TAHOE NUGGET #256 TRUCKEE SLED DOG RACING
The Central Sierra’s first sled dog race in 16 years, slated for March 2-3 during the upcoming Snowfest celebration, was recently cancelled due to poor snow conditions at the Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort near Donner Pass. The Truckee-Tahoe area hasn’t had a significant snowstorm since the Christmas holidays nearly two months ago. Fortunately resorts are still sitting on a solid snowpack due to cold temps this winter and skiing and riding has been good.
Note striking similarities between winters 2011 (red line) and 2013 (blue line). Both started out with precipitation trajectories that exceeded 1983 (wettest winter of record in this data set), and both 2011 and 2013 flatlined after Christmas. After boasting precip accmulations at 200% of normal early on, the Northern Sierra is currently down to 109% for the date with no major storms on the immediate horizon. Of more concern is that water content in the snowpack is below normal for this time of year. Waiting for another “Miracle March.”
Organizers of this year’s Jack London Commemorative Sierra Sled Dog Derby said that they “could not ensure their ability to conduct the race in a manner that would guarantee safety for both the dogs and mushers.” A key tenet of the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers, a charity association that works to promote the recreational sport of sled dog racing in California, is safety of the canine athletes.
Sled dog races in Truckee have alway drawn large, enthusiastic crowds as depicted at this Feb. 1929 Sierra Dog Derby event.
The Jack London race was to honor the noted California author of “Call of the Wild,” a novel written by London in 1903. After spending nearly a year in Alaska during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, London penned his fictional story about a sled dog struggling to survive abusive humans and an extreme winter environment. The book became an instant classic and brought Jack London fame as one of America’s favorite authors. Three years later London wrote “White Fang,” a companion novel that thematically mirrors his first book.
It’s not always fun and games for Sierra sled dogs. In the days before oversnow vehicles, aircraft crashes near Donner Pass required canine rescue. Here a team is hauling out parts of an airplane that went down.
The International Sled Dog Racing Association claims that the first sled dog race in the lower 48 states was staged in 1917 in Ashton, Idaho. That state’s on-going American Dog Derby may call itself the “oldest dog sled race in the United States,” but the town of Truckee actually held America’s first dog sled competition in 1915.
Among the many spectators to cheer the dogs on in that historic event was none other than Jack London. These canine-driven competitions were an important part of the Truckee community’s annual winter carnival to promote winter sports and bring tourists to the mountains.
Novelist Jack London (center left) with his friend John “Iron Man” Johnson at the nation’s first sled dog race held in Truckee in 1915.
Truckee’s winter sports industry got started in the 1890s when several of the town’s leading citizens formed a private Winter Carnival company to build and operate an ice palace on Front Street in downtown Truckee. They were convinced that developing and expanding winter tourism could boost revenue with year-round activity.
Their pioneering efforts resulted in the construction of the town’s first Ice Palace, which became the cornerstone of the earliest winter carnivals. Soon activities like fast toboggan runs and horse-drawn sleigh rides, ski races, and moonlight ice skating parties on Donner Lake began to attract the attention of residents in San Francisco and Sacramento.
By 1910 nearly 1,000 tourists were showing up on weekends, filling Truckee’s hotels. Southern Pacific Railroad was also promoting the carnival and helping to house visitors by parking Pullman sleeper cars on track sidings. Promotional movies were filmed of people enjoying the snow, part of an aggressive marketing campaign to spread the gospel of winter sports.
In this promotional photo from about 1931, a sled dog team pulls a glider along the Truckee River in a race with a passenger train on the Lake Tahoe Railway. Gliders launched and pulled by sled dogs became a popular activity during winter.
The Truckee Ski Club formed in 1914, first of its kind on the West Coast. Newspapers began touting Truckee as the best winter sports resort town nationwide. In the evenings the Isis Theater in Truckee showed motion pictures, and dances sometimes went all night. Sledding was a big part of the winter carnivals, and there were boxing matches and baseball games in the snow.
Nobody told this miniature dachshund that he couldn’t be a sled dog too.
In 1915, John “Iron Man” Johnson, a legendary Alaskan musher arrived in Truckee with his dog team. Johnson had won the punishing five-day, 408-mile All-Alaska Sweepstakes in 1910, 1913, and 1914. His 1910 time of less than 75 hours is a record that remains unbroken today. Johnson had been invited to put on an exhibition dog sled sprint race from downtown Truckee to Donner Lake and back.
Three sleds competed in this highly publicized sprint, including Alaskan Bill Brady with his malamute dog team and Ed Parker’s team of huskies. This first race in the contiguous 48 states was easily won by “Iron Man” Johnson and his famous team of Siberian wolves.
Dog sledding quickly became a popular winter activity and sport. In the late 1920s, a dog sled race from Truckee to Tahoe City and back was held. That event was won by Fred Prince, with a team of Irish Setters. Men dominated the sport until 1928 when Thula Geelan first entered the Tahoe Dog Derby.
Thula Geelan, from McCall, Idaho, was the first female to match her skills and endurance against men in the international sled dog racing circuit. Here she poses with Jack Titus and one of her Irish Setters during the 1929 Sierra Dog Derby event in Truckee.
In 1931, on her third attempt, she won the Tahoe Dog Derby beating seven men, some of them among the most noted drivers in the world. The 60-mile competition was held during a raging snowstorm, but Geelan and her team of Irish Setters finished in less than six hours, winning the $1,000 prize.
Thula Geelan, America’s first professional female musher, takes off out of Truckee during a 1929 race.
In 1930, another legendary musher arrived in Truckee with his dogs and sled. Scotsman Alexander “Scotty” Allan, who won the grueling All-Alaska Sweepstakes an incredible five times, was in town for some training and to film scenes for a movie shoot at Soda Springs near Donner Pass.
Scotty Allan’s sled dog team in Tahoe City.
In March 1949, Lloyd Van Sickle became the U.S. champion of 11-mile dog sled racing when his team, led by his prized Samoyed, Rex the Blizzard King, took first place in a national competition held near Truckee.
Two months later, Van Sickle and Rex successfully defended their national crown in the Sierra Dog Derby in front of an estimated 1,000 spectators, beating out Lloyd’s brother Bob, who was visiting from Idaho with a team of malamutes.
Rex may have weighed only 70 pounds, but in 1954 he broke the world record for weight pulling at a contest in West Yellowstone, Montana, with a pull of 1,870 pounds.
When in Tahoe this winter, experience the thrill and excitement of dog sledding on a 2.5 mile tour that winds through the Squaw Valley meadow.
Special thanks to my friend Frank Titus, born in Truckee in 1922, for sharing his family photos with me.
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