Famous Dogs of the Trail
The history of Alaska would be quite different without the countless teams of stalwart, steadfast sled dogs who, in exchange for food and a minimum of care, provided a reliable way to cross the frozen tundra, rugged mountains, and endless lakes and rivers of the Great Land. A living reminder of our state's colorful past, sled dogs played an important role in the early transportation networks of the territory of Alaska. When the intrepid Arctic explorers traveled across the unknown lands of the north the dog teams were their mode of transport. When the miners crossed the high mountain ranges in search of the next El Dorado, the dog teams carried their food and supplies and even the prospectors themselves. When the U.S. mail needed to go through in winter it was the hardy dog teams which carried it to far-flung corners of Alaska. It can be said that sled dogs were the ball bearings of Alaska's history.
Whatever their specialty, the history and the sport of mushing have produced some particularly memorable dogs, and at the top of the list are three from the 1925 Serum Run to Nome, when dogs and men struggled through howling blizzards to deliver life-saving antitoxin to the northern community beset by a terrifying dilemma. It shouldn't be surprising to learn that all three of these heroic lead dogs were owned by one of mushing's great legends, the three-time All Alaska Sweepstakes champion Leonhard Seppala.
When he was putting together a team for the Serum Run through stormy weather, one of Seppala’s top picks was his old favorite and a trusted leader, a small, tough husky named Togo. He was a Siberian husky with a black, brown and gray coat, and he weighed less than 50 pounds. But what Togo lacked in size he made up for in heart, and Seppala considered Togo his best sled dog, a strong and determined leader. Named after a Japanese Admiral, Seppala often said that Togo was “the best dog that ever traveled the Alaskan trail.” Togo's 91-mile run from Shaktoolik to Golovin during the Serum Run covered the longest leg of the relay; he was 12 years old at the time.
The largely unsung hero of Seppala’s kennel was the big cream-colored Siberian husky Fritz, Togo’s half-brother and also a veteran of the 1925 Serum Run, where he was co-leading with Togo. Born in 1915 and bred by Seppala, Fritz became an important foundation sire in early Siberian husky pedigrees. He often led Seppala’s team in tandem with Togo in races and on cross-country jaunts, and in Elizabeth Ricker’s biographical book, Seppala, Alaskan Dog Driver, Sepp called Fritz “a great dog.”
The most famous dog in Leonhard Seppala’s kennel, Balto, wasn’t even supposed to be in the Serum Run; in fact, he’d never led a team before. He was a freighting dog, and Seppala had selected against including him in the team when he left Nome. It was only when the Governor of Alaska decided to speed up the relay, by authorizing the addition of more drivers to Seppala’s leg at the end, that Sepp’s young assistant Gunnar Kaasen chose the big black dog with white markings named Balto, whom he had long favored, to lead his team. It turned out to be a wise choice, as Balto saved the team in an accident at the Topkok River, and he stayed on the trail in whiteout conditions when a lesser dog may not have found the way. Balto led Kaasen's team on the home-stretch run, carrying the serum the final 53 miles from Bluff to Nome. A statue was erected in New York's Central Park to honor Balto and all of the Serum Run dogs.
Baldy of Nome was Scotty Allan's lead dog and a widely respected dog in his day. On April, 15th, 1922 The New York Times reported Baldy’s death to their readers: “Berkeley, Cal., April 14.– Baldy of Nome, famed for the races he won in Alaska, his heroic deeds that have been twenty-eight Malamute sons and grand-put in prose and verse, and for the sons he gave to France for the World War, was buried here today. He died in a dog hospital of old age and his final resting place is under the rose-bushes in the garden of ‘Scotty’ Allan, whose life he once saved. Baldy was 15 years old. He was two years old when Allan ‘mushed’ him through the first of his seven races for the All-Alaska Sweepstakes of 418 miles. With Baldy as the leader, Allan was brought in winner six times.”
When John "Iron Man" Johnson set the All Alaska Sweepstakes race record which would stand for more than 75 years, it was his peerless leader Kolyma who set the pace. In 1910, a Scottish nobleman named Fox Maule Ramsey went to Siberia to buy 70 Siberian huskies, and in that year's Sweepstakes race his dogs won 1st, 2nd and 4th place, with the first place team being Iron Man Johnson and his lead dog Kolyma. At one point in the race, crossing the aptly-named "Death Valley," Johnson became snow-blind, strapped himself to his dogsled, and relied on Kolyma to keep the team on the trail. Upon winning the race Johnson was given a traditional victory wreath, but he took it off and placed the wreath on Kolyma, saying, "I did not win the race, this leader won it!"
In the spring of 1933 a trapper from the Glennallen area named Slim Williams traveled down the proposed route of the Alaska Highway by dogsled, using only crude maps in what was previously unmapped territory. His destination was the World's Fair in Chicago, and his goal was to help promote construction of the Alaska Highway. Visitors to the exhibit in the Chicago Expo included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited Slim to mush his team on to Washington D.C., which he later did, meeting and talking with President Roosevelt about the Alaska Highway project. Slim Williams' lead dog for his epic journey was a mixed-breed dog named Rembrandt, who led a team which included an Alaskan wolf. When a reporter asked about Rembrandt's name Slim Williams replied, "Well, isn't he a picture?"
Mary Joyce was an Alaskan adventurer of the highest caliber, and when Alaska was still just a territory she owned and operated a remote lodge near Juneau, became the first woman radio operator in the territory, and flew her own bush plane. In later years, after selling her lodge, she joined Pan Alaska Airways as a stewardess, and then settled in Juneau, where she worked as a nurse and bought two popular local bars. Mary Joyce’s biggest claim to fame, besides her dauntless courage in trying new adventures, was her 1936 dogsled trip from her Taku Lodge near Juneau to Fairbanks, 1,000 miles away. Alaskan artist Josephine Crumrine, whose exhibits were featured in such prestigious locations as the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, painted a pastel portrait of Mary Joyce's leader, Wolf, which was selected as a cover image for a menu on the S.S. Alaska, which cruised the Inside Passage for the Alaska Steamship Company. From the menu: "'WOLF.' A peerless leader of the famous team raced by Mary Joyce in the annual Alaska Dog Derby, Wolf has also made a trip to the States. He spent a season at Sun Valley, Idaho, hauling winter sports enthusiasts on a real Alaskan dog sledge."
Today Alaskan sled dogs can still be found running the trails and hauling freight and supplies and excited tourists. But their most visible and well-known job now is entertaining thousands of fans across the world as they race in the increasingly popular sprint, mid- and long-distance races. The Anchorage Fur Rondy World Championship Sled Dog Races and the Fairbanks Open North American Championship both feature the lightning-fast sprint teams, while the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome, both showcase the hardiness of the long distance teams, trekking 1,000 miles across the northern wilderness.
Helen Hegener, Alaskan Historian and Author contributed to this page