An Alaskan “Mush” to Presbytery

by the Rev. Samuel Hall Young

This article, excerpted from the May-June, 2021 issue of Alaskan History Magazine, would usually be sent only to paid subscribers to this newsletter, but for promotional purposes I am making this longtime favorite available to all of my readers. You can subscribe and see every article from the magazine at this link.

The Reverend Samuel Hall Young was known as “The Mushing Parson,” and in this article, published in the church publication, “The Continent,” in 1913, he details one trip over the Iditarod Trail. For more information about Rev. Young see the links at the end of this article.

“There are fewer hardships in Alaska than in any other country I know. The people live an exuberant life there with wealth and all that goes to make up the externals of happiness. And as to the heroism, that is all nonsense.”

The Reverend Samuel Hall Young looms large in the history of the North. 

“In the summer of 1879 I was stationed at Fort Wrangell in southeastern Alaska, whence I had come the year before, a green young student fresh from college and seminary–very green and very fresh–to do what I could towards establishing the white man’s civilization among the Thlinget Indians. I had very many things to learn and many more to unlearn.”

These are the opening words of Reverend Samuel Hall Young’s classic book, Alaska Days with John Muir (Fleming H. Revell Co., New York, 1915). The first missionary in Alaska, Young recounts a six-week voyage through southeastern waters he undertook in a great cedar canoe with the great naturalist John Muir, with a half-dozen Thlinget Indians as scouts and crew. Visiting villages along the route, Young noted: “I took the census of each village, getting the heads of the families to count their relatives with the aid of beans,—the large brown beans representing men, the large white ones, women, and the small Boston beans, children. In this manner the first census of southeastern Alaska was taken.”

Sharing many adventures, Reverend Young and John Muir remained lifelong friends. During the ten years he lived and worked in Wrangell with his family, Rev. Young established several southeastern missions and became a man of some standing. In 1897 he was strongly considered for appointment as governor of the territory of Alaska by President McKinley. Instead he traveled over Chilkoot Pass and down the Yukon River at the height of the Klondike gold rush, and established the first Presbyterian church in Dawson City in 1898. Continuing down the Yukon River over the next three years, he organized missions at Eagle, Rampart, Nome, and Teller. In 1901 he was appointed superintendent of all Alaska Presbyterian missions. He lived at Skagway in 1902-1903, at Council in 1903-1904, at Fairbanks from 1904-06 and again 1907-08, at Teller in 1907, at Cordova in 1908-10, and Iditarod in 1911-12. During those years he gained a ‘Doctor of Divinity’ designation and became known as “the mushing parson” because of his many long journeys by dogteam. 

In 1913 Dr. Young wrote an article for the church publication The Continent (Vol. 44, No. 7, Feb. 13, 1913) in which he shared his story of a journey via dogteam from Iditarod to Seward over the Iditarod Trail, and then by steamer to Cordova, for an important General Assembly of the church. He was accompanied by a young Scotchman and experienced dog musher named Breeze; the few photographs accompanying the article are to treasure, and his colorful first-hand descriptions of the trail are a delight to the reader. 

NOW, IF I am to tell you this story, I hope you will rid your mind of all hardship and hero gush. There are fewer hardships in Alaska than in any other country I know. The people live an exuberant life there with wealth and all that goes to make up the externals of happiness. And as to the heroism, that is all nonsense. I am in Alaska as I write because I like it, because it is the most comfortable, pleasant land to live in and to work in that I know of anywhere and, however insane you may consider the statement, I would rather take a journey like that I am about to describe than go around the world or have a million dollars. I can read all about a journey around the world, and the million dollars would fill my life full of care and trouble; but I cannot read about the region I traversed last spring, and there is no anxious care in simply making your journey day by day, from roadhouse to roadhouse, or to a camp in the snow. Your blood leaps in your veins. The struggle, which Emerson says is the best thing in life, is yours, and the daily victory. Nature sings overhead and underneath and all around you. Pessimism and gloom and homesickness are impossible on the trail. 

The time was last March, beginning with the 5th; the occasion was the meeting of presbytery at Cordova, on the coast. It was a very necessary meeting, for we must send a delegate to General Assembly. We must assert ourselves again as the biggest presbytery belonging to that body— in space I mean. 

