In the early 1990s, Alaska's Board of Fisheries had to address a controversy over the feeding of subsistence fish to dogs used for commercial purposes. To provide some background, David Anderson prepared a paper on the use of dog teams in the Yukon River drainage, and their fish consumption, for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Division of Subsistence. Anderson described the evolving role of dog sledding in the regional economy: The Use of Dog Teams and the Use of Subsistence-caught Fish for Feeding Sled Dogs in the Yukon River Drainage, Alaska.
Coastal Eskimos had been using sled dogs for a long time prior to contact with the West:
But the Athabaskan Indians of interior Alaska had not:
To give you a sense of the peoples we're talking about, here is a map of Alaska showing the general locations of the Native cultures The Inupiat and Yup'ik are Eskimo, the Athabaskan are Indian. The Yukon River, which figures in the text below, enters the Bering Sea on the northern shore of the Yup'ik regions. From the sea it runs south briefly, and then east towards the Canadian border, across the northern Athabaskan regions:
Source: National Park Service.
The Russians entered the picture in the late 18th Century and early 19th Centuries. St. Michael was founded near the mouth of the Yukon in the early 1830s, and the Russians began to explore the interior in the early 1840s. About this time, Natives adopted a technological change in dog harnessing. Anderson's Russian source implies that the new method was more efficient than existing methods and was adopted once it was observed by the Native Alaskans:
...Ethnographic information recorded by Zagoskin during his travels in 1842-43 include observations of Natives utilizing dogs for hunting and for sled traction on a well-established network of winter trails, and the use of dried fish as dog food... Zagoskin attributed Native use of the “tandem hitch” method of harnessing as a (then) recent development resulting from Russian influence.... Previously, dog traces were hitched separately to the sled. Zagoskin’s own party utilized 38 dogs, pulling six sleds, and nearly 1,000 pounds of locally acquired dried fish (“yukola” described as trout or salmon) for dog food. During their travels, additional fish for dog food were obtained at the Yukon River community of Nulato. Thus, the first glimpse into the early contact period of the Yukon River shows a well-developed technology surrounding the use of dogs and the feeding of fish to dogs in western interior Alaska.
The diffusion of dog sledding deeper in the interior appears to have been a response to changing economic opportunities:
In the late 1840s European explorers, traders, and missionaries had also succeeded in penetrating the upper Yukon River drainage from the east. The Canadian-based Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post at the site of Fort Yukon in 1847 to take advantage of the rich fur resources in this region. Interior Athabaskan groups quickly became involved in the developing fur trade, placing a greater emphasis on fur trapping in their seasonal round and adopting dog traction technology and a larger breed of dog from neighboring Eskimos in order to increase their trapping efficiency.... The pace of exploration and accompanying cultural change and the development of the fur trade quickened following the purchase of governing rights to Alaska by the United States in 1867. In addition to the increased involvement in winter trapping, another important change in the traditional seasonal round was a new emphasis on summer fishing activities to feed the growing number of sled dogs....
Anderson doesn't imply that the peoples of the drainage were unfamiliar with the techniques; he explains that the diffusion of dog sledding was due to the opening up of new market opportunities. Note the increase in the derived demand for salmon, and the consequent change in the seasonal round. I wonder if this increase in the demand led to changes in the customs governing access to good fishing spots along the rivers? Observers note a northern Native approach to harvesting animals -
By the 1870s dogs on the upper Yukon River drainage were reported to have a cash value of $25 to $40 each.... Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka, descending the Yukon River in 1883, noted large populations of “Indian dogs” at villages he passed. At that time, “Nuklakayet,” near the present day site of Tanana, was the apparent dividing line between dogs and sleds of the “Eskimo variety” below and the “Indian variety” above .... At the site of the Nuklakayet post itself, there were more than 50 dogs and traders were paying one cent each for dried salmon.
Its interesting that observers saw different types of dogs being used in different regions. In the quote below this one, an observer notes that different types of dogs were used for freight and for mail team.
