Alaskan Malamute History
The Malamute of today is indeed a beautiful and impressive show dog, but it is important to understand that he must still possess the positive attributes that would enable him to survive and work in the primitive environment for which he was intended. To quote Natalie Norris, an early Malamute fancier and one of the best-known women sled dog racers, “The Malamute is too fine and distinguished a breed to be changed into anything but what centuries of adaptability to its environment has produced. Our efforts should be to breed not only beautiful Malamutes, but as good specimens physically as were originally found in Alaska. It isn’t a question of breeding a better Malamute, but as good an Alaskan Malamute.”
When early white explorers arrived in the land eventually to be known as Alaska, they discovered an amazing breed of dog kept by the indigenous tribes. This dog no doubt evolved from the ancient dogs that accompanied prehistoric man in his migrations from Asia, across the Arctic to Greenland and back. The “Mahlemut” tribes around the Norton Sound area of Alaska kept this superior work dog who was less “wild”, more tractable, and capable of an enormous amount of work. These animals were used in hunting seals, coursing polar bear, hauling heavy sledges, and packing in supplies. They had to survive incredibly severe temperatures and occasionally exist on limited rations. Paul Voelker, one of the early Malamute breeders, believed the Alaskan Malamute to be the oldest breed on the North American continent and probably the breed longest associated with man. According to Voelker, bone and ivory carvings dated twelve to twenty thousand years old show the Malamute essentially as he is today. The name Alaskan Malamute derives from an Inuit tribe known as Malemutes . The Mahlemuts were hunters and fishers; they were nomadic tribes, whose seasonal migrations depended on the work of their dogs - the forefathers of today’s Alaskan Malamutes.
Thanks to their exceedingly dense fur and thick footpads, the Mahlemuts’ dogs were able to stand the harsh climate of Alaska and cover long distances on ice in spite of extremely low temperatures.
Like nowadays’ domestic Alaskan Malamutes, those dogs depended on their owners for food. Dogs were essential for survival and the Mahlemuts established a relation with their dogs based on mutual independence and respect.
THE GOLD RUSH
In 1896 gold was discovered in Klondike and people from all over the world arrived in Alaska. The flourishing activity of gold mining in remote areas of Alaska gave origin to an unprecedented demand for dog teams, necessary for sledge hauling and to supply the numerous workers from all parts of the world with water, food, mail and equipment. In 1908 a man called Jackson B. Corbett, Jr. wrote: "They are hereditary workers, their ancestors for hundreds of years back having toiled along the frozen trails of Alaska and the British Yukon in Indian and Eskimo teams... They are 'wise' in the slang meaning of the word, it being a common saying that... a Malamute is the most cheerful worker and the nost obstinate shirk; intelligent or dense, but always cunning, rafty, and wise; stealing anything not tied down...He makes an exceptionally strong and reliable leader, in that place displaying the cunning wisdom and trickery that characterize the breed. No smoother or smarter leader exists. No other can make life so miserable for an inexperienced or cruel musher". During the Gold Rush, the demand for pack and sled dogs resulted in many other breeds being brought to Alaska and mixed with the local sled dogs. As a result, the breed was nearly destroyed. Fortunately the dogs of the “Mahlemuts” remained fairly pure due to their relative isolation from civilization.
Breed recognition came in 1935, the same year that the Alaskan Malamute Club of America was formed. The original registration period for AKC was very short, allowing just enough dogs registered to provide a base on which the breed could grow and develop. During World War II, many of the few registered Malamutes were loaned for war duty and for an expedition to Antarctica. When their service was finished, a bureaucratic decision was made to chain the dogs to an ice floe and destroy them with an explosive charge. This action nearly incited a mutiny among the Navy men involved. After this tragic event, the AKC reopened registration, as so few registered Malamutes remained.
THE SERUM RACE TO NOME - IN MEMORY OF THE HEROES
Nome village had appeared on the map at the end of the 19th century, during the period of the great gold rush. Located on the Seward peninsula, its population was over 20,000 inhabitants. When gold mines closed, toward 1925, it had dropped to only 1,400 souls.
Nome was isolated by ice for seven months a year and the nearest railway line was 650 miles away, in the town of Nenana. Nome was able to communicate with the rest of the world by cable, a new invention in those days. Although Alaska was an American State, mail was dispatched along roads that could be trodden only by means of sleigh dogs; the path joining Ancorage with Nome was and is still called “Iditarod Trail”. It took the best “mushers” one month to run this distance.
