Dog Races – The Fastest Dogs Don’t Always Win
Every year during the Fur Rendezvous in the city of Anchorage, the main attraction is the dog races. I believe it will be of interest to my readers, especially to the lovers of dogs, to tell you about some of the early dog races we had here in Alaska. It seems that one of the very first dog races in our Northland, according to old Sourdough Leif Spray, was held in Dawson in the winter of 1899.
The story is of a young man who, with a string of eleven dogs, eloped with the best looking girl in Dawson. Those who objected to the marriage took after them but were not able to catch them. The most remarkable part, to my way of thinking, is that these youngsters had to mush over an unbroken trail, part of it over the rough ice on the Yukon River; yet the whole affair was successful, which means also that when boy meets girl and they have the same idea about love, there is no stopping them.
The next dog race was not for love, but a case of champagne. It seems that a quartet of prospectors were traveling to the Kruzgamepa Hot Springs. Since the names of these parties are still part and parcel of the museum in Juneau, Alaska, the story can be counted on to be true.
We find Mort Atkinson, Ed Dunn, Al Fink, and Paul Kjegsted, all good dog mushers. They had gone to the Springs where they took a bath, which in itself is unusual, because a sourdough takes a bath once a year, whether he needs it or not, and never in the winter. After this bath, they were invigorated and happy, because no one had died from the experience of a hot bath in the winter. Each had a team of eight dogs, and the talk turned to which was the best team.
To find out, they started a race, one of the partners as passenger in the sled, and the driver standing behind or standing on the runners of the sled. The course was from the Springs to the Hotel, not a long distance, with Dunn and Atkinson racing against the combined strength of Fink and Kjegsted. Now Dunn and Atkinson had the best dogs and felt reasonably sure of winning the imported Mum’s Extra Dry, valued at $40 a case, but they had not counted on the legal training and quick intellect of their opponents (one of the boys being an attorney).
With the first word of “mush,” Fink and Paul, having the inferior team, “threw the scare” into their dogs and after getting a good lead would occasionally drop off a hunk of dried salmon which “happened” to be in the bottom of the sleigh. There was nothing to it. This son of the North with his legal help-mate came down the stretch in nothing flat, an easy winner, while the other team was still sniffing and picking up bits of fish on the trail. This goes to show that the best dogs do not always win.
Of course, Alaskan hospitality was such that, while the losers paid for the champagne, they got even by pouring more than half of it down their gullets.
This race led to much further discussion which finally culminated in the formation of a Kennel Club in the city of Nome, on the Arctic Ocean. The purpose of the club was to improve the breeding of trail dog. The launching of the club was attended with much interest and a large membership was enrolled. As a further incentive to activate interest in dogs and the promotion of their welfare, it was resolved to have an annual race, a sweepstakes affair with a substantial entry fee, open to all comers from all parts of Alaska, subject, of course, to certain rules and regulations.
Not only speed, but also endurance would be a part of the race, to find out the true value of dogs. A course was established from Nome to Candle and return, a total distance of 412 miles. Almost the entire course is a barren, treeless, wind-swept waste during the greater part of the winter season. When no blizzards blow, the trail is hard and in good condition and fast time is made. In the dread Death Valley, a dangerous place to cross, many an adventurer lost his life, hence the name Death Valley. Without reliable forecasts, mushers of that time had to take weather as it came.
The rules governing these contests were most stringent and had to be followed implicitly. Not only the musher or driver had to be registered, but also the names of the dogs, their weights, those who were financially interested, etc. During the race no musher at any time would be allowed to use any other dogs than those he started with, no black snake or whip could be used, inhuman treatment of dogs was strictly prohibited under penalty of losing not only the race, but his team as well. Before the race, photographs were taken of the teams. Every dog team must return with the same dogs and no others. If one or more dogs became injured, or ill, the driver had to bring them back in the sled.
The first real race was pulled off in April, 1908. Lots of money was changing hands. Albert Fink’s team, driven by John Hegness, was the winner, finishing the course of 412 miles in four days, 23 hours, 15 minutes, and 12 seconds. Jake Berger was second in five days, seven minutes and 52 seconds. Mort Atkinson (the same old timer who lost the case of champagne) came in third.
After the race in the fall of 1908, everybody with a drop of sporting blood was combing the territory for dogs. In those days all the conversations were about dogs. Dogs for breakfast and lunch, and dogs for dinner. That winter several teams were in training and by April 1909, many had good teams, each musher sure that his was the best.
The entries for this event created a tremendous interest. Prospectors, trappers, Eskimos, Indians, squawmen and their squaws, came in great droves to witness the talk of the year, the dog races. Nome declared a holiday and business houses closed. Thousands of people were in attendance.
Fourteen teams pulled at their thongs, yelping and barking, ready to start off in a flash while the drivers stood on the brakes, holding on to the handlebars of the sleds, impatiently waiting for the firing of the gun. When all the teams were on their way, the folks kept up with the progress of the teams by telephone communications. better than a quarter of a million dollars changed hands.
Berger’s team came in first, driven by the famous dog musher, Scotty Allen. His time was 83 hours.
In 1910 the interest was just as intense. We did find a couple of British noblemen in the race. More than half a million dollars was wagered on the event. Sir James Ramsay’s Siberian wolfhounds came in first, breaking all previous records, by covering the 412 miles in 74 hours and 15 minutes. His nephew, Lord Fox Ramsay, was second, taking one hour and 55 minutes longer. Scotty Allen, driving his own team, was third. The other entries were Col. Stuart-Weatherby, McCarthy, and the Solomon Syndicate.
John Johnson drove the winning team. When he came in first someone shouted, “Look at the big Swede,” for Johnson was so fatigued from his efforts and hardships that he collapsed at the finish. He broke down and wept like a small child when the wreath of roses was placed around his neck and he was presented with a $10,000 check for his work.
What about the Siberian wolfhounds? Oh, they got an extra dried fish. Too tired to eat, they just curled up in the snow, covered their noses with their bushy tails, and in no time were fast asleep.
Dog Races by Heinie Snider, From his book, Centennial – 100 Stories of Alaska, originally published in 1966.
Printed with permission from the family of Gerrit Heinie Snider
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Dog Races – The Fastest Dogs Don’t Always Win
Why Moving the Iditarod Trail is a Good Idea