I was at Iditarod, 720 miles from Cordova. Dr. Koonce was at Cordova and Dr. Condit at Fairbanks, 442 miles inland from Cordova. There was no other way for me to get to presbytery but to take my dogs and "mush." To those ignorant people who do not know the meaning of that term, I will condescend to explain that the word "mush" is a corruption of the French marchez, which the coureurs du bois shout at their dogs as they urge them along. It is the word now universally used to describe a journey over the trail, and when we drive our dogs or wish to chase them out of the house, we shout "mush!" 

The journey is to lead across three high ranges of mountains and two great valleys, the Kuskokwim and the Susitna. The trail has been but recently laid out by the government and is little used, but there are roadhouses here and there at irregular intervals and we will take enough provisions with us for emergencies. As to its being an at all formidable undertaking, why, the prospectors, miners and hunters of Alaska take far harder and longer trips constantly and break the trail for their dogs the whole way in unexplored territory. I anticipate the pleasure of that trip across new country with keen delight. A young Scotchman from the north of Ireland, William Breeze, known far and wide as an experienced "dog musher," is to be my companion. He is bound for Susitna, 300 miles from Iditarod, on a prospecting trip, and will take care of my dogs, boil their feed at night and do the heaviest part of the work. 

And now let me introduce you to my team. It is one of the finest teams in all the North. They are five pups of the same litter now 6 or 7 years old. They are a cross between the MacKenzie River husky and the shepherd dog, and have the long hair and hardy endurance of the former and the sagacity, intelligence and affection of the latter. Being brothers, they know each other and are taught to work together, although this fact does not hinder them from engaging in a general mixup now and again. However, if attacked by strange dogs, the whole five work together beautifully, centering their forces with Napoleonic strategy and beating the enemy in detail. The leader is black, white and tan. marked like a shepherd dog. He had been named "Nigger," but I have changed his name simply to "Leader." It sounds enough like the original to please him and set him going. 

The sled is a basket sleigh with handle bars and brake at the back and a "gee-pole" in front, with an extra rope when we have to "neck it" to help the dogs. My wolf robe, given me by Third church of Pittsburg and my old church at Cedar Falls, Iowa, is spread on the floor of the sleigh for my accommodation in the brief intervals of riding. For "dog mushing" in Alaska does not mean luxuriously riding in your sleigh wrapped up in your fur robe while the dogs haul you along the trail. When Egbert Koonce sledded 1,200 miles from Rampart to Valdez in 1902 on his way to General Assembly, I told the Assembly of his feat. A good old doctor of divinity said: "It must be, after all, a really luxurious way of traveling, wrapped up in your furs and reclining in a comfortable sleigh behind your dogs." 

I turned to Koonce and asked him how much of that 1,200 miles he rode. He replied, "About two miles." 

I shall ride more than this on my way to Seward, but there will not be many places where I can ride half a mile without getting out and running behind the dogs. The beauty of dog mushing is that you are compelled to work as hard as the dogs. You are not on a beaten boulevard, but are wending your way around trees and stumps, over hummocks, up and down hill, along the sides of the mountains, and must keep your hands on the handle bars, lifting the sled on the trail where it runs off and often breaking the trail ahead with your snowshoes. When the dogs are on fairly good roads, they swing along uninterruptedly and you run your best behind. If there are two of you, one holds the handle bars and the other sprints on alone, either in front or behind the sleigh. You will get pretty tired the first two or three days, but after your muscles become hardened and you get your second wind you can run at your keenest gait two or three miles at a time. 

On the Trail Through the Wilderness

But let us get started. The trail is well beaten from Iditarod to Flat City, seven and a half miles, and I get aboard, Breeze at the handle bars. My huskies leap into the harness at the word and we make a flying start. I ride perhaps half a mile, then jump off without stopping the team and run ahead of the dogs up the hill. 1 soon find my fur "parkie" too heavy and discard it for the lighter one made of drilling, in which I do the rest of my mushing to the end of the trail. Moccasins are on my feet, for the trail must be taken flat-footed if one is to have reasonable comfort. A brief halt at Flat to bid friends there good-by, and off we go again. 

