Article by Brian Alan Burhoe
When the North-West Mounted Police were first assigned to the Yukon and other northern areas, they quickly learned that they would not be patrolling by horseback.
The North Country had few roads. Travel was by river and lake. In the summer, that meant boats and canoes. In the winter, when the rivers were frozen, that meant dog teams.
From the beginning, they adopted the native huskies and malamutes. Without the thick-coated huskies, which would curl up in the deep snow to sleep, the Mounties would never have accomplished their long winter patrols.
The Klondike Gold Rush began in August, 1896, when prospectors Skookum Jim, George Carmack and Tagish Charlie discovered a rich gold-bearing seam on Bonanza Creek in the Yukon Territory. Soon, Dawson City became a roaring boom town at the junction of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers. Thousands of prospectors, land speculators, saloon keepers, gamblers, dance hall girls, bankers and other fortune seekers arrived. The Mounties arrived with them to keep the Queen’s Law.
Their dog teams became an essential tool in keeping that law.
The first dogs that they purchased from local natives were a wild breed, truly “wolf dogs” — the natives deliberately bred their huskies with wolves.
As Constable John B Watson wrote: “Though that young team earned my respect, they kept me on my toes with their temperments and there were a few times when they scared the hell out of me. I kept them well separated at all times and was particularly careful at feeding times to do it quickly and evenly, for then the wolf shows and etiquette disappears into thin air.
“Their daily ration disappears so rapidly one wonders how they manage to digest it. Their winter ration was half a fish. I’d break a frozen salmon in two and each piece would average two pounds. In summer when they weren’t working, I gave them boiled rice with rendered fat, and an occasional piece of dried salmon. Each animal wolfed its food first, and then would try to reach the next one’s ration, but their chains kept them apart. Handling each one gave me a chance to read their moods and I tried not to play favourites. I seldom had to use the whip.”
By 1898, the Force had over a hundred dogs, distributed at Dawson City, Whitehorse, Tagish, Tantalus and other small posts along the trails.
The Mounties added Siberian huskies and Labrador dogs to their teams, these breeds proving to be more easily trained and safer to be around.
By the turn of the 20th Century, patrols were extended well into the Arctic, the Land of the Midnight Sun.
The Northern Patrols of the early years of the century were hard, often heroic journeys of a hundreds of miles per trip.
Constable Charles R Thornback wrote: “One of my dogs became sick and dragged along in its harness, hampering the others of its team, and it appeared too ill to continue. It had earlier shown signs of faltering, and there was nothing we could do for it. A bullet in the head was a merciful and immediate end to its suffering. Sorrowfully, I dug a deep hole in the snow, cut a few branches of spruce for its bed and cover, and buried it.
“We were all attached to our dogs. We had worked with them for weeks, calling each by name. They displayed affection and faithfulness; they were obedient and hard working. The loss of a dog was not a small one.”
In January of 1911, Inspector Francis J Fitzgerald left Fort McPherson on a patrol that was to end at Dawson City. With the Inspector were Constables Kinney and Taylor and a Sam Carter. They would go in history as the Lost Patrol.
About halfway to Dawson, they seemed to lose the trail and became lost. They attempted to return to McPhereson. Their huskies would not eat the meat of the other dogs that had died. The Mounties fed them with what scraps of dried salmon that remained.
Inspector Fitzgerald wrote in his diary: “Just after noon I broke through the ice and had to make a fire, found one foot slightly frozen. Killed another dog tonight; have only five dogs now, can only go a few miles a day…”
A second patrol later found the frozen bodies of the four men.
By the 1920′s, the North was becoming mechanized. The Bush Plane appeared. Later came vehicles that could handle the terrain, especially the snowmobile.
The need for dog teams was gone.
The Force, now renamed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, still kept a few Northern dogs. But they were kept for sport and public events. “On you huskies!” had become a cry of the past.
But the need for all dogs was not ended. In fact, the new Dog Service would soon be a growing department in the Force. The German Shepherd had appeared. In the role of trackers of criminals, lost persons, even explosives and narcotics, the Shepherd became an essential new member.
For more about the animals of the Northern patrols, see NORTH-WEST MOUNTED POLICE Canadian Mounties in Literature & History.
Or to see other articles such as “The Top Ten Most Intelligent Dogs” and “The Top 10 Most Popular Dog Breeds” Click Here for the GoArticles of BRIAN ALAN BURHOE
Brian Alan Burhoe is the author of many dog-related articles and short stories. His fiction includes the free online story WOLFBLOOD A Northwestern in the Tradition of Jack London. Many of his articles can be found at PUPPY DOGS INFO Dog Breeds Training Care Literature.
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