Mary Joyce, Adventurer

1,000 miles from Juneau to Fairbanks


Mary Joyce was an Alaskan adventurer of the highest caliber, and when Alaska was still just a territory she owned and operated a remote lodge near Juneau, became the first woman radio operator in the territory, and flew her own bush plane. In later years, after selling her lodge, she joined Pan Alaska Airways as a stewardess, and then settled in Juneau, where she worked as a nurse and bought two popular local bars. But Mary Joyce’s biggest claim to fame, besides her dauntless courage in trying new adventures, was her 1936 dogsled trip from her Taku Lodge near Juneau to Fairbanks, 1,000 miles away. 

Mary was invited to participate in the 1936 Fairbanks Ice Carnival as a representative for the City and Borough of Juneau. Always ready for an adventure, she decided to drive her sled dogs on the thousand-mile journey, and she kept notes on index cards while on the trail and later wrote a book about the trip based on those notes. Her book was not published until 2007 when her cousin, Mary Anne Greiner, edited her manuscript and published it under the title, Mary Joyce, Taku to Fairbanks, 1,000 Miles by Dogteam (AuthorHouse, 2007): “She was the first white person over a portion of the trail which later became part of the Alcan Highway. Her narrative and descriptions of Alaska’s people, dogteams, vast landscapes and dangers encountered on the trail are wrapped in her wry humor and perspectives of the 30s…”

Another book, TAKU: Four Amazing Individuals-Four Incredible Life Stories and The Alaskan Wilderness Lodge That Brought Them Together (WillPub., 2006), by Karen Bell and Janet Shelfer, tells the larger story of the lodge and Mary’s history with it, which is a fascinating account full of adventure, love, heartbreak, and surprise. Mary’s adventures are also described in Women Pilots of Alaska: 37 Interviews and Profiles (McFarland, 2005), by Sandi Sumner, and her biography is included in the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame, among other places.

The most riveting account of Mary's trip, however, is her handwritten notes on the index cards she carried on her journey. On each card, every day, she recorded statistics such as the time, temperature, barometer, ceiling, visibility, her driving time out on the trail, her timeouts, or rest stops, the miles driven, where she spent the night, and any additional thoughts which needed inclusion.

These note cards are all online at the Alaska State Library website ((Mary Joyce Collection, 1899-1976, ASL-PCA-459), and also online to read is her original typewritten manuscript, which captures the real essence and flavor of her adventure.

The spellings, misspellings, and phrasings in the excerpts below (in italics) are all from Mary’s notes and manuscript. Leaving in late December for the March event in Fairbanks, Mary hitched five dogs to her sled and joined a group of Natives headed for Atlin, British Columbia for the initial part of the long trip. The country she would be traveling through was bona fide wilderness, largely without roads and often without trails: “The pilots did not know if there were passes through the mountains between the headwaters of the Kulane and the Tanana Rivers. It did not look very promising from the air…”

At the Native village of Tulsequah, the little party crossed the nearly frozen Taku River. Mary wrote of her trail guides: “Chocak Lagoose, Billy Williams to you scolded his two sons and made them put boughs over the poles, so I could not see the water underneath while crossing. ‘White Lady—plenty scared. She fall in river—we never get her—out.’ I crossed on my hands and knees and the dogs followed like soldiers. We crossed the upper Taku and another place over ripids on hugh cakes of ice, three and four feet apart, held by sweepers and snags. They put a chain on Tip and as each dog fell in the water they pulled him out on another cake of ice. Some of the cakes of ice were only two feet wide, just room for the sled, with water leaping over and gurgling underneath. I jumped over and just made it but they had a chain on me too.”

Over the next few days she traveled through the mountains and over sled dog mail trails with her Indian guides, and by January 9th Joyce had made it to Atlin, recorded the temperature as 14 below, and noted: “Mail plane left for Telegraph Creek this am. Got the jitters last night. If I hear anymore about frozen feet, and two feet of slush ice I have to go through, I'll go crazy. If I can't make it from here to Whitehorse alone, I might as well turn around and go home. Hope Whitehorse will forget to mention terrors of trail, it will be time enough to think if I get in a jam. Of course I'm afraid.”

Mary’s journey had barely begun. Her index cards tell of her progress; on January 19 she pulled into Whitehorse at 4:30 in the afternoon with the temperature around zero. The next card is a week later, January 26: “Danced all night, packed load at 6 am. Called manager at 7:30 to pay my bill. Had toast and coffee. Hitched dogs…” 

Mary had done more than just dance while in Whitehorse, she toured the city and enjoyed a week of exploring and visiting with all types of people. She lodged at the Whitehorse Inn and attended local gatherings, spoke to school students about her trip, and saw the cabins of Sam McGee and Robert Service, and in the latter she signed the guest book with her name and added “Taku to Fairbanks by dogteam or bust.”

