The Yukon Quest is finished for another year, and it won’t be long before the The Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race is run from Dawson City to Eagle, Alaska, and back.
The race is named in honour of the last of a unique breed of men: the early mail carriers in the Yukon.
Percy DeWolfe carried mail by horse or dog team and by boat between Dawson City and Eagle for nearly 40 years, until he retired in 1949. He is reputed to have defied the elements on countless occasions, sometimes escaping death by a hair. In 1935, he received a silver medal for his service to the Yukon Territory from King George V.
Every year, one of the competing mushers in “The Percy” is chosen by a draw to carry the commemorative mail from Dawson to Eagle and back.
Carrying the mail in the early days was a physically challenging, sometimes lethal pursuit. The first documented mail carrier was Tom Williams, who in 1886, volunteered to carry mail to the coast that announced the discovery of gold in large quantities on the Fortymile River.
It was the dead of winter, but Williams persevered through melting temperatures, raging sub-zero arctic gales and starvation to carry his vital news to John Healy`s trading post at Dyea, Alaska. Williams died from the ordeal, but the mail got through.
Then there was John Brauer, from Circle City, Alaska. Brauer set out from Circle City with the U.S. mail September 14, 1897 and poled 300 miles up the Yukon River to Dawson City in 11 days. From there, he continued on his laborious journey with three other men, pushing a scow up the ice-clogged Yukon River.
At Sixty Mile they were compelled to lay over for five days because of poor conditions. Every couple of days after that, he and his party had to take their tiny boat out of the water to remove the ice caked on the hull, until they reached Carmack’s Post.
There they turned landward over the Dalton Trail. He and his travelling party joined another group, which included Joe Boyle and Swiftwater Bill Gates. Together, they struggled through a metre of snow and brutal weather and trail conditions for 25 days.
During their trek over the trail, the temperature varied from -15 C during the daytime to -40 C at night. They had to burrow into the snow in the dark with nothing but their dogs and a blanket to keep them warm.
They started out with eight horses, but eventually had to kill them all to feed their dogs. But they all reached the coast alive. For this effort, Brauer’s letters cost a mere two cents each for delivery.
During the gold rush, Ignace and Fred Hebert carried mail between Skagway and Dawson City, each with a team of 10 Labrador dogs. Ben Atwater, from Morrison, Illinois, who had first come into the Yukon basin to prospect in 1886, carried mail from Circle and Dawson City to Skagway in 1898.
Ben Downing, originally from somewhere on the east coast, spent time in Arizona and the Dakotas before coming north to the Yukon and Alaska. He was described as a fearless man of giant stature, and an intrepid dog musher who would get the mail to its destination on time despite the weather and river conditions. Downing was first awarded the contract to carry mail from Dawson City to Eagle in 1902. From there, he then carried mail on to Fort Gibbon, Alaska, a distance of 1,300 kilometres.
On one mail run to Dawson, Downing fell through the ice and continued with badly frozen feet, leaving behind him, it was reported, a trail of bloody footprints. He did not report to the hospital upon his arrival in Dawson; when he finally did, they amputated parts of four toes.
Downing left the Klondike a millionaire by all accounts, but it didn’t do him any good. Having survived the brutal conditions in the North, he died from surgery in Seattle in January of 1906.
Eli Verreau, who came from Quebec, was another mail carrier in the early days. Verreau was working for Ben Downing, making a mail run to Eagle by boat in late October of 1902. Verreau’s boat was crushed to splinters amidst the cakes of ice in a sharp bend in the Yukon River near Cliff Creek. The mail was lost and Verreau barely escaped with his life.
Three years later, Verreau is again reported in the news taking the mail from Dawson City to Eagle in early winter. Since the Canadian government did not maintain a winter trail north of Dawson, Verreau and his passenger were forced to break trail, knocking down hummocks of river ice with an axe as they proceeded. Verreau was the mail carrier between Dawson and Eagle from 1902 to 1920. He remained in the Yukon until his death in Mayo in 1954.
Percy DeWolfe started working for Verreau in 1910, later picking up the mail contract for the Eagle Run after Verreau moved on to other enterprises. DeWolfe carried mail between Dawson and Eagle for 39 years until the route was cancelled in 1949. DeWolfe had many close shaves, and became known as the “Iron Man of the North” for being able to deliver the mail under any conditions.
He was carrying the mail to Dawson with a team of horses in 1948 at 70 years of age. The horses broke through the ice on the Yukon River, and the sole passenger jumped to safety. DeWolfe leaped onto the sinking wagon and threw the mail bags and other freight to solid ice, but three horses drowned. According to the Dawson News, he still delivered the mail to Dawson on schedule.
The first dogsled race commemorating DeWolfe
and the mail run took place in 1977. Bruce Johnson of Atlin B.C. subsequently earned a reputation as an iron man by winning the race in three consecutive years between 1981 and 1983. He also ran the Yukon Quest in 1984, ‘85 and ‘86, becoming the first Canadian to win the event in 1986. He also finished second in 1993. Johnson competed in the Iditarod as well, but never ranked as high in the standings as he had in the tougher Quest races.
Johnson was not as fortunate as the invincible DeWolfe.
He was training his dog team in the fall of 1993 when they broke through the ice in Little Atlin Lake and he drowned along with his eight dogs.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org