After two or three miles we leave the broad road and strike the trail .through the wilderness. We soon begin to labor up the first divide. No more riding now. The trail is hard enough to dispense with snowshoes, but heavy enough to make us both walk and labor. I strike the trail ahead, leaving Breeze to the handle bars. I begin to feel the joy of it. The keen, dry air is like wine. The trail winds through the woods, along the edges of gorges and then up a steep mountain. Now the timber ceases and we have rounded wind-swept summits. I leave the little dogs far behind, for it is heavy pulling up the steep. Their bells twinkle faintly from below. I gain nearly a mile on them before they round the summit. I strike my lope down the farther side, but soon hear the bells as they charge down upon me and pass me swinging on toward the roadhouse. 

We make only twenty miles the first day, for it was nearly noon when we started, and we are glad to stop at Bonanza roadhouse when dusk is coming on. How good the moose meat tastes! How sweet the beds of hard boards and blankets! The luxury of rest we enjoy to the full. The dogs are fed, our moccasins and German socks hung up to dry and we crawl into our bunks with sighs of relief. There is no floor in the roadhouse, all the lumber has been whipsawed by hand, the furniture manufactured out of boxes and stumps and the utensils are the rudest. 

But the luxury of splendid meat and good sour-dough bread and coffee makes us feel that we have all that goes to make life desirable. 

An early start is necessary every morning. We eat our breakfast by candle light, fill up our thermos bottle with hot coffee, take a big hunk of roasted meat for lunch and "hit the trail" by daylight. 

Twenty-six miles today to Moore Creek roadhouse. Snow begins falling in the morning and soon the trail is obliterated by the fast coming feathery flakes. Now the snowshoes must be unstrapped and one must break the trail ahead. We take turns and swing along at a three and a half mile gait. This is real work, and we reach the roadhouse in the middle of the afternoon, really not so tired as on the preceding day. 

These are samples of the journey throughout, but, oh, the variety—no two miles alike—and the panorama of beauty that unfolds before us! Notice the beauty of the frost sparkles on the trees. The wonderful law that gives its own distinct varieties of frost crystals to each species of tree; fir, spruce, birch, cottonwood or alder, is exemplified so plainly here that after the first examination you can tell the kind of tree under the frost crystals by the shade of silver. The mountains tower above you, wind- swept, waving snow banners. The vastness of that white hush awes and thrills you. A rough sound would be blasphemy in the solemn silence. The whole landscape is a poem. 

The third day we make a "long leg," as the sailors say, from Moore Creek roadhouse to Big Creek, thirty-six miles, every foot of which we have to break trail with snowshoes. I strike ahead on my light "trailers" and Breeze wallows along behind. The fresh snow is so light and deep that it is difficult for him to keep the sled on the trail, and I often mislead by veering a little to right or left. When this occurs, down goes the sled in the deep snow beside the trail, and it has to be lifted up again and the dogs urged on. 

I get far in advance of him again and again. When I get weary snowshoeing, Breeze takes my place and I his at the handle bars. But in spite of the heavy trail and the weary work for dogs and men, we make the thirty-six miles. 

The coming day we have but fourteen miles and a half to make to the village of Tacotna, but it is the hardest mush so far and it takes us nearly all day. The poor little dogs burrow through the snow like gophers. Sometimes from my snowshoes ahead or alongside I can see only their ears and the stumps of their tails. It is joy indeed when on approaching the wilderness village an old friend, Dr. Green, who combines the offices of postmaster, magistrate, physician, dentist and miner, comes across the Tacotna river to guide my tottering steps to his hospitable door, and Mrs. Green's roasted wild chickens are the best viands on earth. 

Another hard mush of fourteen miles brings us to another dear old friend, or a pair of them, Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Smith. It is a cheering fact that on this trail through the wilderness I only stopped at one roadhouse where the people were all strangers. There is nothing so fine in all the world as the fellowship of the wilderness. 

There is a bond between men who have conquered the same mountain difficulties, lain under the same blanket in the snow and helped one another over the trail, that is stronger than death. Elmer Smith used to lead the choir when I preached at Nome, and Mrs. Smith was superintendent of the Sunday school there. They are choice and refined people, fit for any society. Mrs. Smith is the only white woman in a radius of fourteen miles, but the happiest and cheeriest person you ever saw. 

