The mushers carrying the mail packets were by far the most popular. The Hudson Bay Company’s “Northern Packet” departed what is now Winnipeg on the Fort Garry dog train. Eight days and 350-miles later, the Fort Garry dog train arrived at the Norway House, located at the north end of Lake Winnipeg. Simultaneously, the York Factory on Hudson Bay sent a mail packet to Norway House. After unloading, and then repacking, the two dog trains returned from where they came. A new dog train departed Norway House and headed west to Fort Carlton, located on the Saskatchewan River. The trip was 650-miles and took around twenty-two days.
The mail drivers were so adept at getting the mail in on time, that the men stationed at the old Swan River barracks made wagers every twenty-one to twenty-two days as to when the mail would arrive. “Bets would be passed at the noon meal as to what exact time Louis Laronde or Antoine Genoit would arrive with the mail.”
The importance of the mail was also prevalent in Alaska, and was one of the most eagerly awaited shipments of the dog trail. It has been said that all sled dog trails lead to Nome, and on those trails the mail driver was treated like a king. United States law actually required all other trail users give the right-of-way to the mail drivers.
“The mail driver was the single most important person on the trail, in the mail-station, or at the over-night roadhouse. He was given the best seat at the table, the first service of hotcakes for breakfast, and the best bunk at night. When the mail driver pulled into a station or the roadhouse at the end of a day’s run, he unhitched the team and turned all the dogs loose except the leader. His leader, his parka, gloves and whip was brought into the roadhouse. He put the leader under his bunk, hung his wet clothing on the best wire around the stovepipe…and woe to him who complained about the leader under his bed!”
At the turn of the century the mail driver received a salary of $2225.00 per year, and was required by the Postmaster General to deliver the mail “with celerity, certainty, and security.”
The United States Postal Service employed dog drivers until 1963. Chester Noongwook, of Savoonga on Saint Lawrence Island, was honored in the same year. With the retirement of his loyal dog team a century of sled dog tradition slipped into history. Noongwook’s team, Spotty, Brownie, Mil-ko-lak and Donkey were replaced with an airplane, yet they remained at the ready, because there would be times and places that a dog team could make the trip and an airplane could not.
Dr. Robert Forto is the Dog Sledding Examiner, a musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and the host of Mush! You Huskies Radio Show