The most famous dog musher in Yukon history, in one man’s opinion, was a character who appeared in several of Jack London’s Klondike tales called “Burning Daylight.”
He earned his nickname, and London’s admiration, by his habit of putting his dogs into harness in the pitch dark every morning while feeding them a breakfast of frozen salmon or moose meat, then patiently waiting for the first signs of the coming dawn when he would bellow to his lead dog from his place on the sled: “It’s burning daylight! Mush, you beauties, mush on!” and away he and his team would go on whatever kind of trip was planned for the day.
No one really knows if there was a genuine Yukon musher called Burning Daylight in London’s Klondike experience, which was mostly spent at the mouth of the Stewart River, or whether he was an amalgamation of many mushers or, perhaps, an invention of London’s considerable imagination. But he’s real now because we’re still writing about him 115 years later, as if he was the pioneer figure for all subsequent Yukon and Alaskan dog mushers who played such colourful roles in the history of the North.
If Burning Daylight, real or not, is my favourite musher, my favourite dog mushing tall tale, of many, was unquestionably true and real and took place roughly 25 years later when London had gone on to literary fame and fortune before an early death and the Klondike Gold Rush faded into the history books.
This story comes to us from an obscure memoir written by a school marm in Chicken, Alaska about the early 1920s when America and Alaska were dry and Canada and the Yukon were wet in the years following the passage of the infamous Volstead Act which is known to history as prohibition. Like just about anywhere in Canada that shared a close border with the U.S., prohibition gave rise to the an illegal occupation called by many names such as rum-running, boot-legging or moon-shining, and it flourished in the North too as thirsty Alaskans craved the immediacy of nearby Canadian whiskey and beer. Nobody was better prepared to deliver it in winter than local dog mushers.
The school marm tells the story of two unnamed dog mushing bootleggers who were competing for the same illicit dollars, one a wily old veteran who had been mushing since the gold rush and a young buck from Minnesota, recently arrived in the North, who wanted to put a dent in the oldtimer’s bottom line.
The meat and potatoes of the dog mushing business in the 1920s were mail contracts, of which there many all over the North, including several runs from Dawson City to Alaskan settlements close to the border including Circle City, Eagle, Jack Wade and Chicken, which got its name because none of the early-days miners knew how to spell Ptarmigan.
Of course the old veteran had the Dawson-Chicken mail contract so his first obligation was to load his sled with mail, which was paid by weight, not volume, and he could round out his load with lucrative whiskey. The young buck just hauled booze and needed to find a way to get more business so he came up with a clever strategy: he began ordering bulk volumes of light-weight cornflakes which he pre-paid to have delivered from Dawson City to Chicken via mail.
The oldtimer was obligated by contract to haul the mail first before taking on any other products, and he found himself swamped with mailbags full of cornflakes which weighed next to nothing while the young buck picked up the slack in the bootlegging business and made a sizable killing at the old-timer’s expense.
Now, Action Jackson was still alive and running his famous Boundary Saloon just across the border on the “Top of the World Highway” between Dawson and Chicken, right on the exact route the old bootleggers would have taken, when I was reading the dusty memoir. Jackson was an old man at the time, which was the mid-1970s, pushing 80, but simple arithmetic told me he was a young man in the 1920s, and I knew him well as I was working in the nearby Sixtymile goldfield and spent many Saturday nights in Boundary Saloon discussing local literature.
I had noticed while reading the school marm’s book, that the plucky and crafty young dogmusher had many of the same characteristics as Jackson. So, one Saturday night, I asked him if he’d ever done any dog mushing, and he said he had, many years ago, but only for a few years before he moved on to other things.
So I asked him if he had done any bootlegging with dog teams back in the days of prohibition, and he looked me right in the eye like a gunfighter and said: “No, I would never engage in that kind of activity.” Then he casually looked around the bar to see if anyone was inadvertently eavesdropping on our conversation, saw nobody was, and looked me square in the eye again and winked.
Which, of course, meant that I had a simultaneous verbal denial and a visual confirmation that Action Jackson himself was responsible for the hilarious and lucrative corn flakes caper which has been a part of Chicken lore ever since, but is not widely known in other northern locales such as Whitehorse.
But it’s just one of many dogmushing tales you are likely to hear in the immediate future as Yukon Quest and Sourdough Rendezvous season is well nigh upon us.
Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.