We are now in the valley of the Kuskokwim. The snow is deep. With Breeze double-tracking ahead, I work for four hours to get my dogs along seven miles. Then going suddenly across a divide, we strike shallow snow and hard trail and swing gayly into the Berry roadhouse, twenty-three miles from Tacotna. The Indian landlady cooks some grouse and caribou, for by this time we hardly touch bread or potatoes, eating vast quantities of wild meat. To those who have mushed along those trails and eaten this wild game it seems the most desirable food possible. The king of all the game is the ovis dalli, the white mountain sheep of Alaska. There is no other meat that compares with this. 

From Berry's on, across the McKinley range of mountains 150 miles, we have pretty good roads, fine, clear, sunny weather and no fresh snow. Through the sparkling woods, along the river beds, we hurry, and over rounded and jumbled foothills covered with scraggly trees, the range of the caribou, up deep gorges where moose tracks are plentiful. We always steer a little to the right of majestic Mount McKinley, which lifts its mighty shoulder 20,350 feet in the sky, and the nearer Mount Foraker. We bend after three days down to the South Fork of the Kuskokwim, right under the twin mountains Egypt and Pyramid. Here we stop with a typical man of the wilderness, "French Joe." 

He has built his log roadhouse with his own hands, whipsawing the lumber for the floor and for his tables. He is a hunter and trapper, and his walls are hung thick with pelts, all perfect and beautiful; silver, red and cross fox; lynx, wolverine, gray wolf, marten, mink and other furs. He is king of the wilderness and independent of the whole world. Native jams, cranberries and blueberries put up in sugar, currant wine, home-grown potatoes and turnips and a great variety of choice meat were spread in profusion before us. The banks of the world might all break, and its governments go to smash and its crops fail, but Joe would live at the foot of Mount Egypt his cheery, independent, carefree life. In spite of the strenuous mushing, I am gaining in flesh, my muscles hard as nails, my spirit buoyant. 

Seized by Lumbago on the Trail

The day out from Joe's I meet with my first disaster. We have nineteen miles of absolutely clear ice on the south fork of the Kuskokwim. The river is full of air holes and open riffles. The dogs swing along at a ripping pace, digging their toenails into the hard ice, the sled slipping sideways and sliding dangerously near to open places. Breeze often has to run ahead at full speed to choose a route, for there is no trail on the ice. 

Half way up the river I "get gay," as Breeze says. I leave the handle bars to find a route, and fall down hard on the smooth ice. A sharp pang strikes through the small of my back as if from a spear thrust. I get up and go along, thinking the pain will cease, but soon I realize that I am in the grip of an old enemy—lumbago. 

From this point on to Seward I cannot make a move without pain, sometimes so great that I gasp for breath. At night in the roadhouse I have great trouble getting into my bunk, and sometimes Breeze has to lift me out in the morning. Were I at home I would be in bed for a couple of weeks, with doctors and nurses fussing over me, but it is just as well that I cannot stop. 

I take the philosophy of an old fellow in the Rainy Pass roadhouse, near the summit of the range, who says the best cure for a lame back is to "keep on a-mushin'!" I think of Edmund Vance Cook's verse, and it does me more good than all the horse liniments they rub on me. 

Did you tackle the trouble that came your way 

With a resolute heart and cheerful?
Or hide your face from the light of day, 

With a craven heart and fearful?
Oh! A trouble's a ton or a trouble's an ounce, 

Or a trouble is what you make it,
And it isn't the fact that you're hurt that counts, 

But only, how did you take it? 

We drop into the canyon of Happy River and here we have our famous moose hunt. Soon after we enter this gorge, we come upon its track—a big bull moose. Now here comes this big. blundering beast to poke our trail full of deep holes and excite our dogs. He is running ahead of us. The snow is five or six feet deep and he goes in almost to his back every step. The walls of the canon are sheer and he cannot escape up its side. The river turns and winds and here and there are little patches of level ground thick with large spruce trees. 

For three miles we do not catch sight of the moose, but our dogs show that he is close ahead. In spite of my lame back I have to struggle ahead of them and bat Leader in the face with my cap. Breeze is standing on the brake to keep them from running away. The moose tracks fill our trail for a while, smashing it all to pieces, and then veer sideways to a little patch of woods, and the dogs will go pell mell in the moose's track, burying our sled out of sight in the deep snow. Then we have to haul them around and lift the sled on the track again and try to get them along the trail. 