On the 20th of January 1925 a radio message arrived:
“This is Nome calling… Nome calling… We have a diphtheria outbreak… No serum… We badly need help… Nome calling…”
The only doctor in Nome, Mr. Curtis Welch, had diagnosed a few cases of diphtheria, an extremely contagious disease affecting throat and lungs. The Inuits were particularly vulnerable; whole villages had been devastated by the first measles and flu epidemics, serum was dramatically urgent.
“Seattle calling…Seattle calling…We have serum supply here… Airplanes ready to take off…”but a tremendous Arctic storm was raging over Nome and winter temperatures plunged far below zero. At that time technical reasons prevented airplanes from facing those meteorological conditions.
“Ancorage calling… localized 300,000 serum units in our hospital… parcel can be sent to Nenana by train… weight of the parcel is 20 pounds… could be forwarded through the Iditarod Trail by means of dog teams…”
Just like this! Even though it was the 20th century, problems could not be solved by technology! Settlers had been putting their trust in brave men and strong dogs for years; they would trust them this time too.
On the following day three children had died in Nome because of diphtheria, and other cases had been diagnosed. Time was a life or death matter! Replacement teams were rapidly organized along the Iditarod Trail.
On the 27th of January 1925 the serum got to Nenana by train and the dog team set off on their journey to Nome…
William "Wild Bill" Shannon led a team of nine Alaskan Malamutes from Nenana to Tolovana (52 miles). He received the antitoxin with the instructions at 11.00 in the evening and left for Nenana. Besides the dogs’ panting and the shuffling of the sleigh through the snow, no other sound could be heard along the trail. Temperature was rapidly going down to 30° below zero when Shannon left, then dropped to 35°, 40°, 50° in the Arctic darkness. Shannon was literally freezing to death when he handed the serum over to Dan Green in Tolovana. In the archives Shannon is reported to have arrived in Tolovana on the following day at noon; he had no accidents during the journey. Wild Bill was killed by a grizzly a few years later.
Dan Green didn’t meet any relevant difficulty during his trip of 32 miles from Tolovana to Manley Hot Springs. The temperature was 30° below freezing point. Without any accidents he passed the serum to Johnny Folger’s team.
Johnny Folger, an Athabasca native, travelled with his team from Manley Hot Springs to Fish Lake for 28 miles in the night. The archives report that he ran this distance in record times, but we don’t know exactly how long it took him to get to Fish Lake to deliver the serum to Sam Joseph.
35-year-old Sam Joseph, from the tribe of Tanana, ran from Fish Lake to Tanana (26 miles). He led a team of seven Malamutes; when he got to his home in Tanana, the temperature was 38° below zero. He had covered 26 miles in only two hours and forty-five minutes; satisfied with his performance he handed over the serum to Titus Nikolai.
Titus Nikolai, an Athabasca native, from Tanana to Kalland (34 miles). There is no news about Nikolai’s team. He passed the antitoxin to Dave Corning in Kalland.
Dave Corning, from Kalland to Nine Mile Cabin (24 miles). We haven’t much information about Dave Corning’s team either. We know that he covered the distance at the record speed of 8 miles per hour and handed over the serum to Edgar Kalland.
Edgar Kalland, from Nine Mile Cabin to Kokrines (30 miles). Edgar had been a musher for the mail service and he made no mistakes during the trip. He was welcomed by Harry Pitka at Kokrines.
Harry Pitka, a half-beed, from Kokrines to Ruby (30 miles). He ran a fast team of seven dogs along a trail in good condition; the average speed was 9 miles per hour. He punctually handed over the serum to the following team, led by Bill McCarty.
Bill McCarty, from Ruby to Whiskey Creek (28 miles). The lead dog of his team was Prince. Despite a bad storm the team ran at a good pace and passed the antitoxin to Edgar Nollner at 11.00 in the morning on the 29th January. The temperature was 40° below zero.
Edgar Nollner, 21 years old, from Whiskey Creek to Galena (24 miles). The 8-year-old lead dog of his team, composed of seven Alaskan Malamutes, was called Dixie. Edgar handed over the serum to his brother George at Galena.
George Nollner, from Galena to Bishops Mountain (18 miles). George hadn’t been married for long when he left his new wife at Galena to take part in the great race. He is reported to have used the same team as Edgar, who had run the previous 24 miles. He handed over the serum to Charlie Evans.
Charlie Evans, an Athabasca half native, 21 years old, from Bishops Mountain to Nulato (30 miles). He set off on his journey from Bishops Mountain at 5.00 in the morning with a dreadful temperature of 64° below zero. He got to Nulato at 10.00 in the morning, so covering 30 miles in only 5 hours. His team consisted of nine dogs; two had been borrowed and they both suffered from groin congealment during the journey.
