Dogs of the North

As a child, I read most of Jack London's writings on Alaska and the Yukon, many of which revolved around the lives of heroic dogs. I was also a fan of Sgt. Preston and his dog, Yukon King. I was so into dogs, I owned a collection of over 50 dog figurines made from wood, ceramic, and other materials. My own dog and I were inseparable. As I reached my 20s I began following the Iditarod race and, over the last few years, I have been attending sled dog races in the town where I recently lived - Warren, PA. I have since moved but return from time to time. Luckily, I also have met, via email, Rod Perry arguably the premier historian of the Iditarod. Rod and I have become good friends. He used many of my photos and some of my information in his recent reprint of his epic volume one "Trailblazers." He and I also tracked down taxidermied remains of the two famous serum run hero dogs, Balto and Togo. We have and we still make attempts to have them reunited someday.

Although the subject of sled dogs is only lightly covered in my book, Captain Jack: Father of the Yukon, I have spent countless hours researching many facets of life along the Yukon including various modes of transportation. The role of the sled dog along the Yukon River was absolutely imperative in the daily lives of the indigenous people of this country, and was cheerfully adopted by trappers, traders, and miners, once these "outsiders" began harvesting the resources of this 2000-mile-long river valley.

In 2008, I gave a presentation on Captain Jack, and on sled dogs, at the Cleveland, Ohio, Siberian Husky dog show and was asked to present it again at the Siberian Husky Nationals but I could not make that event. I did, however, repeat the presentation in my recent hometown, where sled dog races have been held since 1979. Much of my research for this presentation is now included on this website.

By "Dogs of the North" I am speaking specifically of long-haired, wolf-like dogs, bred to aid in daily Yukon River life, particularly in drawing sleds, or sledges, as they were sometimes called. There were, in fact, other "Siwash" or Indian dogs that were short-haired and not typically used for this unique type of winter travel. They are sometimes thought to have coyotes as very ancient ancestors.

Sled dogs tended to be long-haired to protect themselves from the bitter cold weather. They were also rumored to descend partly from wolves, or, in some cases, Arctic foxes. There are conflicting theories on this and I present this information not as an expert on the subject, but rather as a researcher of many opinions and legends.

Left to right: A beautiful white wolf from the Arctic; a wonderful photo of sled dogs bred for speed; another great shot of a husky bred for strength (these two shots were taken in Warren, PA, where I formerly live); Jack London's most popular book, which made famous the wolf-dogs of the North, and mentions the name, McQuesten, in Chapter Seven. London received many ideas for stories of the Yukon from Captain Jack McQuesten, Father of Alaska and Father of the Yukon.

Left to right: This is thought by some folks to be a picture of Captain Jack plowing his garden with a sled dog. This looks like a Herschel Island Husky and Jack is shown in other photos with such a dog; here I am at the Warren, PA, Winterfest. This is the town where I recently lived, where my mother was born and my grandparents are buried. This race is one of the larger sled dog races in the lower 48; in this third picture I am trying my hand at the sled; finally, here I am at a sign welcoming visitors to the Yukon, just outside the Whitehorse, Yukon airport in August of 2007.

Left to right: A land bridge once connected Alaska to Siberia and the estimated land mass of this bridge is known as Beringia. The Amerindians of this region were of the Athabaskan tribe and originated from an amalgamation of races, which included tribes such as the Apache and Navajo. In contrast, the groups that raised the typical Northern dog appear to have arrived directly from the area around China, including the Chuckchee people of Siberia, and certain other Yukon groups. The photo to the right shows how the Yukon begins in lakes in British Columbia and flows through Yukon, and on through Alaska.

The Husky

There are three early "pure" breeds of sled dog. These dogs were typically called "huskies". The word husky has, as its root, the same sound as in "Chuckchee" or "Tuski" (the Siberian group who bred the Siberian Husky), as in "Eskimo" (most likely Chuckchee who took to the sea and shoreline rather than live inland), in "Uskvemi" (the Amerindian name for the Eskimo), and finally as in "Kayuskeemi" (the name for the room where tribal shamen carried out their rituals). Men from the Hudson Bay Company referred to the Eskimo as "Huskies" long before the name became synonymous with their dogs.

Recent DNA testing of dogs from around the world, carried out in Sweden, indicates that in fact all domesticated dogs may have developed in northern China and/or Siberia, and that these groups had been breeding dogs for specific purposes for about 15,000 years.

The Malemute Eskimo of the coastline, the Chuckchee of Siberia, the Han First Nations of Dawson, and the Loucheux First Nations of the Mackenzie River area all seem to have a Chinese/ Mongolian lineage. They also make up the groups that bred and raised the Dogs of the North.

Left to right: a Chuckchee or Tuski family with their Siberian Husky; Malemute Eskimo with a Malemute dog; Eskimo "shaman" in his Kayuskeemi; a modern-day Han First Nations member from Dawson, Yukon, compared to a modern-day Han Dynasty descendant, from China - the two men looking all the world like brothers, or perhaps father and son. The Han Nations member is William Henry who took me for a ride down the Yukon River in his fishing boat. The two of us stood where our forefathers had traded furs so many years ago.

