Tag Archives: Alaska

Sled Dog Tales

 

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Tanana Flats, April, 1912 

The May-June issue of Alaskan History Magazine included an article on the All Alaska Sweepstakes sled dog races, which ran from Nome to Candle and return from 1908 through 1917. The races spotlighted the hardy sled dogs which made travel in Alaska’s harsh winters possible, the ever-reliable dog teams being the primary mode of travel in territorial Alaska. It is to our good fortune that thousands of photographs of mushers and their teams were captured, such as the one above, showing a musher and his dog team crossing the Tanana Flats in 1912.

Ten Thousand MilesThe colorful history of dog team travel in the north country was surprisingly well documented, and 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 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.

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.

Dog-Puncher on YukonThe 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.

“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)

Baldy of NomeDog teams were indispensable to Arctic explorers, missionaries, lawmen, doctors, gold seekers, mail drivers, and anyone who needed to travel the winter trails in Alaska, 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.”

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Many stories of early Alaskan mushers and their dog teams are featured in the book, Alaskan Sled Dog Tales: True Stories of the Steadfast Companions of the North Country, by Helen Hegener, published in 2016 by Northern Light Media. $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping & handling. 320 pages, 6′ x 9″ b/w format, includes maps, charts, bibliography, indexed. Click this link to order. A wonderful gift for any dog-lover!

Sled Dog Tales“These trustworthy creatures could be relied upon to do the heavy work, while remaining—as Hegener eloquently reminds us—our most treasured friends. Relying upon material written from the late 1890s through the early ‘30s, [Hegener] catalogues how sled dogs provided Alaskan residents the ability to traverse enormous distances, deliver critical supplies and maintain communication from within and outside Alaska. The episodes she recounts are stirring, filled with human and animal bravery. Some are simply mind-boggling, filling the reader with awe and enormous respect for dog and driver alike.” David Fox, in the Anchorage Press

Writing Alaska’s History, V. 1

Writing Alaskas History 1In 1974 the Alaska Historical Commission projected the publishing of a series of five booklets under the title Writing Alaska’s History: 

Vol. 1. A Guide to Research

Vol. 2. A Comprehensive and Cooperative Plan for Publishing the Great Land’s Past

Vol. 3. A Guide for Preservation Research and Preservation Plans

Vol. 4. A Guide to Oral History Research and Transcription

Vol. 5. A Guide to Pictorial Reseach

The only one of these guides I’ve been able to locate is Vol. 1: A Guide to Research. The other guides don’t come up in any searches and I assume they were never developed (if anyone knows differently please advise). 

The one I have located is a gem of a book, edited by Robert A. Frederick, who was at the time Executive Director of the Alaska Historical Commission, and while it was written as a guide to researchers, it is, itself, an interesting research project. The Alaska Historical Commission was barely a year and a half old in 1974, comprised of a staff of one (see above), appointed by Governor Bill Egan, and a part-time assistant, Patricia A. Jelle, and they described a herculean task set before them in encouraging the researching and writing of Alaska’s history.  

Ak Historical SocietyThe 1960’s and 1970’s were a banner time for Alaskan history, with the founding of the Alaska Historical Society, the scholarly periodical Alaska Journal, establishment of the State Archives and Records Management Program, and passing of the Historic Preservation Act of 1971, which resulted in surveys of Alaska’s historic sites, buildings, and more. Still, the Guide reported that most Alaskan towns and villages lacked histories and biographies, and also noted: “Alaska lacks the published research tools (bibliographies, directories, dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc.) which aid investigation in state and local history. To add to the complexity of the task, research materials are not easily available. Much of Alaska’s ‘paper trail’ which does exist, is in manuscript collections outside the State. The same is true of artifacts, evidence of material culture. In addition, until very recent times, the history of Alaska’s native peoples has been preserved only through the oral tradition.” 

oie_8EhK79sN6VVbA couple of pages later this is explained further: “Compared to her sisters, some of whose paper trail has accumulated for 370 years, the Great Land’s historiography is in its childhood, if not infancy. Historical assessment which does exist is scattered, incomplete, and fails to include the histories of at least one-sixth of the State’s population. Until this decade, there has been no significant paper trail contributed by Alaska’s major native cultures. Most often, the oral tradition has not been freely shared with those outside a culture.”

And later: “With all the global, national, state and local attention to Alaskan anthropological and historical study in this century, relatively little is known about man’s experience here in the last 20,000 years.”