She visited old-timers at the hospital, and talked with three old prospectors who advised: “‘My girl, you have a tough trip ahead of you. One glacier to go over in which many lives have been lost, between Kluane and Chisana. It was a rough road in the early days and no one has been over it in years.’ ‘But no, I am not going by way of Chisana.’ A glacier was something I positively would not go over… ‘I am going in a straight line from Burwash Landing to Tanana Crossing, the way the planes fly.’ ‘But no white man has ever been that way before. There is no trail.’”

Mary had tea with a Sergeant of the Mounties and “his beautiful and charming wife,” and a bit later she recounts a Mountie story: “The handsome young officer from Teslin three hundred miles away arrives with his dogteam. Black fur cap tied under his chin, handsome fur parka, beaded moose moccassins up to his knees, beaded caribou mitts up to his elbow. An Irishman in His Majestie’s service. He told me ‘the greatest hardship I ever had to endure on the trail was when I ran out of marmelade.’”

Mary wrote, “I climbed up the hill to the landing-field. God must have looked far ahead when he carved this perfect table, high above the Yukon. From the days when men scantily clad broke their hearts to get to Dawson, long days of weeks and months toiling into an unknown country. Today boys in wollen ski suits, fur parkas, and mukluks land here in a few hours from all parts of the north. Joe Crosson and Walter Hall fly down from Fairbanks in the Pacific Alaska Airways Lockheed Electra, dips his wings in salute over Whitehorse and goes on to Juneau. A message from Walter Hall ‘tell Mary Joyce, its a hell-of-a-long ways to Fairbanks. And he measures distance by mountains and lakes and rivers at one hundred and eighty miles an hour, and I measure those same mountains and rivers at twenty-five miles a day if a good trail. maybe he’s right.” 

Mary tells of cooking “hugh amounts of corm-meal and tallow for the dogs” and notes they were getting restless for the trail, adding, “Theres a thrill to driving a dogteam found in no other sport. Though you cannot sing a song, songs will be sung in your heart, though you cannot write a poem, poetry will be written on your soul.”

A week later Mary and her Indian guide reached the most hazardous part of the trip, between Burwash Landing and Tanana Crossing, where she was following the Kluane River in temperatures reaching sixty degrees below zero: “We were on the edge of the river with hugh cakes of ice piled up which made the going very rough. I held onto the handlebars and thought if I do fall between them perhaps my snowshoes will catch and hold me up. I took the flashlight out of the hindsack, but the battery was frozen and it would’nt light. By this time I could’nt even see the sled and I gripped the handlebars tighter, I could hear the water rushing under the ice. I hoped the dogs knew what they were doing because I didn’t.”

Mary and her guide braved the passage, often blazing their own trail, crossed the border into Alaska and eventually found the village of Tanana Crossing, less than 200 miles from Fairbanks. A biographical note at the Alaska State Library Historical Collections explains what happened next: "She flew to the Winter Carnival after realizing she would not complete the trek in time, but returned to her sled and completed the mush after the event. The route Mary traversed followed the path of what eventually became the Alaska Highway. For this effort she was awarded a Silver Cup from the city and a rare 'Honorary Member' title from the Pioneers of Alaska. Her story attracted national media attention." 

Mary returned to Tanana Crossing on March 16, 1936 and completed her trip. “I wanted to see the country and experience some of the things the old-timers did,” she told reporters. “I just wanted to see if I could do it.” 

After her dogsled adventure she became a flight stewardess on Pan-Alaska Airlines, a subsidiary of Pan-American Airlines, on the Alaska-Seattle-Montana route. She co-starred in a film that was shot on location in the Taku River region, Orphans of the North (1940). During the Second World War, after warnings of an impending Japanese invasion of Alaska, she moved into the capitol city of Juneau and worked as a nurse at St. Ann’s Hospital until the end of the war. At the conclusion of the war Mary sold Taku Lodge and purchased the Top Hat Bar in Juneau. Later she bought the Lucky Lady and lived in an apartment above it. 

Mary was reportedly an important and well-loved Alaskan figure who was regularly invited to speeches and ceremonies both in Alaska and in the contiguous United States. She lived in Juneau the remainder of her life. In 1950 she led the statehood parade in Juneau with a dogteam, and in 1973 she spoke at the pre-race banquet and cut the ribbon for the inaugural Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome.

In 1976 Mary suffered two heart attacks, the second of which took her life at the age of 77. She is buried at the Evergreen Cemetery in Juneau."  ~•~