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Mackenzie River Huskies Historical Info

A special "thank you" to Donna Dowling for sharing these photos and historical information on Mackenzie River Huskies.

Donna Dowling
Northern Quest Kennels
P.O. Box 70109
, Fairbanks, Alaska 99707
(907) 456-2710

Mackenzie River Husky

The "Mackenzie River Husky" is a catch all name, that can describe vastly different dogs depending on who is using that name. It can be used as follows: the mythical best northern sled dog ever; as a sales tool to sell mixed breed mutts or unwanted litters; in plain ignorance because someone said that’s what the dog was; someone trying to recreate the breed based on the falsehood that they are a mix of wolf, malamute and St. Bernard or some other unlikely working dog combination ion; or the truth that they are a freight husky, all but extinct.

I am an Alaskan born resident who first came across these magnificent huskies when I moved to an interior Alaskan bush community in the mid-1970’s. My research and consequential breeding program began in 1990 after the passing on of my last freight husky. In complete ignorance, I started asking questions and researching libraries for the truth instead of rumors and myths surrounding these dogs, and at the same time trying to locate any that resembled my old working huskies. I kept getting conflicting information both from people and from the small amount of published information I could find. I looked at a motley variety of dogs with only a precious few resembling my huskies, all claiming to be Mackenzie River Huskies.

The truth began to unfold after interviewing old-timers: Ed Moody, Norman Vaughan, both involved with the Admiral Byrd’ s Antarctic Expeditions in the 1920’s and 1930’s; retired Canadian Mountie during 1950’s and 1960’s, Sandy Saunderson; author Lorna Coppinger of The World of Sled Dogs, copyright 1977; Alaskan trappers, mailrunners, and guides to name a few Joe Dehlia, John Schultz, Bob Schlentner; Canadian dog driver, Larry "Cowboy" Smith; and many others from trips up the Demster Highway to the Northern reaches of Canada and then east to the Great Slave Lakes region. Bill Carpenter of Yellowknife, who received a grant in the 1970’s to bring back the Canadian Eskimo Dog, also known as the Greenland Husky, was gracious enough to share his research documentation on the sled dog with me. These valuable documents dated from the present back to the 1530’s.

What all this research disclosed, leaving out dissertations on the influence of the Gold Rush, the separation of the AKC Siberians and Alaskan Malamutes in the 1930’s, and the high arctic aboriginal husky, is the emergence of the freight huskies more or less below the arctic circle during a traceable time span of 100 years, starting in the mid to late 1800's. These huskies were separately and distinctly developed for small working teams capable of hauling large loads through deep snow, woodland trails, and hilly or mountainous terrain while consuming limited and erratic food sources. Each village or community, separated by hundreds to thousands of miles, developed amazingly similar characteristics based on their similar need. The resulting huskies were tall (27" to 32" at the shoulder), long legged and rangy built, averaging around 90 pounds, never exceeding 125 pounds, long backed with deep chests allowing them to run in a single track, foot-in-front-of-foot gait. Differences occur cosmetically in coloration, markings, and ear position. Social bonding, pack mentality, build and gait reflect the wolf influence which naturally occurs when you have sled dogs in remote environments. Wolf traits such as being unpredictable, unmanageable, skittish, or untrustworthy with children where culled out. The resulting temperament is one of a high social order, raising pups together, working well with team members once hierarchy is established, viewing their people as extensions of the pack. They are willing workers once they realize that they get to run with their ‘pack’ and view you as the alpha dog. This respect is earned or learned from the others and is not automatically given. With respect to their nature and evolution comes the responsibility of owning one of these huskies, they are not for the first time dog owner.

My research has clarified the limited published misinformation about "Mackenzie River Huskies." The Mackenzie Hound, as is referred to by Northern Canadians, was a mix of domestic dogs like St. Bernards, Newfoundlands or Mastiffs with the huskies to produce a "townie dog," far different from the trail proven freight huskies I know as Mackenzie River Huskies. These Hounds are not freight huskies (Mackenzie River Huskies). This Hound versus Husky explains some other researchers’ confusion. On page 42 of the World of Sled Dogs, "Some of the best freighting dogs were the Mackenzie River Huskies (often called Porcupine River dogs), weighing up to 165 pounds and loving to pull. These dogs were a cross between native sled dogs and the large, imported domestic breed." And then the contradiction on page 212 when referring to the beginning of the breeding down for racing dogs, "These tough hybrids provided a speedy tenacity, and when interbred with the bigger Alaskan Malamute or the Mackenzie River Husky (the biggest of the natural sled dog breeds from Canada), produced a racing sled dog to suit most of the early competitors." From Sled Dog Encyclopedia Volume Two on Canadian Sled Dogs, "One of the favorite strains of so-called "Huskies" used by the Mounties was the Mackenzie River Husky. These dogs have been variously described as part Eskimo dog and wolf to a mixture of several of the larger breeds such as Labrador, Newfoundland and Saint Bernard."