Differences in the types and uses of dogs between regions were also observed by early explorers. In 1885, a party exploring the Copper and Tanana rivers noted along the Copper River, that each Native family had two or three small dogs that were used as pack animals. Among the Tanana Indians of the interior, the number of dogs per family was about the same, but the dogs were of larger build and generally harnessed to pull sleds.... A Chandalar Gwich’in Athabaskan elder recalled using a toboggan sled drawn by just two dogs in the 1890s, perhaps typifying upper Yukon River Indian utilization of dogs in the last decade of the 19th century....
The advent of non-Natives in large numbers during the mining booms of the 1890s created a demand for dog sled freighting. The demand for dogs shifted out; I assume the demand for dried fish, and the value of access to unusually good fishing spots, did also:
With the discovery of gold in the Circle, Fortymile, and Klondike districts in the 1890s the influx of non-Natives into the Yukon River drainage increased dramatically and had effects throughout the interior in terms of the use of dogs for traction. New settlements were established and traditional settlements and trading sites given renewed importance. An expanded network of winter trails was established for hauling passengers and supplies by dog sled. During winter 1897-98 dogs were selling for $250 to $400 each at Dawson and dried salmon to feed them commanded $1 a pound.... A U.S. Army lieutenant, traveling the upper Yukon River in winter 1898-99 acquired seven dogs for his use at Rampart and upon arrival at Dawson found his dogs to be “among the few interior or native dogs on the upper river and the envy of all travelers”.... The following year, another Army expedition led by Lt. J. S. Herron seeking an overland route between Cook Inlet and the Yukon River acquired three sleds and nine dogs for his use from Natives at Telida.... Upon reaching the Yukon River, Herron commented on the extensive network of trails along the main river and offered observations of dog teams illustrating the specialization of dogs and teams.... Mail teams were observed to consist of five or six fast dogs, capable of pulling loads of 75 pounds each at six to nine miles per hour on a good trail. Freight teams consisted of 7 to 11 large dogs capable of hauling loads of 200 pounds per dog at two or three miles per hour. Miners and Indians were observed to have smaller teams of two to five dogs....
The value of dogs rose from ~$25 about 1870, to $250 to $400 in 1897-98. Below they are said to have sold for $1,000 in Nome in 1900. It's not clear what these prices mean. Where they simply unusually high prices that caught the attention of an observer?
By 1900, the gold rush stampede had reached its peak. The Yukon River had become a major highway for immigrants into Alaska and the Klondike district with more than 100 steamships operating along its length.... For winter travel, dogs had become established as the most practical method of transportation. At the height of the Nome gold rush in 1900, strong, durable dogs sold for $1,000 or more and a canine black market developed with dogs purchased or stolen from west coast communities in the continental U.S. and sold to Alaska miners at inflated prices....
The fish wheel is a technological innovation that increased the efficiency of labor use in fishing.
As the stampede continued into the early decades of the 20th century, towns, mining districts, and the network of sled trails connecting them continued to expand. Major overland trails between the coast and interior, such as the Valdez-to-Fairbanks trail and the Iditarod trail from Seward to Nome were established. Among interior Athabaskans, wage labor joined trapping as another means for obtaining cash. Many Athabaskans were attracted to mining settlements by job opportunities where they worked as woodcutters, guides, freighters, and market hunters.... Along with changes in the seasonal round noted above, Native material culture continued to change, such as the abandonment of traditional dwellings for log cabins and canvas tents, and the adoption of the fishwheel, which was introduced around 1910.... The efficiency of the fishwheel, coupled with an extraordinarily high demand for fish as dog food by immigrants, placed new emphasis on salmon fishing in the seasonal round and as a source of income for many Athabaskans. Bales of dried salmon entered the economy as a standard of trade, as longer, more intense periods of summer salmon fishing were required to supply the growing demand for dog food....
