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Mary Joyce: 1,000 miles by dog team

Helen Hegener

mary-joyce-portrait-04-21-10Mary 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. LitSite Alaska's digital archives include an article by Jennifer Houdek detailing Mary's story:

"Joyce was invited to participate in the 1936 Fairbanks Ice Carnival set for March. Always ready for an adventure, Joyce decided to drive her dogs on the thousand-mile journey; however, she knew that to travel safely, she would need guidance. Leaving in late December, she hitched up five dogs and joined a group of Natives headed for Atlin, British Columbia. Her guide's name was Chocak Lagoose."

mary-joyce-and-team-04-21-10At Tulsequah, the party crossed the nearly frozen Taku River. Journaling as she traveled, Joyce wrote: "Chocak Lagoose scolded his sons and made them put boughs over holes so I could not see the water underneath while crossing. 'White Lady plenty scared.' Crossed on my hands and knees and dogs followed like soldiers. Crossed upper Taku and another place over rapids on huge cakes of ice three feet apart helped by sweepers and snags. Put chain on Tip (lead dog) and each dog fell into water, pulled them out on another cake of ice. In places, just room for sled on ice cakes with water leaping over and gurgling underneath."

Mary's journey had barely begun with that adventure, and it wasn't until a week later that she reached the "most hazardous" part of the trip, between Burwash Landing and Tanana Crossing, following the Kluane River in temperatures reaching sixty degrees below zero. When she finally arrived in Fairbanks, where she learned she'd been entered in the Miss Alaska beauty contest, but she declined the competition in favor of an honorary membership in the Pioneer Women of Alaska.

mary-joyce-book-cover-04-21-10Mary kept a journal of her trip which was published in 2007 with the title, "Mary Joyce, Taku to Fairbanks, 1,000 Miles by Dogteam," by her cousin, Mary Anne Greiner, who wrote glowingly of Mary for the back cover: "She was the first white person over a portion of the trail which later became part of the Alcan Highway. Her narrative and descriptions of Alaska's people, dogteams, vast landscapes and dangers encountered on the trail are wrapped in her wry humor and perspectives of the 30's. Mary was a nurse who moved to Alaska to the Taku Lodge in 1930 aboard a yacht, which also carried lavender bathroom fixtures and a cow. She was a pilot, a stewardess, a musher, a homesteader, a movie actress, a territorial government candidate, and more...and so loved her adopted Alaska. The author, a relative, has included the adventures and photos of her life from the family farm in Baraboo, Wisconsin where she was born until her death in 1976 in Juneau. Mostly all of Mary's clippings, photos and writings have been donated to the 'Mary Joyce Collection' in the State of Alaska Library Historical Collections and the Juneau Douglas Museum."

Mary's adventures are also described in "Women Pilots of Alaska: 37 Interviews and Profiles," by Sandi Sumner; and "TAKU: Four Amazing Individuals-Four Incredible Life Stories and The Alaskan Wilderness Lodge That Brought Them Together," by Karen Bell and Janet Shelfer. There's a lengthy and very interesting reader's comment on the last book detailing the history of Mary Joyce's Taku Lodge.