A Dog-Puncher on the Yukon, by Arthur Treadwell Walden

A free book excerpt from Northern Light Media and Alaskan History Magazine

This is a chapter from Alaska & the Klondike, Early Writings and Historic Photographs, compiled and edited by Helen Hegener, an anthology of a dozen selected writings by early explorers and travelers in Alaska and the Yukon Territory of Canada. The book was published in May, 2018 by Northern Light Media. 320 pages, over 100 b/w photos, ISBN-13: 978-1717401991. $29.95 includes USPS First Class shipping.

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An excerpt from A Dog-Puncher on the Yukon, by Arthur T. Walden, published in 1928.

Arthur Treadwell Walden

“Let me tell you about this man Walden.” These words, found in the introduction to Arthur Treadwell Walden’s classic book, A Dog-Puncher on the Yukon (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928), are the reader’s invitation to meet one of the most respected and heralded pioneers of the Klondike and Alaskan gold rushes, a man who, as the Introduction explains, “...reached the country of the Yukon in the early part of ’96, when Circle City was the center and the Birch Creek mines the magnet.”

Walden traveled north with his collie dog, Shirley, up the Inside Passage and over the Chilkoot Pass, down the Yukon River through the fearsome Whitehorse Rapids and downriver to Circle City, at that time “...the banner town of the interior.” He learned to drive dogs across the vast white wilderness and became a musher, “...making trips with freight and mail and passengers behind his dogs.” Walden would later write knowingly in what was a good description of himself: “The dog driver was a good deal like the old-fashioned sailor. He never expected to stay anywhere for any length of time. He was constantly thinking either of turning back or of striking off for some new region. he hood-winked himself with the delusion that he was out there for the money. In reality, it was the adventurous life which appealed to him.”

From the Circle Mining District Arthur Walden traveled east to the Klondike when gold was discovered near Dawson City in 1897, and two years later, when gold was discovered in the black sand beaches of Nome, Walden traveled down the Yukon River to the new goldfields. Walden’s adventurous tales and colorful descriptions of the north and its inhabitants gave his book an enduring quality, and it’s still considered a northland classic. The history is accurate because Arthur Walden was there, he lived the history, and he wrote what he knew to be true.

“Adventurer Arthur T. Walden with his sled dog Chinook at the Winter Carnival in Portland, Maine. This photograph was published on the front page of the Portland Evening Express on February 11, 1922, the same year Chinook led Walden’s team to victory in the first Eastern International Dog Derby, on his way to becoming the most famous dog in America.”

In 1927 he helped train sled dogs and drivers for Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s Antarctic expedition. Walden was in charge of hauling supplies to Byrd’s base camp for the expedition. Tragically, Arthur Walden died on March 26, 1947, after saving his wife Kate from a fire in the kitchen of their farmhouse. They are both buried near their former Wonalancet Farm.

Chapter III: Freighting with Dogs

Early this winter, when I was living in Circle City, I made up my mind I would become a freighter, or what was called locally a ‘dog-puncher.’ And so it came about.

While everybody in this section had driven dogs more or less, there were only five of us who made this our entire business. Freight was left at Circle City by the river steamboats, and from there it was taken out to the Birch Creek Mines on sleds. In summer only the absolute necessities to keep the mines going were carried out, and the price was forty cents a pound.

There were two ‘way-houses’ on this line, afterwards called ‘road-houses,’ where we were furnished wood, water, and shelter, but nothing else; we carried our own provisions, did our own cooking, and provided our own bedding. These houses were long, low, log buildings covered with dirt roofs. The cracks were stopped up with the long moss of the country. A large ventilator, always open, kept the air fresh. There was a dirt floor, and the entire wall space, except the window, door, and a place for the stove, was occupied by tiers of single bunks made of poles, with a deacon-seat around the bottom. The bunks were filled with hay in the fall, but, as every one that came used the hay to put into his moccasins, it didn’t last long and we slept on the bare poles.

The way-houses were much more comfortable than they sound, and generally had little bars connected with them. Outside there was a large corral made of long poles stuck upright in the ground, with a gate at each end. The loaded sleds were driven in here and the dogs turned outside. The corrals were designed to prevent the dogs from stealing from the loaded sleds. Also we cooled the dogs’ food in them after cooking it.

On the way from Circle City to the mines we stopped at both of these way- houses, thus making the trip in three days. On our way back, empty, we jumped one way-house, making the return trip in two days. We had one day in town to collect a load, and thus made a round trip every six days.

Food was scarce in Circle City that winter, and we were put on an allowance. The boat intended for Circle City had stuck in the ice eighty miles below, at Fort Yukon. The necessities of life were freighted up on sleds from Fort Yukon and then out to the mines. This was done in the fall, as soon as it was possible to use sleds. It was a disagreeable trip, as the river was open in a great many places, and several teams broke through the ice and the loads were lost.