Trying to Overtake a Bull Moose

Three miles down the river we catch sight of the big moose and the dogs go wild. Being from Pennsylvania, I have the kindliest feeling toward this moose; I do not want to hurt him at all, but only, like Taft, wish he would keep out of the running, and like Woodrow Wilson, want to go by him. But our bells are jingling and our dogs barking and we are shouting at them and it is a fearsome thing to the bull moose, this animated machine that is charging down the river at him. So on he struggles through the deep snow, spoiling our trail and filling my companion's mind with blasphemous thoughts that occasionally break out in spite of his self-restraint. 

Four miles of this moose hunt, with the big brute growing more tired and we more anxious to pass him. Instead of our hunting the moose, he is haunting us. At last, around a little point of woods we see him lying down in the middle of the river right ahead of us. The dogs break bounds and almost upset me as they dash down the trail, with Breeze standing on the brake and yelling "Whoa!" The weary bull moose staggers to his feet again and makes the edge of the woods, but there lies down again. The trail veers right up to him. I run ahead and take Leader and Ring, one in each hand, and Breeze does the same with Teddy and Sheep. Mose is more tractable and we can control him with our voices. We drag the dogs, with the sled behind, pass the big brute, his long face not a rod from us, and then, setting Leader on the trail again, we urge them down five miles farther to the Happy River roadhouse. 

Ben Atwater and the Wilderness Brotherhood

At Halfway roadhouse we catch up with old Ben Atwater. We have been hearing of poor old Ben all along the trail. He is an old miner and prospector whom I had known thirty-four years ago at Wrangell. He had been living on the Kuskokwim river not far from Tacotna. 

Three months before we found him Ben did a very foolish thing. He was hunting wild chickens and got up on a log to "view the landscape o'er." He rested his double barrel shotgun on the log, put the palm of his left hand over the muzzle and rested the wrist of his right hand over that. The butt of the gun slipped on the slippery log, the hammers caught, the gun went off and blew both poor Ben's hands off. At Iditarod, a hundred miles distant, we heard the news and promptly sent $100 to Ben's aid. Soon other streams of money began to pursue him. The Yukon pioneers at Dawson heard of it and sent an order by wireless for another hundred. Then $200 came from the Alaska pioneers of Fairbanks. But Ben had struck the trail before any but the sum from Iditarod could reach him. He could not dress himself or feed himself. He was helpless as a baby, but these rough men of the wilderness were caring for him. At one roadhouse and another they had fed and sheltered him, sometimes for days, and then hitching up their dogs, they would haul him on to the next roadhouse, fifteen to forty miles along the trail. Then another would pass him on. When I found him he was chipper as a cricket and told me that he had gained twenty pounds since striking the trail. He had still 150 miles to go, but was in the best hands in all the world. The kindly brotherhood of these men of the wilderness excels that of all other people, I think. 

At Knik we find another warm welcome. We hoped to find a boat here that would take us to Seward. Knik is on a so-called arm of Cook's inlet, but it is only an arm of the sea for two or three hours twice a day, for the tides here are tremendous. A boat is daily expected, but it disappoints us. The second night here I gather all the people of the village into the roadhouse and have "church." I do not think that I ever took greater pleasure in a service than in this one. Knik has been a town since 1895. There are a number of families here and some interesting children among them, but they have never had a school, and I preached the first sermon that has ever been heard in all that region. There are eight or nine other towns and villages scattered around the head of Cook's inlet and many mining camps, but no preacher of the gospel has ever come to bring these strong people of the wilderness the word of life. Everybody turned out to the service. There were two Christian women in attendance, one of whom has been there fifteen years and the other ten, without having a chance to hear the gospel preached. 

Finding that no boat is coming and the time for presbytery approaching, I must mush on. The worst mountain pass of all is before us: Crow Creek pass over the high Alaska range. Fearsome tales are told me of this pass, but there is nothing to do but to try it. Breeze leaves me here and I hire a young prospector. Fred Taulnian, to take me to Seward. Were it not for my lame back I would go alone, but they all say that the pass is too dangerous to be traveled singly even by a strong and vigorous person. So on March 21 we hitched up our eager dogs, whose three days' rest has put them in high spirits, and hit the trail again around the head of Knik Arm. Over dangerous ice, sometimes through the salt water that covers it, with now and then a stretch of good trail, we come to Old Knik. It is only a seventeen mile stretch, but my back is so bad that when I arrive at the roadhouse I am in convulsions of pain. A hot drink and hot applications soothe me, but there is little sleep for me that night. 