Tommy Patson "Patsy", a native of Koyukuk, from Nulato to Kaltag (36 miles). Patsy lived at Nulato. He ran on a fairly straight trail and smooth ground, the trail used for mail transportation. He reached the highest speed in the great race, 36 miles in only three hours and a half, at an average speed of about 10-11 mph.
Jackscrew, an Athabasca native, from Kaltag to Old Woman Cabin (40 miles). Jackscrew was a rather short man, known for his unusual strength. As soon as snow and darkness fell on him, he started running beside his lead dog to light up the path, till he passed the Kaltag Divide, where the trail sloped down to Norton Sound. He got to Old Woman Cabin at 9.10 in the evening on Friday. His average speed was about 6 miles per hour along a difficult 40-mile-long trail.
Victor Anagick, an Eskimo native, from Old Woman Cabin to Unalakleet (34 miles). Victor ran with a team of 11 dogs. He covered a distance of 34 miles in 6 hours and got to Unalakleet at 3.30 on Saturday morning. The antitoxin was now at 207 miles from Nome.
Myles Gonangnan, an Eskimo native, from Unalakleet to Shaktolik (40 miles). Nothing is reported about this team, which, anyway, handed over the serum to Henry Ivanoff’s team at Shaktolik.
Henry Ivanoff was partly Eskimo and partly Russian. After only half a mile from Shaktolik, his team attacked a reindeer. While he was untangling his dogs, the Russian Eskimo called Leonhard Seppala, the greatest musher in the territory, with Togo, one of the greatest dogs in the territory, was coming back from Nome to meet the musher who was carrying the serum. When he received it, he started off at all speed down the trail.
Leonhard Seppala, from Shaktolik to Golovin (91 miles). 48-year-old Leonhard led a team of Siberian Huskies, the two lead dogs being Togo and Scotty.
Leonhard had left Nome with the intention of intercepting the serum at Nulato. He knew nothing about the numerous replacement teams. Leonhard had left Isaac’s Point, on the northern side of Norton Bay, in the morning, and travelled for 43 difficult miles with a very strong wind at he back. When he intercepted Henry Ivanoff he took the serum, turned his team round and started off again in the wind along the trail. The temperature was 30° below the zero; he faced again the strong wind and darkness. In order to gain precious time, Leonhard took chances by choosing a shortcut on the ice, so saving 20 miles. The snowstorm was blinding. He relied on Togo for the safety of the team and not to lose the trail, and the dog didn’t disappoint him. Each dog in a team plays a vital role, but it’s the leader that must guide them through. Besides being brave and tough, a leader like Togo was obedient and had a mysterious instinct for finding the track and sensing danger. The strength of the wind threatened to break the ice at any moment. Togo led the team through a zone with jagged edges, while the ice creaked under the sleigh. Only three hours later the ice would break at Norton Sound. On the northern beach of Norton Bay Leonhard stopped the sleigh near an igloo, where he had spent the night before. He put the dogs in the kennel and fed them properly, then he took the serum out of the sleigh to warm it, in the hope that the storm would abate. On the Sunday morning the temperature was 30° below zero and the wind was raging. Once again Leonhard got on the sleigh and began the race in conditions nobody would have accepted, hadn’t it been a life or death matter. When he got to Dexter's Roadhouse at Golovin, his dogs collapsed on the trail exhausted. The serum was now 78 miles away from Nome and it was Charlie Olson’s responsibility to take it to the next stopover, Bluff. In total, Seppala’s team had covered the incredible distance of 260 miles!
Charlie Olson, from Golovin to Bluff (25 miles). Charlie led a team of seven Alaskan Malamutes, whose leader was Jack. Charlie had left Gunnar Kaasen at Olson Roadhouse and had reached Golovin to wait for the serum. He left Golovin at 3.15 on Sunday afternoon with a temperature at 30° below zero and a wind at 40 mph. Many a time his sleigh was knocked out of the trail by powerful blasts. The dogs’ movements were increasingly getting stiff because of the cold. He stopped and covered each dog with a blanket to prevent him from freezing. In order to do that he had to take off his gloves and suffered terribly, as if so many needles pierces his fingertips. Unluckily two of his dogs finished off badly with a groin congealment. In spite of the storm, Charlie arrived at Olson's Roadhousea Bluff at 7.30 in the evening. There Gunnar Kaasen was awaiting, worried about the lot of his friend, who had faced the dreadful storm.