The catchy name "Mackenzie River Husky" was coined from newcomers seeing the freight huskies and not being able to differentiate the different villages while passing through an area. The locals knew the huskies by their different villages, naming them accordingly: Old Crow dogs, Ft. McPherson dogs, Red Mackenzie River HuskyArctic Red dogs, Porcupine River dogs, Hay River dogs, etc. The name really took hold in the 1960’s, from which the distortions grew, especially as the freight husky began to disappear.

The demise of these magnificent huskies began in the 1960’s as a result of several factors: the introduction of the snowmachine; the discovery of oil and consequential formation of Native Corporations whose dividends allowed the people to afford snowmachines; the Canadian government efforts to stop native sovereignty by the mass killing of dog teams in the 1950-1960’s under the guise of eradicating rabies; and profitable sled dog racing that resulted in the development of a breed of small, high strung, running machines.

What has allowed me to find breeding stock is the 1960’s movement that sent Vietnam Vets, draft dodgers, and hippies to the interior of Alaska to try a subsistence life style. A few hardy souls remain in bush communities that still have these huskies and a few crusty old trappers. The few I found in Canada were so intermingled with the racing lines, that little of the old blood line remains. If anyone knows differently, please contact me.

Another common misconception is that the Mackenzie River Husky is a long-haired dog. The long-haired gene is found in all husky breeds and in the wolf. The people who worked huskies considered this to be a fault and so gave these dogs away usually to townie folk or ignorant hippies. So these long-haired huskies were commonly seen, not their littermates back in the bush. From Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24, "The Caribou Eskimos" by Kay Burkit-Smith. "Besides the usual dog, Eskimos everywhere have another breed that is not exactly uncommon, the so called merqujog-dogs which differ from the others in having long, soft hair and consequently with quite a different appearance. Possibly this is an ancient breed which has once been common and now appears occasionally as a throw-back. The longhaired merqujogs also occur among the Central Eskimos. I believe they are just as common there as in Greenland, but certain supernatural powers are ascribed to teams consisting entirely of them; it is my impression—one that lacks complete confirmation—that a merqujog is always more holy than an ordinary dog." Well, I happen to concur that the long-haired freight huskies are very special. They maintain eye contact and have a high intelligence that is sometimes just plain spooky. I can read their frustration as they try to communicate a need to me that I’m just too stupid to get. The long hair is one of the many features I breed for.

Mackenzie River Husky

The huskies I’m breeding for are tall (27 to 32 inches at the shoulder), lean built with deep chests (not wide), long legged that run with a foot-in-front-of-foot stride, high tail carriage (no donut tails), erect ears, white or cream masks, yellow or light brown eyes, they generally have a long mane of fur round their necks and shoulder and "feathers" down their legs front and back, and under the belly. They are big huskies weighing 70 to 125 pounds. Their fur is soft in texture, odorless with no doggy smell, and appears not to bother people who are allergic to dogs. Their colors vary from blond/red and tan with black highlights to black and white with red tints and varying sable colors of each. Even with purebreed breeders, genetics is a crap shoot. At this stage of my program, each puppy is a mystery until full grown since I don’ t duplicate litters which would put me in an inbreeding trap. One might have beautiful marking and coloration but be too stocky for my taste, or its tail might have too much curl. Another could be beautifully built—tall, long legged and rangy with yellow eyes, but a black/white with limited face markings or weak ears. A recessive blue eye gene has appeared which is cosmetically unattractive to me, but does not carry the feared hyperactivity associated with blue eyed dogs. And there are a few, perfect in every way but they are miniature weighting only 65 pounds and 25" at the shoulder. The one thing that is always guaranteed is temperament. They will be completely trustworthy with children, intelligent and eager to work. With that comes the independence of thought process which will take the role of strong leadership in the family, if you do not provide it.

I remain a coordinator in my efforts to bring these dogs back. I personally have two litters a year. Searching continually for new quality males to breed to my females as I expand my breeding pool for the future. I’ m going into this with the firm understanding that its a 20 year project and there are no shortcuts that I’m willing to take. I follow each of the pups through their lifetime to insure that my breeding program is on track. I depend on "my people" to help me with this project by their willingness to follow my guidelines for breeding, having pups and suitable placement. This is not a one person job short of having hundreds of huskies, which I am unwilling to do. This is truly a labor of love on my part to keep these huskies from extinction. The pups currently sell for $250 including worming, first shots and vet exam. Hopefully, this project will continue to snowball so that there will be more available in the future with less restrictions. If you’re interested, you must keep in contact with me and be patient.

Happy Trails

Donna Dowling
P.O. Box 70109
Fairbanks, Alaska 99707

Additional Resources:

Mackenzie River Husky Photo Album
Roland's German web site

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