From the article in ‘The Continent,’ 1913: “Summit of Crow Creek Pass, ‘the Worst Mountain Pass of All,’ Over the High Alaska Range. Dr. Young and his companions struggled six hours to make five miles at this point.

A Five-Mile Advance in Six Hours 

Now hard climbing up a steep road to the base of the pass at Raven Creek roadhouse. A storm is blowing. The snow banners on the mountains that overlook the pass and the fast falling snow make it impossible for us to go on, so we spend a day at this fine roadhouse, kept by three men who are hunters, prospectors and hotel keepers as occasion requires. The second morning they hitch up four big dogs as large as Shetland ponies to supplement our five smaller ones, and a sturdy mountaineer with "creepers" on his feet comes to pilot us over the summit. From daylight until noon we struggle before reaching the summit, making only five miles in six hours. The descent from the summit is almost sheer for 2,000 feet. 

I have vivid recollections of the trip down that steep place. We turned the dogs loose to follow after the sled. Then two men tied ropes to the back of the sled, and with their creepers hung on behind to let the sled down. They started it gingerly over the edge of the summit, and I, looking on from above, saw a confused jumble of men, dogs and sled rolling and tumbling down that path, the snow gathering around and on top of them until when they reached a more level spot they were out of sight in the body of the avalanche, not so deep but that the men emerged laughing and waving their hands. 

For myself, it took me an hour to get down to them. I would take my snowshoe, strike the end into the snow ahead of me, and slide down against it, a foot at a time, repeating the operation again and again. Sometimes coming to too steep a place, I would have to edge along some distance with great care for fear of stumbling over the precipice and wrenching my poor back. But when at last I got to the sled, it was righted and we went gayly on our journey. Not long before we passed this summit two men had lost their lives there, taking chances on a stormy day. One avalanche that would have buried us under fifty feet of snow had it got us thundered into our trail an eighth of a mile behind us. 

Down to the town of Glacier on Turnagain Arm we come at nightfall. Here we bargain with a boatman to set us across the next morning to the old town of Sunrise City, twelve miles away, on Kenai peninsula. Another hard day's work brings us to a roadhouse up this river, and then, a cold night hardening the crust of the snow, we swing gayly over another high summit, that of the Kenai range, and down to the Seward railroad and along it to » roadhouse twelve miles from Seward. I had telephoned from Glacier to Rev. Mr. Pederson, the Methodist pastor at Seward. At 9 o'clock in the morning of the 28th Brother Pederson, just starting out to meet us, greeted us with a shout as we swung up in front of his house. 

The trip of 520 miles had taken me twenty-three days, but four of those I was lying in camp. I had broken trail with snowshoes over a hundred miles. I had tested my mushing powers and had not found them wanting. I had seen two great valleys for the first time and had prospected them for agricultural possibilities, game, lumber, mining resources and human souls. In spite of my lame back, I never took a journey that afforded more of instruction and inspiration or more of true enjoyment than this one. 

A few days' rest and I took a steamer 200 miles farther to Cordova, where Brothers Koonce and Condit were awaiting me with their wives, and we had a joyful meeting of presbytery. 

Mrs. Young, whom I had left a year before at Seattle, greeted me at Cordova, having traveled 1,500 miles to have a five days' visit with me. For I must hit the trail again the Monday after my arrival and mush on to Fairbanks, 442 miles inland, holding the fort there until Dr. Condit returned from the General Assembly. 

If the Presbyterian ministry could see Alaska as I have seen it, and know it as I know it and the joy of service there, the Home Mission Board would be besieged by applications for that service. We are not to be commiserated but to be congratulated. With joy I again turn my steps back to— 

The great, big, broad land 'way up yonder, The forests where silence has lease,
The beauty that thrills me with wonder, The stillness that fills me with peace.   ~•~ 

Links for An Alaskan Mush to Presbytery

Original article, The Continent 1913

Samuel Hall Young

S. Hall Young, Mushing Parson

Autobiography of S. Hall Young