A dog-team with equipment for heavy freighting is totally different from that used for any other kind of dog-driving. It consists of from six to seven large, heavy dogs of the native breed. We always liked to have two dogs who could lead if possible, so that when breaking trail one could relieve the other.

These dogs were locally called ‘Malamutes,’ from a tribe of Eskimos living at the mouth of the Yukon, from whom we got most of our dogs. The Eskimo dog, the Husky, and the Malamute are all the same breed. Variation in size is accounted for by the food they had had for generations in their particular localities.

There was another breed of dogs called the ‘Porcupine River’ or ‘Mackenzie’ Husky. These originated a great many years ago from a cross of the Eskimo with some large domesticated dog, and were the best freight dogs I have ever seen, being far superior to the Eskimo and much larger and stronger.

One team of these dogs, the finest I have ever seen, weighed from a hundred and forty-five to a hundred and sixty-five pounds each, in working flesh. A freight team was harnessed single file in what is now called the 'tandem hitch,’ each dog wearing a leather collar something like a horse collar. The traces were hitched directly to this, without hames, and held in place by a back-band and belly-band.

The traces of the lead-dog ran far back to those of the dog behind him and were hitched about four inches to the rear of his hips. This method was repeated until you got to the dog in front of the sled-dog. His traces ran back past the sled-dog and were not hitched to him, but to a little whiffle-tree, to which the sled-dog was also hitched by a short pair of traces working between the long ones. This gave the sled-dog a chance to jump out and pull at right angles, to help the driver get the sleds around corners.

From the little whifile-tree a tug-rope about five feet long came back to the sled. The dog-driver walked astraddle of this tug-rope, which passed between his legs at the ankle. When the sleds were loaded and the dogs going at a walk, they were coupled up very closely. But there was another set of rings hitched at the junction of the back-band with the traces, into which the traces were snapped when the dogs were coming back light and at a trot. This lengthened the space between the dogs by about eighteen inches, giving them more freedom for fast traveling. When loaded we made only about three miles an hour; when light from six to seven.

The sleds were of the so-called ‘Yukon type,’ seven feet long, sixteen inches wide on the runners, so as to be able to follow the narrow trails, and clearing the ground by about four: inches. The top overhung two inches along each side, making it twenty inches wide. On the sides were lash-ropes, like inverted V’s, extending about eighteen inches above the sides. Two long lash ropes were fastened to the front end.

The method of loading was this: A light canvas sheet measuring about eight by ten feet was first spread on the sled and the freight loaded on, the heaviest part about a third from the front end. Then the canvas was drawn up and wrapped around it, as you would wrap a bundle. The two long lash- ropes from the end were woven back and forth in the side-ropes, enveloping the whole in what looked like a fish-net. There was another rope V at the back and one in front. The lash-ropes were woven in and out of these two at the last, tightening up the whole thing. On long trips a little water was spattered over these joints, freezing and binding them together. The ordinary freight outfit consisted of three full-sized sleds, one behind the other, drawn up close and connected by cross-chains, making each sled follow exactly in the same track as the sled ahead of it. The sleds had to be so strongly made and heavily braced with iron that each weighed from sixty to eighty pounds, the front one being the heaviest. They were loaded for the average team with six hundred, four hundred, and two hundred pounds apiece, thus making a total of twelve hundred pounds, or about two hundred pounds per dog.

On one side of the leading sled was what would correspond to a wagon- pole, called the ‘gee-pole.' It was lashed to the side, was about six feet long and three inches thick at the butt end, and extended upward from the runners at an angle of forty-five degrees, almost to the height of a man’s shoulder.

The driver walked in front of the first sled with the tug-rope between his feet, and the gee-pole in one hand. This gave him a leverage of about five feet, so that in steering a heavily loaded sled he could do it easily and accurately and stand upright. If the sled started to tip over in either direction, he could throw his weight on the pole and right the sled. He could also steady it on side-hills, and swing around corners making a wide turn, while the sled-dog, who was almost as well trained as the leader, helped him by jumping out of the traces and pulling at right angles. The gee-pole was used to break the sled loose when frozen in, by swinging it from side to side, and to hold back on when going down small hills.

On steep hills the dogs were unsnapped, and the driver rode the gee-pole, leaning far back on it with his legs stuck out in front, outrunning the dogs. This method was more or less dangerous but unavoidable. Several men were killed by running into trees; one man was killed by the gee-pole breaking and the stub running through his body.

