Excerpts from KANTISHNA: Mushers, Miners, and Mountaineers, Pictorial Histories Publishing, Missoula, Montana 2006.The great northern gold rushes around the turn of the 20th century brought tens of thousands of ill-prepared gold seekers into the Alaska and Yukon wilderness. In winter large numbers of dogs were needed to move the precious freight necessary to sustain human life in the frigid north. During the series of stampedes any big, furry dog, regardless of suitability, was of high value and put in harness. Consequently “dog-nappers” skulked through the western states for dogs to steal and ship north.Jack London’s classic story, The Call of the Wild, opens with this explanation: “Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland, These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost.”London goes on to tell how Buck was stolen from a farm in the mild California valley and shipped north and broken to work in harness. No one knows how many dogs perished from starvation, over-work, neglect, or abuse at the hands of the inept, wild-eyed gold seekers totally inexperienced with dogs and the rigors of the frozen north. We do know that over 3,000 horses died in a matter of a few short months hauling freight over the White Pass, then dubbed the “Dead Horse Trail.” The dog death toll at the height of the Klondike and Nome rushes likely exceeded that of horses. Only the hardiest of well-adapted dogs survived the thrust into the northern wilderness in teams driven by incompetent or desperate Cheechakos.When the stampedes subsided and the boom towns settled into mine development and gold production the dog-team freighters and mail carriers linking the widely scattered communities developed better dog care standards and selected their animals with an eye toward long-term use. Mushing the trails at 50 below required sturdy, well-fed animals that would not fail. A musher’s life and limbs depended on a quality team.Carrying the mail in frontier Alaska was no job for the inept or weak. “So far as there is anything heroic about the Alaskan trail, the mail-carriers are the real heroes,” Episcopal Archdeacon Hudson Stuck wrote. “They must start out in all weathers, at all temperatures; they have a certain specified time in which to make their trips and they must keep within that time or there is trouble. The Canadian Yukon has a more humane government than ours. There, neither mail-carrier nor any one else, save in some life-or-death emergency may take out horses or dogs to start a journey when the temperature is lower than 45 below zero; but I have seen a reluctant mail-carrier chased out at 60 below zero, on the pain of losing his job, on the American side.”A typical contract paid carriers $75 a month to make 13 trips a winter on a schedule of six days on, one day off. The mail carrier provided his own dogs and sled. Mail loads varied from next-to-nothing to over 700 pounds “… the virtually empty pouches must be transported from office to office through the running, or over the rotting ice, just the same, on pain of the high displeasure of a department without brains and without bowels,” Stuck said.Mail-carriers, because of their contracts, were forced out onto the trail in all weather. Numerous accounts from the trail tell of death and horrible frost injuries. The toll was so high that era newspapers referred to frozen and lost limbs as the “winter harvest.” Many a musher, soaked in overflow or by plunging through thin ice, owed his life to his team. One carrier, Harry Karstens, reminisced years later that everything he ever did after hauling the mail was done on borrowed time. A good team, well cared-for and fed, was essential to survival. Mail and freight carriers may have advanced dog care and feeding strategies, but some prospectors seemed to have developed their own successful ways. In December 1908, musher William Hall completed one of the most remarkable feats of travel ever described. He said that he survived his exploit by being able to shepherd his dogs’ food, as well as his own, in a way that sustained life and strength in time of scarcity. Hall, an Alaskan prospector, left the Kamchatka Peninsula and set out on sea ice bound for the northern coast of Siberia. Almost at once he was caught in the sea ice and drifted far into unexplored regions. Once he regained land he headed south, mushing in total 2,000 miles by his reckoning before he was picked up on a wild coastline by a Japanese steamer and returned to Seattle, surprising those that had long given him up for dead. On rare occasions a Cheechako would venture into the mining districts and arouse both suspicion and concern. A few oddballs from Outside even showed up in winter, inexplicably risking life and limb for sport instead of gold or fur. When the “mysterious musher of the Northland” passed through the Kantishna Mining District, his travels ignited fevered speculation.The mystery man, Deming Wheeler of Indiana, spent summers in the lower 48 states and winters in Alaska, a schedule that by itself piqued Alaskans’ interest. Over the course of several winters, Wheeler mushed throughout the Interior and as far west as Nome. Wheeler later claimed to be the first person to circle Mt. McKinley by dogteam. He was on his way to the Iditarod gold fields when he passed through the Kantishna. The very fact that he was not going there to stake claims or run a trapline perplexed miners there.Wheeler was perhaps Alaska’s first recreational /adventure dog musher. On his honeymoon, he mushed his new bride into the wilderness, carrying her in the basket of his sled. Over the years, he studied and observed sled dogs and worked to develop sturdier and stronger dogs better suited for the harsh northern climate. He bought wolf pups when offered and, on one trip, he announced his plan to own and drive a team of pure wolves. During the winter of 1913–14, famed musher Harry Karstens, known as the 70-Mile Kid, led Wheeler on an epic 70-day, 1,500-mile circuit of the upper Kuskokwim River drainage. They went by dogteam, in temperatures to -40°F, from Fairbanks to Ruby, Ruby to Takotna, Takotna to the base of Mt. Foraker and then back to Fairbanks via the Kantishna Trail. Scotty Dalton of Seward drove the second team while Karstens led the way with his bundled passenger. “The long trip was without incident of particular note or hardship,” Karstens said. The success of the journey was likely the result of Karstens’ leadership, a man described as “one of the most knowledgeable dog men in all the North.” Deming Wheeler came from a prominent and wealthy eastern family. To most Alaskans he was just another wealthy dilettante like the Easterners who came north on hunting or climbing expeditions. More than a few Alaskans derided these Easterners, no matter how capable, because their exploits challenged their pioneer pride. As more and more Cheechakos came into the northern wilderness, a few introspective Alaskans saw them as ominous harbingers of change. Most of these class-conscious, proud miners, however, loathed the independent rich and viewed their “expeditions” as nothing more than publicity stunts. Alaska was no playground; it was a battleground where only “real” men survived.Wheeler was one of the early proponents of selective breeding and nutrition to be quoted in Alaskan newspapers. Many mushers were learning through trial and error what dog foods worked best and what didn’t but it was Wheeler’s comments that made the news. Being an “outsider” largely guaranteed him coverage in the local papers. No doubt Wheeler learned from mushers like Karstens, Dalton, and others, but clearly by 1920 the “science” of mushing sled dogs had benefited from years of experience.Tom Walker lives near Denali Park and is a full time freelance writer and photographer currently at work on the companion volume to Kantishna: Mushers, Miners and Mountaineers.


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