Gunnar Kaasen, from Bluff to Nome (52 miles). The lead dog of the team was called Balto. Gunnar was sent from Nome to Bluff to wait for the serum; while Ed Rohn was sent to Pt. Safety. On his way to Pt. Safety, Gunnar was unable to see the trail because of the tempest and had to rely on Balto. Kaasen had a premonition that the storm would even get worse; he would never have chosen Balto to lead his team. Balto had never been considered an excellent leader, though he was one of Seppala’s dogs, but he showed his boldness when he plunged into the roaring snowstorm. Along the trail he even stopped to rescue his musher and team from sure death in the Topkok river. As they got to Bonanza, a terrible blast of wind swept the team out of the trail and the sleigh overturned. After straightening up the sleigh and untangling the dogs, Gunnar realized that the serum was missing! He felt sick at heart and, falling on his knees in despair, he franticly searched for the serum. His bare hands miraculously found it in the middle of the snow. After he had crossed Bonanza, he covered the last 12 miles in 80 minutes and got to Safety at 2.00 on Sunday morning. Ed Rohn was sleeping and Kaasen decided not to wake him up in order to save time. The worst part of the trail was now behind him and the dogs were in good condition, so Kaasen tackled the final 21 miles separating him from Nome. He reached his destination at 5.30 on that Sunday morning. The town was safe!
He had covered 53 miles in seven hours and a half. The serum was frozen but undamaged and it was immediately used to check the epidemic. Five days later the epidemic had been completely halted.
Eskimo, Indian and White mushers carried the serum in “the Great Race of Mercy”. The replacement teams had stretched their endurance to the limit. The antitoxin was passed from frozen hands to frozen hands, till the last team brought hope to the town of Nome. Exhausted and half frozen after a 53-mile race, Kaasen, Balto and the rest of the team were immediately considered heroes in the United States. The 674- mile journey had been made in 127 hours and a half, a world record.
The dogs’ glory was brief. Sol Lesser, a Hollywood film producer, brought the dogs to Los Angeles and created a 30-minute film, “Balto’s Race to Nome”. Kaasen and his team then travelled about the States during the summer of 1925, but later Balto and the rest of the team were sold to an unknown producer of musical. Two years later Balto and his famous friends had become minor attractions. It seemed that the world had forgotten the “Heroes of Alaska”. Then George Kimble, a Cleveland businessman that was visiting Los Angeles, discovered the dogs exhibited for ten cents in a little museum and noticed they were sick and ill-treated. He knew Balto’s famous story and was shocked by this degradation. He made an agreement to purchase the dogs for $ 2,000 and take them to Cleveland – but Kimble had only two weeks to gather the sum. The race to rescue Balto had begun!
A fund for Balto was set up. All over the nation, radios transmitted appeals for donations. Paper headlines furthered the cause of freeing the heroes. The answer of Cleveland was explosive. Lots of children collected buckets of coins; factory workers, hotels, shopkeepers and visitors gave what they could to Balto’s fund. The Western Reserve Kennel Club made a remarkable donation. People had responded generously. In only ten days Balto’s fund reached the sum for the liberation of the heroes!
On the 19th of March 1927, Balto and his six companions were brought to Cleveland and were welcomed like heroes in a triumphal parade. The dogs were then led to Cleveland zoo, to spend the rest of their life decorously. On their first day at the zoo 15,000 people visited them!
Balto died on the 14th of March 1933, at 11 years of age. His body was embalmed and can still be seen in the Museum of Natural History in Cleveland, where it has been preserved to recall the brave race against death. As yet, nobody can state for sure which northern breed Balto belonged to. Some people say he was an Alaskan Malamute, others a Siberian Husky, still others say he was half Malamute and half wolf. It will probably remain a secret forever. To remember the heroic race against death and in memory of the sleigh-dogs whose “endurance, loyalty, courage and intelligence” saved the life of Nome’s population and that ran through the Iditarod in only five days, a statue was put up with Balto’s features. It was located in New York Central Park and is still the most visited by tourists and children. Balto and the other dogs of the race against time shall not be forgotten; in 1995 the Twentieth Century Fox distribuited the animation film “Balto”, produced by Steve Hickner and directed by Simon Wells.
Balto was not the real protagonist of that race against time. He had covered 53 miles in a dreadful snowstorm and delivered the serum to the town of Nome. That’s why he became famous and was given so many recognitions, but the true hero, for those who know the facts, was Togo and Leonhard Seppala’s team, who covered 418 kilometres in the middle of a blizzard and on the ice that would threaten to break and would repeatedly creak as the sleigh went past! Togo was already 12 years old when he led the team through the storm! Seppala had been Balto’s owner, but he knew that the true hero and protagonist of the great race was above all Togo. He would have liked more recognitions for his “great” dog, and after Togo’s death in 1929 at the age of 16 Seppala had him embalmed. Today Togo is in the little museum of the Iditarod headquarters at Wasilla.