A rough-lock brake was sometimes used on the back sled, but different grades on the same hill made this difficult. In some places where it was very steep, the sleds were sometimes tipped over and dragged down on their sides. By using three sleds the load was distributed over twenty-one feet of bearing surface instead of twelve feet, as it would have been on one long sled. Being connected by cross-chains the sleds would go over rough ground like a chain over a log, and wind through narrow trails in the forest where only a seven-foot sled would be worked through. If the sleds tipped over, they could be righted one by one; and on long hills, where it was impossible to haul the whole load at once, they were unhitched and pulled separately.

I could go on indefinitely, describing the advantages of this method, which made it possible to handle heavier loads than have ever been hauled with dogs in any other parts of the north. This style of hitch has absolutely gone out, as have the jerk-rein teams of the Rocky Mountains, because times have changed, and long hard trips are no longer required.

I believe a dog-team can go farther on its own food than any other team in the world. Theoretically it can travel with one man, loaded with twelve hundred pounds of food and equipment, at an average rate, from start to finish, of twenty miles a day. This is a slow average, and barring accidents, a team could travel fourteen hundred miles in seventy-three days. As the load grew lighter, the mileage would increase.

I know of an actual trip of over nine hundred miles where the dogs probably did not make over fifteen miles the first day, but wound up with a run of fifty-five miles the last day, hauling an empty sled and both men riding.

We usually reckoned on traveling about eight hours a day. Of course on a long, one-way trip of the kind I have been describing, each sled was discarded when empty. With one sled the pace became faster. The dogs were coupled closer to the sled and farther apart and either the gee-pole was used or improvised handle-bars were put on. When we were freighting and coming back empty, we piled one sled on top of another.

There were no passenger trips in those days. Everything was freight work, as ‘Grub’ was King. If you had a passenger he walked!

I read somewhere of the rush into the Black Hills of South Dakota years ago, where the superintendent of the stage line asked his manager how he was handling the traffic. He answered: ‘Fine! First-dass passengers, we carry them and their baggage. Second-dass passengers, we carry their baggage. Third-class passengers, they walk and carry their own baggage.’

The nights at the way-houses were extremely interesting. The men came from almost every country in the world- Some were old prospectors from the rush of ’49, and some had mined in California, South America, Australia, and South Africa. The old-time prospector was a breed by himself, with his own code of right and wrong strongly developed, which fitted in very well with this northern country, where written law was unknown.

Horse-play and tricks were of course always going on at these gatherings. I remember reaching the Grand Central Way-House long after dark one night, and, as I was taking off my load of dog-food to carry it into the house, I met a man in the corral who was cooling his. The air outside the corral seemed to be swarming with hungry dogs, drawn by the smell of food. Inquiring about one very obstreperous dog, I was told he was Chris Sohnikson's leader, and that if I wanted to play a joke on Chris I could do so if I followed instructions.

Now Chris was extremely fond of this dog and proud because he would do a certain trick if he was given a piece of salmon. We prepared by filling the dog chock full of salmon. After we had done so I let him into the road-house, shut the door, and inquired in a loud voice whose dog it was. Chris claimed the dog, and, as he came over to let him out, I started a discussion on the merits of the beast, and Chris, as we thought he would, boasted about this trick.

I offered to bet him drinks for the house that the dog would not do it. At this, men who had already gone to bed began to swing out and march to the bar, knowing that it was a drink either way for them. The dog, being full of salmon, turned his head away in disgust, and Chris 'set up’ the house. Afterwards, when we told him the joke, he was so pleased because the dog hadn’t actually gone back on him that he set up the house again, and, as there were some twenty-five or thirty men and it cost fifty cents a drink, the trick proved to be something of a luxury.

Circle City at this time was an interesting place. It lay on the left bank of the Yukon at the beginning of the Yukon Flats, on a long concave bow of the river. It was built in the form of a large crescent, with its widest part in the middle, tapering off into straggling Indian shacks. The muskeg began where the buildings left off.

At a Miners’ Meeting held by the men who chose the site, there was a discussion on what to call the town. ‘Swatka’ and ‘Dawson’ were being considered, when a man jumped up and said, ‘Boys, we’re going to have a round city. Why not call it Circle City?’ — and the name took.

A person approaching the town by water for the first time saw a steep bank with small boats of all descriptions moored along the edge. On top of the bank were piles of logs to be whip-sawed, and crude scaffoldings for this purpose, with their accompanying machinery of a man above and a man below. Then came a stretch of fifty feet or more which was the street, and on the other side were rows of log cabins, with a few larger buildings, also of logs. These cabins were moss-chinked and dirt-covered, with the exception of the warehouses, which were built of corrugated iron. In the mosquito season every cabin had its little smudge in front.