Dogs had to be fed and chum salmon, harvested from regional rivers in the summer, was a key part of the diet. As noted above, this created a large derived demand for chum salmon. Dried fish, and particularly salmon, became an important element in economic activity in the region - apparently coming to perform some of the functions of money:
The first four decades of the 20th century might be described as the heyday of dog mushing in Alaska. For individuals and families in rural Alaska, sled dogs were essential to the seasonal round of activities that provided food and cash income. Except for the elderly, each middle Yukon River family commonly kept a team of 7 to 11 sled dogs used for trapping, hunting, general transportation between points, and for hauling wood, water, and supplies.... In addition to the small dog teams maintained by individuals and families, numerous commercial freighting operations using dog traction developed for hauling mail, passengers, and supplies between major supply centers and outlying areas. By 1918, the Yukon River dog population was estimated at more than 6,000 dogs and an estimated 1 million salmon were being harvested from the Yukon River drainage each year for use as dog food.... Dried salmon remained a standard of trade and barter at posts and stores with a cash value of about ten cents per pound. Individual mushers with commercial mail or freight contracts maintained dog lots of up to 60 dogs, utilizing as many as 20,000 salmon a year to feed them....
In the 1920s and 1930s roadhouses or government supplied “stop cabins” were established along most major trails at 20- to 40-mile intervals, a distance approximating one day’s travel. Contract mushers often used the same cabins but maintained their own caches of food, dried fish, and supplies at critical points along their routes.... Contract mushers were usually paid by the trip and were required to adhere to fairly strict schedules in order to meet with connecting mushers at established points. Mail service between Fairbanks and Fort Yukon, for example, took six days with one carrier making the Fairbanks to Circle leg in three days by dog team or horse and another carrier making the three-day trip from Circle to Fort Yukon by dog team.... Contract carriers were based in most established communities such ‘as Eagle, Nenana, Tanana, Ruby, Nulato, Kaltag, and Unalakleet. Freight teams generally consisted of 10 to 20 large dogs pulling 12- to 15 foot sleds and loads of 700 to 1,000 pounds. One respondent recalled seeing a freight team on the trail from Nenana to Lake Minchumina consisting of 35 dogs hitched to a tow-line of steel cable and pulling two large sleds, one behind the other....
This freight team is carrying goods across four miles of sea ice from the S.S. Corwin -which apparently couldn't get any closer to shore - to the town of Nome, in 1907. Source: Alaska Digital Archive.
Dried fish, generally salmon, cooked with tallow and rice or corn meal was the standard diet for working dogs. Some contract mushers fished during the summer months and stored salmon themselves for use as dog food. Others found summer wage employment that enabled them to purchase dried fish for their dog teams. In some upriver communities, such as Fairbanks, Nenana, and Fort Yukon which had become regional freighting or trapping centers, the demand for dried salmon frequently exceeded the capacity of local fishermen and bales of dried fish were shipped in from premier fishing locations along the Yukon, such as Kaltag and Tanana, and warehoused for winter use...
In addition to mail teams, freight teams, and trapping teams, dog racing began to develop as an organized sport in the early decades of the 20th century. In 1908, the “All Alaska Sweepstakes” was organized in Nome and became the first officially judged mushing event.... This was followed by the establishment of kennel clubs and organized dog racing events in other locations such as Ruby, Iditarod, and Anchorage between 1913 and 1918. These races were generally 50 to several hundred miles in length and offered cash prizes ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars.... Fairbanks had developed an organized dog racing program by 1927 and quickly became a major center for dog racing activity in Alaska. In the 1930s, the concept of short, sprint races was popularized, emphasizing the use of small, fast dogs. This development led to major changes in dog care, focusing the attention of competitive mushers on improved breeding, feeding, and training of dogs used strictly for racing....
In 1925, when territorial health officials had to get medicine to Nome to meet a health emergency, they debated whether to use an airplane or dog sled - they plumped for the dog sled. But in the 1930s, airplanes began to challenge and supplant dog sleds for moving freight and the mail:
In the 1930s airplanes began replacing dog teams as the primary method of carrying freight and mail. The transition from dog teams to airplanes for these purposes took a decade or more in many locations. While some contract mushers operating near aviation centers, such as Fairbanks, were replaced relatively quickly, air service to many outlying areas remained sporadic, hampered by adverse weather conditions and a lack of developed landing fields. The gradual nature of this transition apparently prevented any rapid decline in the Yukon River dog population. As freight teams were slowly replaced by aircraft, freight dogs were simply retired or found use on traplines or other freight teams.... Dogs continued to carry the mail as late as 1940 on some routes such as Circle to Fort Yukon and Nulato to Unalakleet.... The last U.S. Postal Service mail carrier to use dogs was Chester Noongwook of Savoonga who retired his dog team with the advent of scheduled air service to St. Lawrence Island in 1963....