Mackenzie River Husky

One of the first dogs mentioned in writings by early explorers of the region was the Mackenzie River Husky. This dog was said to have been a mix of Siwash dog and Mackenzie River wolf. It was bred by the "Mackenzie River Indians" or Loucheux as the trappers called them. The Loucheux resembled and spoke a language very similar to the Han First Nations who still reside around Dawson City, Yukon. Fifth century Buddhist monks wrote of the "two great Hans" - one in China and one located in a land, which, by its description, seems to be modern-day Alaska and Yukon. The Han and Loucheux, living in close proximity to each other, resembling each other, and speaking a similar language, were most likely related.

One tradition says that a male wolf was bred with a female dog to create the Mackenzie River Husky. It is also said that a wolf pup would drink water in a different manner than a dog, and so the litter was watched for this trait. Any wolf-like drinkers were destroyed. Those that drank like a dog were nurtured. As the wolf-dogs grew, other welcomed traits would lead to these dogs being used for further breeding. Those that exhibited bad traits were neutered and used strictly for sledding.

Tests in Siberia have fairly recently proven that wildness can be bred out of a wolf or fox line within as little as 10 years, simply by weeding out the wilder pups, as this early tradition has recounted. Also, as breeding out of wildness takes place, the coloring of the group tends toward black, white, or gray. This may explain why many Northern sled dogs are of these colors, while most wolves remain brown in color.

Mackenzie River Huskies were used very early on by the many pioneers of the Yukon Valley who came in by way of the Mackenzie River - often called the "back door" approach. This was the path Captain Jack used to enter the valley. Jack was given four dogs, by the Hudson Bay Company, just as he began the final leg of his journey to Fort Yukon. These dogs were very likely Mackenzie River Huskies. The typical Mackenzie River Husky was large and used for hauling weight, rather than for racing or speed. However, he is also shown, in some pictures, with what appear to be Herschel Island Huskies, which tended to be entirely black and white in coloring.

Left to right: An 1829 drawing of a Mackenzie River Husky; an early photograph of Mackenzie River Huskies; a close relative, the Herschel Island Husky was raised on an island just off the mouth of the Mackenzie River and tended to be dark on top with a few lower white markings (shown here on a boat heading for the mainland); Jack McQuesten (at far right) standing near what appears to be Herschel Island Huskies.


The Malemute is not as often referred to as a "husky" and yet it comes from the same tradition. It was bred by the Malemute Eskimo on the west coast of Alaska. Legend has it that Malemute dogs were originally pure wolf. They had an early reputation as being dangerous and there are stories of mushers who fell in the snow and were killed by their own Malemutes. Later, through selective breeding the Malemute became a very tame animal, not as big as the Mackenzie River Husky but still able to pull a substantial load. The Malemute, along with other Northern breeds, were often matched with an "outside" dog to strengthen the offspring. This resulted in a more general dog known as the Alaskan Husky, whose true lineage could consist of any number of breed combinations.

Sled dogs were expensive and very valued as the main form of winter travel, in a country where it was winter most of the time. In the summer, these dogs would race to the shoreline, whenever a steamboat would arrive, to vie for handouts. They were also notorious for stealing any leather products - shoes, hats, gloves, harnesses, to make a meal. They were typically fed one frozen fish a day, while out on the trail.

Left to right: An 1829 drawing of a Malemute; an early drawing of Tuski (Chuckchee) trading with Malemute Eskimo; so-called "outside" dogs being brought in by boat, usually as pups, to breed with Northern dogs; a photo from 1919 showing the wide mix of breeds of the "Alaskan Husky" waiting for a scrap of food.

Siberian Husky

The Siberian Husky was not officially introduced to America until 1908 when a team was brought over to race in the All Alaska dogsled race. Siberians are an old, pure breed from the Chuckchee Peninsula of Siberia. These dogs were smaller and much faster than most known sled dogs, and began winning races and a great reputation. The Mounties used Siberians because of their speed.

There are a few drawings and photos of Siberian dogs from before 1908, presumably the ancestors of the current breed of dog. Most of today's highly regarded Siberians descend from the earliest Siberians in Alaska including many hero dogs such as Togo and Balto who were famous for a wintertime run of serum from Fairbanks to Nome in 1925. This desperate race was the inspiration for today's Iditarod Dog Sled Race. The taxidermied remains of both dogs have been found b Rod Perry and I and we have been attempting to have them reunited once again, though lack of funding currently is the biggest hurdle in this regard.

Left to right: A 1735 drawing of Siberian sled dogs; Kara, a Siberian dog taken to England in 1889; a 1911 photo of a Siberian dog; a photograph labeled "Early Siberian Dog".

Left to right: The most famous Siberian Huskies ever - the first official team of Siberian Husky sled dogs in America, circa 1908; the Serum Run heroes, Togo and Balto, immortalized in the Iditarod dog sled races; my favorite Siberian Husky, from my youth, Yukon King.

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