This town in summer never slept. As it was daylight all the time, people ate and slept when they felt like it. It was odd to hear a man speak of going to breakfast at ten o’clock at night. This perpetual daylight, however, got very trying after a time-Flowers sprang up as if by magic in the spring, and berries were very plentiful later. What few birds we had sang day and night. The summer, though short, was very warm.

Winter changed all this. The mud was frozen up, and the brown, dirty river turned to a sheet of white. Frost and snow hung over everything, and the cold was intense. The snowfall was very light; in fact it was mostly frost, and this seemed to be perpetually falling. It was too cold for much snow, the temperature often hanging at sixty below zero for weeks, and dropping very much farther at times.

During these cold snaps there was absolutely no movement of the air, which prickled like fine needles. The air was easily inhaled, although it gave you a burning sensation in the lungs, but I never heard of a man’s lungs being frozen. Frost-bites and freezings were prevalent, but they never bothered us unless they struck to the bone.

We had no thermometers in Circle City that would fit the case, until Jack McQuesten invented one of his own. This consisted of a set of vials fitted into a rack, one containing quicksilver, one the best whiskey in the country, one kerosene, and one Perry Davis’s Pain-Killer. These congealed in the order mentioned, and a man starting on a journey started with a smile at frozen quicksilver, still went at whiskey, hesitated at the kerosene, and dived back into his cabin when the Pain-Killer lay down.

Coming in from the mines one bright moonlight night I was impressed by one of the weirdest effects I have ever seen. It was intensely cold, with not a breath of air stirring. Every stovepipe in the city was belching forth a column of fast-rising smoke which, when it cooled at a certain height, formed a sort of canopy over the entire dty, with the smoke columns as posts to hold it up.. From under this canopy the lights shone through the uncurtained windows, promising warmth, food, and rest.

Circle City was unique in some ways, and for more than one reason. Here was a town made up of men from all parts of the world, intelligent men all. I knew an Oxford man, a younger son, married to a squaw who had blondined her hair: he could quote Greek poetry by the hour when he was liquored up. Another man, who had been raised in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, never drank and didn’t have a squaw, and had taught himself to read and write. In Circle City the saying went, ‘If you look for a fool you find only one.'

Here was a town of some three or four hundred inhabitants which had no taxes, courthouse, or jail; no post-office, church, schools, hotels, or dog pound; no rules, regulations, or written law; no sheriff, dentist, doctor, lawyer, or priest. Here there was no murder, stealing, or dishonesty, and right was right and wrong was wrong as each individual understood it. Here life, property, and honor were safe, justice was swift and sure, and punishments were made to fit the case.

In the winter-time water was cut out in chunks and piled at the door, and for over eight months of the year the town was shut off from the rest of the world by ice and snow, with no means of communication save by dog-team, open only to the hardiest. The first winter I was there, only two teams went to the outside and one came in.

Letters accumulated at Juneau until some man going into the Yukon brought them up at a dollar apiece. This came rather high sometimes. I once got seventeen letters in one mail, one letter being eighteen months old. Letters were carried out in the winter for the same price and the carrier put the stamps on at the other end. .This method of correspondence was rather amusing, as by the time the answer came you had forgotten what you had written about!

Locks were unknown. I remember an instance of two men arriving at a cabin which was barred from the inside. Written on the door were instructions as to how to unlock it. One of the men, a newcomer, remarked what a fool thing it was to do, and the sourdough’s laconic reply was, ‘Only Indians can’t read.’

Gambling was the chief relaxation, and although it sometimes led to quarrels it was on the square. Only gold dust was used as barter at the stores; this had to be weighed out for every purchase, and it was considered a matter of courtesy to turn your back while the man was weighing it. If things cost less than a dollar, you simply took more of them, making up the amount.

The saloons all ran trust accounts, and the companies gave a man his allowance of food whether he had the money or not.- For some unaccountable reason a large, mounted grindstone, weighing about three hundred pounds, had been brought up on a river boat, and when all food -was gone it was hoisted onto the counter as the only remaining thing to be sold. This had been the custom since the town started.

The few women who had followed their husbands into the country were a fine lot, and men looked up to them, not as their equals, but as their superiors. No man was a hero, no matter what he did, and no man -was a saint, no matter how good he was. You did whatever you pleased as long as you did not bother any one else.

We had some killings, but no murder; one case of theft, but the man never stole again. There were a few instances where men went back on their pledges, but these men were looked down upon and almost boycotted. Even claims were occasionally bought and sold verbally. A tourist, if one had happened to come into the country, would have said life here was hard and tough, with all the finer things left out, but in reality life had simply narrowed down to the Golden Rule. •~•

A free book excerpt from Northern Light Media and Alaskan History Magazine.