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   Chapter 10 THE ALL-ALASKA SWEEPSTAKES

The Land of Tomorrow By William B. Stephenson Characters: 18167

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


NO story of Alaska would be complete unless it included reference to that most vital element of all the Northland, the Alaskan dog. I once heard a story of an old Southern planter who said:

"Whenevah Ah meet up with a man who says he don' like a niggah, Ah always set it down that he nevah owned one!"

I can truthfully say the same about a dog. Ever since the days when Ulysses roamed the seas man has loved his dog. Dearest (and most valuable) to the heart of an Alaskan is his "Malamut" or "Husky," as the Alaskan dog is usually designated. So intelligent that he is almost human, strong as a young ox, oblivious (apparently) to the cold,-he is a part of the land itself! His importance to the life of the North can not be over-estimated. He carries the mail into far regions which but for him would be closed to the outside world for many months of the year.

"An I should live a thousand years," as Shakespeare puts it, I could never forget a leader I once had. I called him "Paddie." During one long, cold winter we went to Andreafsky, distant a hundred and twenty miles from St. Michael, to take the mail. I can see him yet, at the head of the thirty-three dog team, pulling us swiftly over the hard, white snow. At night when I would wrap myself in my sleeping-bag and lie down to sleep, Paddie never failed to come and lie beside me, snuggling as closely as possible to keep me warm. I could not forget, if I tried, his faithfulness and affection, and I do not wish to. I think of him many times, often have dreamed of him and sometimes have talked to him in my sleep.

But laying aside all sentiment in regard to his dogs, a man would indeed be helpless in the north country without them. Into far and almost inaccessible regions which no other beast could penetrate and where neither man nor vehicle could enter unaided, the dogs run nimbly, pulling a sled behind them. Many and dramatic (and true!) are the stories of the arrival of a dog team in the nick of time with food and supplies for a distant, snowed-in camp the members of which would have starved but for their coming.

Reference will be made in another chapter to the wonderful part our dogs are now playing in the great World War. Alaskans have never failed to appreciate what they owe them, but it is only within comparatively recent years that they have realized their real value. Nothing in the history of the country has been of more value to Alaska than the Dog Derby, the "All-Alaska Sweepstakes," as the dog races are called.

Albert Fink, an attorney at Nome, one day overheard a bet between two men as to the speed of their respective dog teams. As he owned some fine dogs himself, he conceived the idea of having a real Derby, matching the teams for the love of the sport itself. Calling together all the dog lovers and dog owners of the community, he put the suggestion before them. The result was the organization of the Nome Kennel Club, a society the purpose of which was to foster the races. The latter were to be known as the "All-Alaska Sweepstakes," and as such the races have been known ever since. The club was organized and conducted just as jockey clubs are. Rules and regulations were drawn up, officers elected, and a purse of fifteen thousand dollars collected for the first race.

Some one has ventured the opinion that nothing on earth could ever have made the city of Nome except the very thing that did make it,-the discovery of gold in the sand on the beach! Be that as it may, it is safe to say that since that discovery nothing has ever equaled the interest it created until the first dog race was held in 1908.

Men talked of nothing else. On the day of the race the stores, banks and offices were deserted and it is a fact that the District Court was forced to adjourn. Witnesses, jurors and attorneys failed to appear. All went to the races. Thousands of dollars were wagered on the dogs, thousands more on the men who drove them. It was a day of great excitement and enthusiasm.

The course was from Nome, on Bering Sea, across Seward Peninsula to Candle and back,-a distance of four hundred and ten miles. The first race was a great event. One of the conditions was that the whole team must return to the starting-point. The weather was most severe and some of the dogs froze to death. It is no uncommon sight in Alaska to see an intrepid driver, in harness himself, helping to bring back in the sled the disabled dogs which have become incapacitated by accident or sickness. The man who loses a dog is out of the race, no matter what the cause of the loss may be. The rules provide, however, that after being certified at Candle, the turning-point, the dog does not necessarily have to be driven back. But the whole team must return.

The winning team of the first race were Malamuts owned by Albert Fink, driven by John Hegness. They made the distance in a hundred and nineteen hours, fifteen minutes and twenty-two seconds. The winning team was closely followed by one driven by the now-famous "Scotty" Allen and which made the course in a hundred and twenty hours, seven minutes and fifty-two seconds. Three hours elapsed before the third team came in.

The small margin of time between the first and second teams made the race, which took days to finish, of unusual interest. There was great uncertainty almost up to the last moment. But the race was regarded as a success and the event became a fixture. Heretofore, while there had been much discussion as to the breeding of racing dogs, it had been largely theoretical. Now men who owned dogs began to put their minds on it seriously.

The purse of fifteen thousand dollars collected for the first race was awarded in three prizes. Ten thousand went to the winner, three thousand to the second and two thousand to the third team. It was supposed when the amount was collected that it would be amply sufficient to tempt dog owners to become fanciers and to induce the importation and breeding of faster and better dogs. But the sum was found to be inadequate. The total purse fell far short of the amount necessary to assemble, feed, train and condition a team.