Noongwook leaves Gambell for Savoonga on the last mail run by dogsled, 1963 Source: Alaska's Digital Archives.
St. Lawrence Island is a large and isolated island in the Bering Sea.
The airplane replaced dog sleds for moving freight, but the dog sled remained the regional "family car" until the 1960s.
While commercial freighting and mail delivery using dogs declined with the development of commercial aviation in the 1930s, dog teams continued to be utilized throughout Alaska as an affordable means of individual and family transportation through the 1940s and 1950s for local travel, hauling wood and water, hunting, and trapping. Families in the Huslia and Tanana areas, for example, generally kept from 5 to 15 dogs comprising one or more teams of three to eight dogs depending on family size and use.... Throughout much of interior Alaska, and wherever salmon were abundant, dried fish remained the standard dog food, usually cooked with rice or corn meal. Families commonly fished in summer and fall, putting up dried salmon for their own use and extra bales of fish for trade or credit at the community store. Bales of dried salmon remained a standard trade item at community stores and trading posts into the 1960s.
At least temporarily, new uses for dog sleds emerged in the 1940s:
With the increasing presence of the military in Alaska during the 1940s and 1950s dogs were also put to military uses. Up to 200 sled dogs were maintained by the U. S. Army 10th Air Rescue Squadron at Ladd Field in Fairbanks between 1943 and the early 1950s.... These dogs were trained in 10-dog teams and were on alert 24-hours a day for rescue work in remote locations. According to one Army musher/caretaker, the government spared no expense in feeding these dogs, purchasing red meat, dry and canned commercial dog food, corn meal mush, and rice, “by the truckload” and locally dried salmon “by the ton” for use as dog food....
The 1960s saw the introduction of the snow machine:
In the early 1960s, “mechanical toboggans” or “snow-travelers,” now called snowmachines, began to be used in rural Alaska. While large motorized snow vehicles, such as the Nodwell, had been used much earlier for commercial applications, they were too expensive to be considered by individual hunters or trappers as an alternative to dog teams. Snowmachines, however, provided a small, trackpropelled vehicle for use on snow capable of basically the same work as a dog team. The utility of this new technology was quickly realized and put to the test by enterprising villagers across Alaska.
The appearance of the first snowmachine was earlier in some communities than in others. Among 27 arctic and interior Alaska communities surveyed in one study, none reported the presence of a snowmachine prior to 1960.... The first snowmachine in Kotzebue was purchased in 1960 and a dealership was established there the following year.... In the community of Noatak, north of Kotzebue, the first snowmachine was purchased in 1965 and just two years later, 19 Noatak residents had snowmachines.... In Alaska’s interior, snowmachines were acquired by village residents somewhat later than in coastal communities. In Chalkyitsik, for example, in the upper Yukon River drainage, the first snowmachine was purchased in 1967 and by 1970 about one-half of the active hunters in that community were using them.... In the regional center of Fort Yukon, the first snowmachine was purchased for $860 in 1968....
In rural Alaskan communities, individuals with access to wage employment were generally the first to purchase a snowmachine which cost from $700 to $1,200 in the early 1960s.... In Kaltag, for example, the first snowmachine was purchased by one of the few year-round employees of the school district.... For these individuals, the speed and convenience of a snowmachine allowed them to work a wage-earning job and engage in more efficient hunting and fishing activities during time off to provide their families with preferred wild foods. These individuals quickly abandoned the use of dog teams, freeing themselves from the difficult task of maintaining a dog team while holding down a steady job. Hunters and trappers experimenting with using snowmachines were less likely to abandon the use of dog teams altogether despite the significant economic hardships of maintaining both. In Noatak, of 16 people who were among the first to own snowmachines, only five reported that they had immediately given up use of their dog team upon purchase of a snowmachine and 11 reported that they had retained dogs as secondary transport or as transportation for other family members.... In some other areas of Alaska, the transition from the use of dog teams to snowmachinea was apparently more complete. In Huslia, for example, by 1967 the use of dogs for subsistence activities had declined to just one team with similar declines in dog teams noted for Hughes, Alatna, and Bettles....