Those realities were the impetus for the projected Writing Alaska’s History guides, and potentially the most interesting would be Volume Two: A Comprehensive and Cooperative Plan for Publishing the Great Land’s Past, “….which constitutes, a master publication plan of Alaskan history.” 

I would love to find a copy of that booklet!

 

All Alaska Sweepstakes

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FROM OUR PAGES:

The May-June issue of Alaskan History Magazine includes an article on the All Alaska Sweepstakes, founded in Nome:

In the winter of 1907, a group of friends in Nome, Alaska set about developing a kennel club and formalizing the rules for racing dogs, founded on the same principles as the jockey clubs which oversaw the famed horse races of the bluegrass country in the south. There were many impromptu sled dog races all over the territory, but the men who started the Sweepstakes race were seeking a way to  track and trace the mushers, their dogs, and the results, with an eye toward improving the sport and breeding better dogs.

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Front Street, 5th race, 1912

In the spring of 1908 they held their first race, a 408-mile run to mining town of Candle and return, following the telegraph lines which linked camps, villages and gold mining settlements on the Peninsula. This route’s established communication lines allowed those betting on the outcome to track the race more easily from the comfort of saloons like the famed Board of Trade in Nome, and the betting was lively and spirited!

The winner of the first race was musher John Hegness, who was driving the team of Nome Kennel Club President Albert Fink. Twenty years later Hegness, who was a trapper and ranged widely over northern Alaska, would be credited with finding the bush pilot Russel Merrill after his plane crash-landed near Barrow. Merrill was transported to the Barrow hospital by dog team and treated for snow-blindness, exhaustion, and malnutrition.

 

Baldy and Scotty Allan

Scotty Allan and Baldy

The All Alaska Sweepstakes made household names of two illustrious mushers: Allan Alexander “Scotty” Allan and Leonhard Seppala, who each won the race three times. Another musher who gained widespread fame was the 1910 champion, John “Iron Man” JohnsonJohnson drove a team for the Scottish nobleman, Fox Maule Ramsay, who had traveled to the Anadyr River area of Siberia and brought back a load of “swift little foxy-looking dogs” which became the distant forerunners of today’s Siberian husky. Driving a team of these fast little huskies, Johnson set a record in the 1910 race of 74 hours, 14 minutes, and 37 seconds, which stood until 2008. 

The All Alaska Sweepstakes was an eagerly anticipated annual event until the gold mining dropped off and the First World War took a large percentage of the men away to fight on foreign shores. Nome’s population dwindled, along with local interest in sled dog racing. In 1983 the Nome Kennel Club sponsored the 75th Anniversary race, and Rick Swenson took home the $25,000.00 purse. Then, in 2008, for the 100th Anniversary of the event, the Nome Kennel Club offered the richest purse ever for a sled dog race: $100,000.00, winner take all.

trophy_aasAlaska’s best-known mushers entered the Centennial race, including Lance Mackey, Jeff King, Mitch Seavey, Sonny Lindner, Ramy Brooks, Jim Lanier, Cim Smyth, Aaron Burmeister, Ed Iten, Hugh Neff, and Mike Santos. And then there were the mushers who entered simply to be a part of the history of the race: Kirsten Bey, Cari Miller, Fred Moe Napoka, Connor Thomas, and Jeff Darling, whose musher profile noted that he’d entered “for the historical value and a chance to see some countryside he might not otherwise be able to see by dogteam.”

nkcpatch52004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey won the $100,000 purse for the 2008 race, and organizers and the Nome Kennel Club announced that would be the final running of the epic race, an event now consigned to the pages of Alaska’s colorful mushing history. In 2013 Northern Light Media published The All Alaska Sweepstakes, History of the Great Sled Dog Race, which told the story of the race and the sixteen Alaskan mushers who entered their teams in the Centennial running, each hoping to have their name engraved on the Sweepstakes trophy beside the great mushing legends John ‘Iron Man Johnson, ‘Scotty’ Allan and Leonhard Seppala. •~•

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John Hegness driving Albert Fink’s team, 1st race, 1st winner, in 1908.

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“Scotty” Allan driving J. Berger team, winner of 2nd race, 1909.

 

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John “Iron Man” Johnson driving Col. Ramsay’s team, winners of 3rd race, 1910.

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Leonhard Seppala, owner and driver, winning the 1916 race. He also won in 1915 and 1917.

All Alaska Sweepstakes at Wikipedia

Nome Kennel Club History

Anchorage Daily News article by Helen Hegener, 2009

Biography of “Scotty” Allan at LitSite Alaska