Pioneer Stories – “A One Man Dog”
From the Book “So Was Alaska” by Alaska Pioneer, Heinie Snider
The hero of this story is a dog — and his name was Curley. He was a black curly dog weighing about 90 pounds with large brown eyes. No pedigree — a mongrel. Some said, “A cross between a keg of nails and a slab of bacon.” He was a one-man dog.
Most people know that a one-man dog does not belong in a team. They are usually good packers and pack one-third of their weight. Because of his size and his big feet Curley was not fast enough to be in a team of Huskies or Siberians.
Many a time, holding on to the “Gee” pole, we both were in the harness and pulling the sled. Never was Curley tied to a leash. When in camp, he could run after rabbits or gophers to his heart’s content. He was wise to porcupines — for never did we have to pull any quills out of his face or body. On meeting a “porky” he would size him up. Turning his head, he would look at me as if to say, What do you think? “Curley, you’d better leave him alone — he is bad medicine.”
Curley came with us from Dawson and helped us pull the boat up the White River on our way to Shushanna. This river is very swift with many dangerous bars on account of the quicksand. When Curley started to flounder and sink in the sands, we pulled him out and started on a better gravel bottom. It was a long and hard pull.
Above the Donjak we lost the boat, but went back to Dawson and with a new outfit — passed the Donjak, Catarena Creek and were frozen in on Snag Creek.
His whole body was quivering, and softly, he began to whine. He tried to lick my face and hands, realizing something was wrong.
We made temporary quarters and when snow came we mushed to the diggings.
In the spring, we took a lease on some claims on Snow Gulch, and as every Alaskan knows, we had to thaw out the ground and dig down to the bedrock if we wanted to find the gold nuggets. Our camp was way above the timber line. Wood for the stove and the cribbing in the shaft was hard to get, but it was my job and Curley’s to do this. We cut wood below what was named the Johnson Falls.
One morning, we started to the place where we were cutting this timber — many miles below in the valley. The sun was bright enough to start melting the snow. Now and then my eyes began to hurt and little drops of tears rolled down my cheeks. As we left Dawson in the summer, we never thought of bringing snow glasses. Besides, I believed that a young fellow like me did not need smoked glasses. How wrong I was. It wasn’t long before I began to squint and had a tough job keeping my eyes open. If only I had had more experience in Alaska, I still could have prevented myself from becoming totally snow blind. Indians and Eskimos simply make a fire and from the burnt wood charcoal paint their faces black or hang a piece of cloth in front of faces with small slits cut in to peek through. Even a mosquito veil would have helped.
The light went out, so to speak, when I was loading the sled. I could no longer keep my eyes open. They hurt terribly — like someone had thrown hot sand in my eyes. What to do? Wait until some prospector came along? That might be days.
Throwing the wood off, I sat in the sled — and then I realized I didn’t know the direction back to camp. To heap more trouble on me, a strong wind came up and little snowflakes began to fall. A snow storm was coming up. No time to lose now.
“Curley! Curley (whistle) Curley!” What! Has he gone home? “Curley! Hey Curley.” Did the dirty mongrel go back to camp? I called again, “Curley,” and here he came panting, “Heh, heh, heh, heh.”
“Where have you been, Curley? I want to talk to you. I am blind, Curley, blind. Let me hitch you up to the sled and you take me back to camp — see. There is a blizzard coming — so it’s up to you, Curley.”
Well, he seemed to understand. His whole body was quivering, and softly, he began to whine. He tried to lick my face and hands, realizing something was wrong. I laid myself on the sled. “All right, Curley, mush on.”
He started off in a dash, being slowed up only by snow drifts — caused by blizzards. The snow began piling up and clinging to his harness. I helped him through many a drift. Hours later, he stopped.
“Come on Curley. Come on.” But he stood still. I figured this must be the fall. With outstretched hand, I felt for the rocks from which hung a rope. Yes, yes, I found it. I climbed up this rope and hauled sled and dog to the top. Only a few miles more. But the storm had intensified. We headed straight into it, but we slugged on and on.
“Come, Curley, old boy, come on.”
At last, Curley stopped again. I felt we could not be far from the camp, so I hollered to my partner, “Charlie! Charlie! Hey, Charlie!”
But Charlie could not hear me above the storm. I took a chance, unhitched the dog, and holding on to him we plowed through the snow. Oh, what a relief. I felt the tent — and heard my partner say, “My God, he’s blind.”
He soon made some tea, wrapping the leaves in a piece of cloth, and laid them over my burning eyes. The tannic acid of the tea relieves the pain and heals the eyes — a remedy known by the Chinese for a thousand years. My partner also fed me. As the wind was still howling, we went to bed fully clothed — but not before Curley, who sat outside the tent, faithfully waiting, was unharnessed and given an extra piece of dried fish.
For ten days, all was darkness. Then, one day, when my partner was away, I took off the cloth with the tea leaves. Slowly, very slowly, I opened my eyes. The first thing I noticed was something black lying in the middle of the floor — Curley.
Curley, only a dog, but man’s best, most faithful friend. He had saved my life.
Published with permission from the family of Gerrit “Heinie” Snider.