Alaska life with furry friends

Books highlight Great Land adventures with dogs

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2002

"Gold Rush Dogs" By Claire Rudolf Murphy and Jane G. Haigh, Alaska Northwest Books

One sign of a good book is its ability to teach. Another is if it touches readers' hearts. "Gold Rush Dogs" gets high marks on both counts. Through the stories of nine different dogs -- beginning with John Muir's glacier-crawling Stickeen, a Tahltan bear dog, and ending with the tale of Juneau's official greeter, Patsy Ann, a bull terrier -- Alaska's history rises up on four legs and trots across the page.

Authors Murphy and Haigh take full opportunity of their subject to add maps and historic photographs, information about the different breeds of dogs and fascinating bits of information from Alaska during the late 1800s and stretching into the first half of the 1900s.

An opening quote from the late Alaska Judge James Wickersham, in 1938, lays the groundwork: "He who gives time to study of the history of Alaska, learns that the dog, next to man, has been the most important factor in its past and present development."

What horses were to the Wild West and camels are to desert travelers, dogs have been to Alaskans.

In the 1880s, naturalist John Muir was forced to trust a thin ribbon of ice that was his only link between solid footing and the glacier on which he and his companion, Stickeen, had spent the afternoon exploring. With no other way back to camp, Muir straddled the fragile bridge, with a leg dangling on either side, and eased himself across. Having made it, he called to Stickeen to follow, but the short and stocky dog refused, running back and forth and whining.

"Hush your fears, my boy," Muir assured him. "We will get safely across, though it will not be easy.

When Stickeen refused to try the dangerous crossing, Muir threatened to leave the dog behind.

"Finally the desperate little dog seemed to swallow his fear. He crouched on the brink of the crevasse and pressed his body against the ice, then slid his paws down to the first step."

When Belinda Mulrooney, who was known as "the richest woman in the Klondike," saw her purebred St. Bernard, Nero, being drug down into the depths of an icy stream by the weight of bags of gold he was carrying for her, she climbed out above the river on a willow tree. The tree bent with her weight, and she was able to reach the dog's collar, keeping his head above water. Other miners rushed to the scene, but succeeded only in breaking the tree, sending Belinda splashing into the water. With her thoughts for the safety of Nero, she cut the gold free.

"The gold was lost, but Nero was saved."

Hauling loads on sleds and strapped to their backs, racing through blizzards with life-saving serum, digging through snow to find their buried masters, Alaska's canine heroes have repeatedly earned their place of honor. And with the closing of the cover, the readers are aware that Murphy and Haigh's stories have only scratched the surface.

"Alone Across the Arctic: One Woman's Epic Journey by Dog Team" By Pam Flowers with Ann Dixon, Alaska Northwest books


"Alone Across the Arctic: One Woman's Epic Journey by Dog Team" By Pam Flowers with Ann Dixon

Another sign of a good book is that it should be longer. On that count, "Alone Across the Arctic" wins the gold.

Musher Pam Flowers teamed up with writer Ann Dixon to recount Flowers' trip by dog sled from Barrow to Repulse Bay, in the far northeast corner of Canada, a distance of 2,500 miles.

The tiny, 5-foot, 100-pound Flowers came to Alaska in 1981, with her sights set on learning the skills necessary to take a dog-mushing journey in Antarctica. Preparing for that adventure, she ran the 1,200-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race in 1983, "not to win, but to learn about caring for dogs on long journeys." And she launched expeditions to the Magnetic North Pole and along Alaska's northern coast. And she changed her plan.

"I'd fallen in love with the Arctic and decided to stay in Alaska for the rest of my life," wrote Flowers.

Then she read "Across Arctic America," by Knud Rasmussen and "hit upon the idea of retracing the expedition he had described."

Valentine's Day, 1993, was the official beginning of her journey. With the temperature 10-degrees below zero and a 10 mph wind, Flowers, with her team of eight dogs, headed into history. Her goal: to reach Repulse Bay before spring break-up.

Far from freeways that offered safe passage and speedy travel, she had the company of her team, the beauty of the Arctic and incredible challenges. Colored photos document sights along the way.

Storms occasionally kept her tent-bound.

"For three days, I waited out the raging weather," she wrote. "While the wind howled outside, battering my tiny shelter with gale-force winds, I wrote in my journal, tended the dogs, munched trail mix and read paperback novels (usually Westerns by Louis L'Amour)."

A polar bear encounter brought Flowers to within three feet of a snarling, protective momma bear.

"She was small, as polar bears go, only about 6-feet long and 3-feet tall at the shoulder. Her coat was the pure white of a young bear. Even so, I knew better than to underestimate her strength."

Inhabitants of North America's far north extended helping hands. Like those that came to her aid when her dog Douggie disappeared. And the inhabitants of Gjoa Haven, an Inuit community where Flowers spent the summer after break-up arrived six weeks early.

A harrowing journey across Queen Maud Gulf, where 66-degree temperatures caused sea ice to turn to mush, caused this June 2 journal entry: "Nightmare day. I am exhausted. We're running into bad ice, running out of dog food. It has got to get better. God, is has got to get better."

But the "worst" day was still ahead.

As well as the best, recorded on Jan. 9, 1994: "Arrived Repulse Bay about 1:30 p.m. Mayor and about 10 others came down to greet me. Happy to be here!"

And in her closing words is the possibility of more adventures to come.

McKibben Jackinsky is a free-lance writer who lives in Ninilchik.

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