“The History of Sled Dogs in North America: From the Bering Sea to the Atlantic Ocean”
By Helen Hegener; Northern Light Media, 2023; 420 pages; $69.95.
Winter is approaching, and the dogs are getting restless. Soon they will soon resume their natural place in Alaska as a power source for work, competition, and recreation. Dogs have been beasts of burden in northern regions for centuries. In North America they were used by Indigenous groups across the upper reaches of the hemisphere, tasked with hauling sledges over snow. As Americans and Canadians of European heritage moved into the North, it wasn’t long before they saw the utility of employing dogs to do the hard work of transporting goods. By early in the 19th century, fur traders with the Hudson’s Bay Company were deploying dogsleds in winter, and their popularity only grew and expanded, even reaching parts of the continent rarely snowed upon.
We learn this and much more from “The History of Sled Dogs in North America,” a new book edited and mostly written by one-woman Alaska history machine Helen Hegener, who operates Northern Light Media. It’s a sizable book, and one that should be taken up with a few happy caveats.
The first is the book’s considerable size. At 420 large pages, it’s daunting on the surface and might cause even the most avid musher to think twice about reading it. Don’t be daunted, and don’t think twice. The writing is lively, there are plenty of illustrations, and best of all, it’s fun to read.
This leads to the second caveat. This book is fun in part because it isn’t a linear history of sled dogs. It’s a collection of essays focusing on people and events, written by Hegener and several other contributors. It’s also a scrapbook containing numerous well-chosen older writings that were contemporary to the sport’s rise across North America. Mushing, we learn, enjoyed a popularity that, despite the Iditarod and modern long distance racing, seems to have peaked nationally during the first half of the 20th century, the period most of this book is concerned with.
After opening with a brief discussion of the arrival of dogs in the Americas, brought by the first people to populate the Western Hemisphere, Hegener offers excerpts from a 1919 National Geographic article, the book’s first use of an original source. These historic writings are a large part of what makes the book so intriguing. They are fascinating not only for the first-hand accounts they offer of significant events, but also for the writing styles found in them.
For instance, readers can relish Robert Kennicott’s 1860s journal entries discussing the uses of dogs for traveling through northern Canada. It was a novel idea at the time. This was before runners were added to sleds and mushers began standing on the backs with a foot brake handy. Instead they ran alongside, sometimes helping the dogs move the load. Kennicott, who did this, took breaks to catch his breath, however, assuring his readers that “I seldom finish a pipe without getting on my sled for a comfortable smoke.”
Also reprinted are the always dependable Tappan Adney, reporting from Dawson City in 1897 (“A Malamut makes a poor watch-dog, being a natural-born thief himself, and more proud than otherwise of the fact”), an 1892 Harper’s article by Julian Ralph (he described sled dogs as “disciplined only when at work,” and beyond that, “savage and wolfish,” but capable of being “reclaimed by domestication”), and a 1927 Nome Nugget story about champion racer Leonard Seppala’s trip Outside (“In Boston, our great musher was entertained for one week, and he had a decidedly wonderful time.”). A 1911 report in the San Francisco Daily Call about a former Alaskan, Mrs. Charles Hannum, driving her dog-powered cart through Golden Gate Park, is an absolute gem of creative writing. It’s something a more formal book on the topic would likely cite, not reprint. Here, it’s a highlight.
The book hits its stride in the second section. Having offered a hodgepodge of pieces discussing the development of mushing, we start meeting some of the first white Americans and Canadians to take up the sport. Early on, they used mushing for practical purposes. Mail in Alaska was carried by dogsled until the early 1960s (don’t skim past then-Alaska Sen. E.L. Bartlett’s lengthy 1963 discussion of this; it’s another priceless inclusion that puts readers smack in the middle of the time and place Hegener is exploring with this book). Hauling freight was another use. And, of course, it took little time for racing to take hold.
The book is primarily focused on mushing’s early days, so the Iditarod is barely even mentioned. Earlier races in and beyond Alaska get substantial coverage, however, and expert mushers like Seppala, Emile St. Godard, Scotty Allan, and Charles Darling are among those found on these pages. They were household names in an era that peaked during the interwar period, when races were held not just in Alaska and Canada, but in Lower 48 states as well. The account of the 1917 Winnipeg to St. Paul race, reprinted from a 1971 issue of Minnesota History Magazine, brings an edge-of-the-seat breathlessness to the tale as competing mushers braved all sorts of setbacks, with five of them reaching the finish line on the same day.
The book meanders along through varied business attempts at selling sled dog rides to tourists (sound familiar?), Hudson Stuck’s epic travels across Alaska (Hegener chooses to excerpt him rather than attempt to summarize his unparalleled wanderings), Seppala’s rise and eventual decline as the sport’s dominating figure, the famous Nome serum run, and Mary Joyce’s 1,000-mile Juneau-to-Fairbanks trip in 1936 which, for those paying attention, showed that women were as capable of mushing as men, something no fan questions today. And there’s much more.
Historic photos, news clippings, 19th-century drawings, and maps, as well as paintings by Veryl Goodnight, are sprinkled on nearly every page, making this quite the volume. It might not be a comprehensive history, but for sheer enjoyment, this is one heck of a book.