary Joyce also took to the runners. Owner of the remote Taku Lodge near Juneau, Mary hitched her team of huskies to her sled in December of 1936 and drove them to Fairbanks, 1,000 miles away, becoming the first white person over a portion of the trail which later became part of the Alaska Highway. During the most hazardous part of the trip, between Burwash Landing and Tanana Crossing, Mary followed the Kluane River in temperatures reaching sixty degrees below zero.
Another musher who traveled the Alaska Highway route before the highway existed was Slim Williams, who left Alaska in 1933 and traveled down the proposed route by dogsled, through what was previously unmapped territory. His destination was the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, where he attracted plenty of attention and gained the favor of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She declared that Slim and his dogs were her favorite exhibit and invited Slim to the White House, so after the Fair closed Slim and his dog team proceeded to Washington, D.C., where he spent the winter discussing Alaskan concerns with legislators and meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt.
Dog teams were indispensable to Arctic travelers such as explorer and anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who undertook the most comprehensive scientific study of the Arctic ever attempted, or Ernest de Koven Leffingwell, who, from 1906 to 1914, created the first accurate map of a large part of the Alaskan arctic coastline and became the first to accurately identify the oil potential of the North Slope region of Alaska. Missionaries, lawmen, doctors, gold seekers, mail drivers, and anyone who needed to travel the winter trails in Alaska depended on the always-reliable dog team, leading the venerable Judge James Wickersham to state in 1938, “He who gives his time to the study of the history of Alaska, learns that the dog, next to man, has been the most important factor in its past and present development.”
These stories and many others are shared in the book, Along Alaskan Trails:
• Along Alaskan Trails, Adventures in Sled Dog History, by Helen Hegener. Published in July, 2012 by Northern Light Media (ISBN 978-0-9843977-2-3). $19.00 postpaid (US only, foreign orders please use Amazon). To order via check or money order, mail to Northern Light Media, PO Box 298023, Wasilla, Alaska 99629. To order via credit card or Paypal, click on the linked cover image.