A survey of 27 communities in arctic and interior Alaska counted 187 snowmachines and 726 active dog teams in 1963, or 913 dog teams and snowmachines combined.... By 1968, the same villages reported having 974 snowmachines and 420 dog teams, totalling almost 1,400 dog teams and snowmachines combined. While these data show a five-fold increase in the number of snowmachines over a five-year period, they also show that nearly a decade after the introduction of snotimachines, more than one-half of the dog teams had been retained. Thus, the initial result of the introduction of the snowmachine was simply a more mobile village population through the combined use of dog teams and snowmachines.
Recently some fisheries scientists at the University of British Columbia have prepared estimates of subsistence fishery harvests in Arctic Alaska (Marine Fish Catches in Arctic Alaska). Chum salmon were an important part of dog diets. Here, they're broken out salmon harvested for human consumption and dog consumption:
Look at the way the estimated dog consumption dropped off in the 1960s. Anderson continues:
These numbers indicate that the incorporation of snowmachine technology was a decade-long process that varied in timing and completeness from region to region and from community to community. In some areas of coastal Alaska, wage employment activities connected with commercial fishing, the treeless terrain, and snow conditions ideally suited for snowmachine use combined to result in an early and rapid conversion from dog team to snowmachine use. In other areas, such as the heavily wooded upper Yukon River region, the process was not one of snowmachines completely replacing dog teams, but a shift to a. transportation system that retained the use of dog teams by some individuals for some purposes, and the use of snowmachines for others. In the upper Yukon. region, wage employment opportunities were few, income levels lower, and century-old trapline trails built to accommodate narrow toboggan sleds and a string of dogs had to be laboriously widened to accommodate snowmachines, a process that still continues today in some areas....
While dog teams continued to be used in many communities, the snowmachine emerged in the 1970s as the dominant method of winter transportation in rural Alaska and the number of working dogs along the Yukon River declined to historic lows. During the mid to late 1970s, an era of renewed interest in dog mushing began, largely sparked by highly publicized events such as the Iditarod Trail Race from Anchorage to Nome. The development of large-prize, long-distance races such as the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, combined with a slate of middle-distance and sprint racing events, made sled dog racing attractive to a wider variety and increasing number of mushers and dog numbers began to rise. The rise in dogs cannot be solely attributed to racing. During the 1970s, some rural residents began to more fully realize the limitations and financial obligations associated with snowmachine ownership. On small incomes, it was sometimes difficult to purchase and maintain a working snowmachine for travel, trapping, hunting, fishing , and hauling goods. Some residents returned wholly, or in part, to the use of dog teams to support activities such as these. By the 1980s and 1990s dogs continued to be used in many Yukon River drainage communities for general transportation, hauling wood, racing, and trapping, out of preference for some and out of necessity for others.
Here's one other example of the impact of snowmobiles. Linda Ellanna (Technological and social change of marine mammal hunting patterns in Bering Strait) reports that, on St. Lawrence Island:
Savoonga, established as a reindeer camp in 1916, had no whaling crews until 1973, but walrus hunting was conducted with local skinboat crews and whaling with Gambell crews prior to that time [both Savoonga and Gambell are villages on the island - Ben]. The initiation of Savoonga whaling crews in 1972 was associated with the use of snowmobiles for hauling the large skinboats overland, a distance of 30+ miles, to the southwestern shores of the Island, since whaling and early season walrus hunting were not possible along the north central and northeast shores of the Island due to ice conditions and the migratory paths of bowhead whales and walrus.
Ellanna's paper is really about the diffusion of another technological innovation in the Bering Straits region: 16 foot aluminum skiffs.
Finally - for a future post: The Use of Snowmobiles for Trapping on Banks Island [in Canada - Ben].
Edits - April 1: modified opening sentences to make it clear that the Board of Fisheries issue that triggered Anderson's research dealt with dogs used for commercial purposes, not any dogs. Minor edits to clean up some transcription errors.