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.
The 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.
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.
“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)
Dog 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!
“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