The following year there were numerous entries for the second race. And they were not confined to wealthy dog owners, by any means. Miners, fur traders, mail carriers, to say nothing of the first delegate to Congress, entered the contest. This time "Scotty" Allen came in for his own. He drove his team himself and lowered the time to eighty-two hours, two minutes and forty-two seconds,-thirty-seven hours less than the time the first race had consumed.

Perhaps the most interesting personage in connection with the early dog racing in Alaska is Fox Ramsey. He is an Englishman, the brother of Lord Dalhousie. He was what is commonly known as a Cheechaco,-in other words, a tenderfoot. He was unused to the ways of the trail, and what he did not know about handling dogs would fill a book. But he was a good sport. So he entered his team of Malamuts in the second race and drove them himself. He took any amount of chaff from the local drivers and the amusement of the latter was certainly justified. Several weeks after the race was over Ramsey drove up to the finishing post and with the utmost good humor notified the judges that his team had arrived!

The old saying, however, that "he who laughs last laughs best" is peculiarly applicable to Fox Ramsey. He chartered a schooner bound for Siberia. When he returned, as some one has already recorded, "Siberian huskies howled from every port hole." The crowd which had found so much merriment in his racing team of the previous year laughed louder than ever. They took not the slightest interest in the training of his dogs. Ramsey kept his own counsel. When the time came he entered the race. Then came Ramsey's turn to laugh. He took both first and second money! Not only that, he broke the record. The new one was astonishing. He covered the course in seventy-four hours, fourteen minutes and twenty-two seconds.

The good Alaskans, as always, showed the right spirit. Their amusement changed to admiration. All existing theories as to the best breeds for racing had been completely upset. Ramsey is now at the front "somewhere in France" fighting for his country-and ours! Here's to him!

It is the hope, of course, of every fancier to perfect a breed which will lower the record still more, and many hope to prove that the descendants of the wolf are best adapted to the needs of the country. There is a new breed which is now being watched with interest,-the stag-and fox-hound. It has proved excellent for speed in short races but has not yet been able to hold out over the long course of the Sweepstakes. Another experiment is with the Russian wolf-hound,-beautiful dogs these are, but with courage as yet untested.

There is great difference of opinion as to the relative merits of the various breeds, and since the third race the Derby has settled down to a contest between those who believe in the superiority of the fox-hound, bird dog and Malamut cr

oss as pitted against the pure-blooded Siberians.

Those who have never trained or watched over the training and conditioning of a team of racing dogs would find it a most interesting experience. The food of the dogs, like that of a child, is carefully watched over. It consists at first of dog-salmon, corn and cornmeal mush, rice and bacon. Later this is changed to a more strengthening diet. They are fed chopped beef, mutton and eggs. Also, one who has never visited Alaska would open his eyes wide if he could see the kennels where the dogs are kept. In fact, one sometimes wonders whether the human inhabitants are as comfortable. To get a team in condition requires the combined efforts of a large retinue of trainers, drivers and helpers. The driver who is to pilot the first team of a kennel devotes his time and attention to the choice few of some twenty or thirty dogs. The helpers and second string drivers keep the remainder in fit condition so as to develop and gait those which must be ready to substitute in case any one of the first lot proves unequal to the qualifications for entry,-speed, soundness, courage.

It has often happened that dogs the fame of which has spread not only over Alaska but over all the world have developed from the second string. One such was Baldy of Nome, the hero of a book written by his owner, Mrs. C. E. Darling, commonly known as "The Darling of the Dogs." Baldy is old now,-a pensioner. He lives in ease and luxury at the California estate of his mistress. His story is interesting. He was rejected at first as being not of sufficient caliber for the first team. Whether the rejection spurred him to renewed effort I do not know. But he proceeded to prove his worth. He won his way from wheel of the second team to leader of the first team. Baldy occupies a warm spot in every Alaskan heart. He worked up from the ranks,-a "self-made" dog, so to speak, and proved his courage, his sagacity, his strength, and his endurance. One of the most interesting things about him is that he now possesses the largest service flag of any one of my acquaintance. Twenty-eight of his sons and grandsons went to the Vosges to "do their bit," and Baldy now wears the Croix de Guerre bestowed upon them by the French government!

Of the now-famous dogs of the Derby mention must be made of Dubby. He was the first "loose" leader ever developed in Alaska and the best. He was almost human in intelligence. He ran free from the tow line. He would take his place proudly at the head of his team, with no restraint of tow or leash, observing the spoken commands with instant obedience. From his position of authority at the head of the team, by incessant yelping and playful antics, he would encourage the others, and woe to any one of them that proved the laggard! Dubby promptly punished him. He would run back, bark and then nip him until the offender was only too glad to return to duty and resume gait. Other dogs which have won fame in the Derby are (1) Jack McMillan, a leader belonging to Albert Fink; (2) Rex, a pacer; (3) The Blatchford Blues, two thoroughbred Llewellyn setters, wonderful both as to speed and intelligence; (4) Kalma, a beautiful, white-eyed, black-coated Siberian who has proved the most lasting campaigner of them all.

