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Alaskan Bush Life
Exploring the land less traveled and the bush way of life in the wilderness of northern interior Alaska
Alaskan Bush Life

Articles about life in Tanana and the Alaskan Bush.... 

♦The Origin of Village Huskies
♦"Yukon Men" :  How Real is it?


♦The Origin of "Village Huskies"

Mail Team leaving Tanana about 1910 (Photo courtesy Alaska and Polar Regions, University of Alaska)


     In the beginning there was the “Malemute”…. although it wasn’t called that. Malemuit is the name of a particular kin group of Inupiat Eskimo people from northwestern Alaska, but somehow the name of the breed was registered with the AKC.
Before contact with the Europeans, there was widespread use of small teams of sled dogs throughout the Arctic, usually heavy furred, heavy boned haulers with a variety of fur markings.
When the gold rush to the Yukon developed momentum after 1898, suddenly sled dogs were in huge demand, and dogs of any large well-furred breed were scarce and expensive in Seattle, San Francisco, and other west coast ports serving the Yukon and Alaskan gold fields.
Jack London’s novel White Fang features a dog kidnapped under just such conditions of market scarcity.
The same scarcity provided a big incentive to breed and sell dogs in Alaska, so mushers experimented with breeding whatever dogs that were locally available. Portraits of dog teams from that era show the variation in size and shape that you would expect from this experimentation.
As an interesting sidelight, regardless of what writers (and liars) may invent for local color or a good story, wolf hybrids are not generally successful as sled dogs. These crosses tend to be skittish and aggressive with each other and have no interest in pleasing humans, in harness or out.

White-faced dog displays classic Siberian Husky markings-- and heavier build

By the 1920’s the breed was settling out, genetically speaking. Leonard Seppala of serum run fame and others on the west coast of Alaska had introduced Siberian Huskies into the mix, and from the 20’s on through the 30’s this increasingly mongrelized breed moved the mail, firewood and freight, ran traplines, and won races throughout Alaska.
The fur colors varied widely, but the dog gradually evolved away from the standard Siberian Husky model, and by the 60’s had become slim, deep chested, and beautifully fast animals. Life was hard in the villages, and no one fed a dog that wouldn’t pull fast, work hard, that wouldn’t eat and keep its weight, or that had bum feet prone to picking up snowballs.

Classic "Village Huskies"

Then, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, with the incentive of very close and competitive sprint races with big purses (under 30 mile heats), some mushers began introducing German Shorthaired Pointers and English Pointers into the village husky line, and trial and error revealed that about a quarter to an eighth hound and the rest husky produced a dog that just smoked the competition. They were faster for both the sprint races (4 mph faster!), and their longer haired brethren were being successfully adapted to long distance races like the 1000 mile Iditarod and the Yukon Quest.
Alaskan villagers are nothing if not pragmatic, and that is why the hound cross arrived in Tanana (a big and well known reservoir of village husky bloodlines) and why we have a degree of this non-AKC registered breed in our dog lot.
The village huskies bring good fur, good feet, and mental toughness to the mix. The hound brings seeming imperviousness to joint injuries, and a great willingness to please.
The traditional husky says, “Okay, I see you are the boss, so let’s get on with it and get to work.” The hound/village husky looks at you in the morning and says, ”I think I love you! What are we doing today, and will it be fun?”
Newcomers to Alaska sometimes look at a kennel of these flop eared multicolored mutts and think, ”This is an Alaskan sled dog? Or did someone forget to latch the gate at the dog pound?”
But, as you find out forty fast miles later, appearances count for nothing in dog mushing. When they are still on their feet and raring to go after forty miles, who cares if the ears flop or not!

Sprint racing hound/village husky crosses, coming into the finish line at 20 mph during Tanana's 2009 Yukon River Open Championship sled dog race.... "Slim and trim to cut the wind", as one Tanana elder put it.


♦"Yukon Men": 
How real is it?

Fooled you didn't we?  Actually a friend from the Czech Republic, but he looks like he could be a Yukon man...   

How real?
The short answer is:  no more real than most reality shows....

Tanana recently had the distinction of being one of the locations of a new reality TV series on the Discovery Channel, called "Yukon Men".  The residents of Tanana had ringside seats on how a reality show is put together, from the first arrival of a few camera men and producers on spec, to the final production involving lots of cameramen and producers, and what looked like a pretty big budget-- (for a reality show, which as a genre are notoriously cheap to produce.)

The show uses local hunters and trappers and fishermen as the actors or stars of the series, and follows their lives as they do their thing on camera.  While there is a kernal of truth, in that these guys do hunt and trap and fish, Discovery has not been able to resist the temptation to garnish, enlarge, adorn, stretch, manipulate, edit, embroider, and otherwise bend the truth.  So, as the current promo for the show says, "Tanana is a community besieged by hungry predators!..." (cue the sound of a wolf howling and a quick clip of a rifle bolt being cocked.)

Well, not exactly, folks.  Bears and wolves will appear from time to time, but the humans clearly have the upper hand, and there certainly is not any kind of sense among local people that a perimeter defense is neccessary.

It is an entertaining project for the local talent, a bit of money spread through the community, a certain amount of exploitation, and the cinematography, from the promos, looks to be stunning.  It is just too bad that the truth is a casualty-- because the truth is really a lot more interesting. 

While a good number of people probably will take this show with a grain of salt, I think another pretty sizeable group of viewers will watch it and believe it is the real thing.  Is it ethical to create a tall tale and then call it reality?  Whatever positive spin the entertainment people put on it, I think it's shaky ground ethically.  Their main agenda, of course, is to sell detergent.  But, artistically.

So, fasten your seat belts and get ready for some real Yukon Whoppers. 

The one thing we can tell you that our little mom and pop outfit will stick to the truth about how folks live out here.  That is a wild enough story!  And, if you are interested, we can tell you what REALLY happened in the third epispode...

The REAL Yukon River with king salmon backbones hanging to dry, fishcamp, 2012


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