Harper’s Weekly/June, 1900
Neck, from head to shoulders, a mass of bristling hair; sharp pointed ears, long-snouted, lips snarling, fangs dripping; yelping rather than barking; wolfish of aspect and not nice to look upon when in anger — this is the husky, or wolf-dog of the North. Much has been said of the Klondike, but these magnificent brutes, which in the beginning made that frigid El Dorado possible, have received little more than passing comment. Nor has this neglect been due to their being but the humble servants of the master, man. They are far from humble, as their wild ancestry attests.
They may be beaten into submission, but that will not prevent them still snarling their hatred. They may be starved into apparent docility, and then die, suddenly, with teeth locked fast in a brother’s throat, torn to pieces by their comrades. Rather, has little attention been accorded them because the interest of man has gravitated inexorably toward the natural, mineral, and social features of that far-northerly land.
But the husky is far from uninteresting. As a type of endurance, no better evolved product of natural selection need be sought. If ever a species has been born and bred of hard times, it has. Only the fittest, in a struggle for existence extending through a thousand thousand generations, have survived. And they are well fit. Domesticated by the savage autochthons of that forbidding region, they may not only account their remote ancestors as wild wolves, but often their immediate forebears.
It is a North-land aphorism that no man is a fit person to drive a team of huskies who cannot command the intensive adjectives and abjurations of at least two vernaculars, besides the one drunk in with his mother’s milk. In fact, a dog-driver is near cousin to the army teamster. A mule is stubborn, and may manifest glimmering adumbrations of cunning; but the husky can be characterized as pertinacious, deceitful, sharp, and, above all, well capable of deductive reasoning. He will unerringly connect cause with effect. He is also an actor of no mean ability, concealing the most nefarious designs under the innocent exterior of a new-born lamb. In the old days, before the discovery of the Klondike, the men who freighted grub from Circle City to Birch Creek were wont to charge ten cents per pound more for bacon than for any other merchandise. And even then, so great was the responsibility, they reckoned that they lost on the transaction.
No white man, out of his own brain, ever successfully devised a way of tying up a husky. Rope or thong can resist their sharp teeth, at the best, for a very few minutes. But the Indian, through generations of travail, finally worked out the only method. He ties his dog up with a stick. One end of the pole is fastened so closely to the husky’s neck that he cannot get at the thong with his teeth. The other end is made fast by another thong to a stake driven securely into the ground. Unable to free himself from his end, the intervening pole prevents him from getting at the other end. It is a very common sight to see these animals breaking the ice of a water hole by rearing in the air and coming down upon it with their whole weight on their fore feet. As grub thieves they have no equals, and unveracious Klondikers will not stop at telling of the husky which stole a can of condensed milk and traded it off at another camp, where they happened to be short of milk, for a piece of bacon. However, it is a fact that they do open condensed milk cans and extract the contents.
In the summer-time, when the snow and ice are gone and man travels by canoe and poling-boat, the huskies are thrown upon their own resources. They do not work; wherefore should they be fed? Hence they become splendid scavengers and perform prodigies of benevolence in the matter of sanitation. Nothing escapes them. Not a bone but is cracked for its marrow; not a tin can but shines clean and bright on the inside. They are also excellent fishers, and during the salmon-run no dog goes hungry. This leaving the huskies to shift for themselves, gives rise to peculiar ethics in the North Land. A man who steals food from another is shot down without mercy. But it is different in the case of the dogs. Should a man catch one, red-handed, gorging his last piece of bacon, he may not shoot him. If he does, the dog’s owner can come down upon him for his value as a draught-animal. A miners’ meeting usually settles the amount. Nor is this any insignificant sum, for the prices of sled dogs range from one to five hundred dollars, and in times of need as high as a thousand.
They are superb travelers. Coming back light, the Circle City freighters thought nothing of making single runs of seventy or eighty miles. Fierce brutes though they be, the closest attachments often spring up between them and their masters, and when a man possesses a good dog or team he is not slow in bragging of it. In the annals of the country may be found the history of one dog-driver who wagered a thousand dollars that his favorite husky could start a thousand pounds on a level trail. Now the steel runners of a stationary sled will quickly freeze to the surface, and by the terms of the bet he was even denied the privilege of breaking the runners loose. But it was stipulated that the dog was to have three trials. The whole camp staked its dust upon one side or the other of the issue, and on the day of the trial turned out en masse. The dog was hitched to the loaded sled, and everything made ready. “Gee!” the master commanded from a distance. The dog swung obediently to the right, shrewdly throwing his whole weight upon the traces. “Haw!” The manoeuvre was duplicated to the left and the sled broken out. And then, “Mush on!” (the vernacular for “get up!”). The dog whined softly, driving his claws into the frozen trail, calling every muscle into play, digging away like mad. And in answer to this tremendous exertion, the sled slowly got into motion and was dragged several lengths. Let a man try the like and marvel. Of course it was an exceptional dog, but creatures are often measured by their extremes.
It is in fighting that they betray their most wolfish trait. As long as two combatants are on their feet there is no interference. The onlooking huskies merely crowd interestingly around, ready, however, for the first slip. And the instant one or the other of the dogs goes down, the whole band pitches upon him, and in the snap of a finger he is torn to shreds. The loss of more dogs is due to this than to any or all other causes combined.
A peculiarity they are remarkable for is their howling. It can be likened to nothing on land or sea. When the frost grows bitter and the aurora-borealis trails its cold fires across the heavens, they voice their misery to the night. Heartbreaking, sobbing, it rises like a wail of lost and tortured souls, and when a thousand huskies are in full chorus it is as though the roof had tumbled in and hell stood naked to the stars. No man can hear this for the first time and preserve the equanimity of that portion of his skin which lies contiguous to his spinal column. A certain literary gentleman, whose poems have been praised by Rossetti, by-the-way, but who is here nameless, journeyed into the Klondike during the Fall Rush of 1897. In the boat with him was his partner, also their two wives. All down the Yukon they encountered the most frightful stories of the famine then raging at Dawson. Not only is the Klondiker unveracious, but he is a clever colorist, so these gentlemen believed the lurid tales and were prepared to fight to the last for their grub. Unluckily they approached Dawson during the night. They knew they were very near and were keeping a good lookout. Suddenly, rounding a bend in the Yukon, a faint wail reached them. Straining their ears, it was supplemented by other wails, for all the world like the dying agonies of women and children and of strong men.
One instant they debated. If this were the famine, as it surely was, they would certainly be torn to pieces in the mad scramble for their grub. They seized their oars in panic terror and made a wild rush for the bank, landing at Klondike City, and even the few men they there met could not convince them that it was only the nocturnal song of the husky. Nor would the wives permit the journey to continue till the gentleman whose poems had been praise by Rosetti went down on foot and made a personal investigation.