Not to the dogs alone, however, much as we love them, is due the credit for the success of the Alaskan Derby. Too much can not be said for the trainers and drivers. All of them were men deeply versed in dog lore. They had made a study of many years' duration and were imbued with theories as to the training and conditioning of dogs,-theories as varied as were the breeds of the dogs themselves. These men were knights of the trail, inured to hardship, fleet and sure of foot, gifted both with physical endurance and courage to which no words can do justice. Mention has already been made of "Scotty" Allen. He is known to every man, woman and child on Seward Peninsula. He has been in every race except the last one, either with a team of his own or one owned jointly by himself and Mrs. Darling. He developed and owns the two famous leaders, Dubby and Buddy, and their reputation is world-wide.

To "Scotty" Allen the French Government entrusted the responsibility of choosing and transporting to France more than a hundred of the Sweepstake dogs. Further reference will be made to their noble work on the war-swept fields of Europe where, with a courage and daring equaled only by their human brothers, they carry ammunition and supplies far into the mountains,-often to remote and seemingly inaccessible spots where the soldiery could not penetrate without them. It was because of this mission that Allen was unable to enter the last race and as he has recently been elected to the Alaskan Legislature he will also be deprived of the privilege of entering this year. The session is held at the same time as the Derby. In any other country the latter might be postponed. Here it is not possible. It is a matter of much regret that the Derby can not be made a territorial affair. This was the original intention, as the name, All-Alaska Sweepstakes, indicates. But it proved impossible. The race could not be held after the spring break-up. It must have the hard spring trail and the cold weather, and the trainers must have the whole of the winter for the training and conditioning of the dogs. Therefore, April must be the month and, regrettable as the fact is, this prevents teams from Fairbanks, Iditarod and other Alaskan towns from entering. The men from these sections could not well take chances on the disappearance of the trail by an early thaw before they could return home again for the spring clean-ups. But almost every Alaskan town now has its own Kennel Club, small or large as the case may be, and all are actively alive to the sport. Moreover, the "Outside" is by no means indifferent. Many contributions to the purse come each year to the Nome Kennel Club.

Trophies for the different races, usually cups, are, almost without exception, the gifts of men in the United States who are devotees of the sport. Unable to participate themselves, they like to aid and encourage the event. The latest trophy, and the one which unquestionably will be most sought after this year, is the cup presented by John Borden, Chicago sportsman and millionaire, who joined the Club last summer while in Nome. This cup is for a new contest,-extreme speed being the object. The course is to cover twenty-six miles, three hundred yards. It must be run under perfect conditions, it being the object and the desire of both donor and Club to learn how fast a dog team can actually travel without obstacles. The winner each year will be given a small cup, and the big trophy must be won three times in succession before it becomes the property of the winner.

In addition to Allen and Ramsey, other drivers have made substantial but less spectacular winnings. Two of these are the Johnson brothers and another is Leonard Sepalla. Their dogs were Siberians, driven in a long string, fifteen to twenty-six to a team. These men have marvelous records for endurance, as has also Peter Berg, a mail carrier. The latter did a hundred and thirty miles without a stop for food or rest. The last thirty miles was made in harness, and in snow shoes, with what was left of his badly used-up team. Then, after hauling a large part of his frost-bitten and exhausted dogs to the finishing post he found that he had been beaten to second money by a man who had ridden four hundred miles behind his untiring and seemingly inexhaustible Siberians.

If the Alaskan Derby had had but one result,-that of developing a superior race of dogs-it would have been invaluable to Alaska. But it has done one other thing in which every dog lover rejoices. It has not only benefited the racing dog. It has materially benefited the condition of the working dog. The old rule of feeding an exhausted and over-worked team "buckskin soup" no longer goes in Alaska. Very few drivers now have the temerity to abuse a dog. It has been proved beyond doubt that better results come from kindness and care than can possibly be obtained by neglect or brutal treatment.

So, after many years' sojourn in the country, I paraphrase the saying of the old Southern planter. I affirm that he who does not love a dog never owned one! Here's to them,-dumb heroes of the trackless wilderness and the gigantic snow fields! Over the frozen wastes they cheerfully pull both driver and load for thousands of miles and come up smiling when the end of the long journey is reached. Into their masters' deepest affections they unconsciously walk and "stay put." They become his most sympathetic companions, comrades and friends. And the news which from time to time reaches us from "over there" where our canine heroes are doing their "bit" in a manner little short of miraculous goes straight to our hearts. Yes. The dog has come into his own. And all Alaska rejoices that it is so. Over a kingdom of devoted subjects he reigns supreme!

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