- Historic Sites
Billy Mitchell In Alaska
Early in his military career, the apostle of air power blazed a trail through the wilderness, forging the last link in a telegraph line to the edge of the Bering Sea
February 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 2
My orders specified that all transportation in the post should be turned over for my use, and I made preparations to get my outfits out on the trail as soon as possible. I began to buy dogs to use for light sledding and reconnaissance work, selecting each one myself. The first dog I obtained was a MacKenzie husky leader called “Pointer,” owned by a squaw man named Jack Lawrence, a mail carrier. My attention had first been drawn to Jack when he neglected his squaw for a week or so, to remain in Eagle City celebrating. She came up with a long knife, found where he was, grabbed him by the nape of the neck, and marched him home.
Pointer was the greatest dog I have ever seen. He weighed about 120 pounds and was perfectly sure on the trail. He could feel through the snow with his feet for an old trail and unerringly find it. We could depend on him to protect the sled and the team under all conditions. He was so fierce that we had to cut his fangs off to keep him from chewing up the other dogs. He became tremendously attached to me, and from that time on during every trip, Pointer was my constant companion and friend.
Gradually we got together wonderful teams. I selected the best ones, mated in size, gaits, and weight, and organized them into two teams. Taking a man named Emmet with me, I made a reconnaissance to see for myself where the lines should go and how we could stand the weather. When doing this advance reconnoitering, we always traveled light, often not carrying a tent but digging a hole out with a snowshoe and banking up a fire of logs opposite it, sleeping in the reflected heat of the embers. Sometimes we slept in a hole in the snow with the dogs lying on top of us.
It was necessary to push through to the south and find where the men working under Captain Burnell were located. He was supposed to work north from Valdez over Thompson’s Pass in the Alaska Range of mountains, and meet me somewhere on the Tanana River, more than 150 miles from each of us.
Emmet and I sought and found the Mentasta Pass, south of the Tanana River. Just south of the pass lies Mentasta Lake, the headwaters of a small river called the Tokio, which is fed by warm springs.
We traversed the lake without much trouble, but once down the precipitous sides of the Tokio River, on whose treacherous icy surface we had to travel, we began to break through. The temperature was around 60 degrees below. There was layer upon layer of ice, with about three feet of water between them. When our moccasins and trousers were wet, they would freeze instantly and become hard as boards the minute we got out of the water. In one place I broke through with my sled, clear to my shoulders, and if my leader Pointer had not gotten a foothold on the ice beyond and pulled out Hunter, the second dog, and the rest of the team, I would probably have been there yet. Emmet avoided that hole, but broke through in another up to his waist. We were both thoroughly wet and the dogs were incased in ice, biting at their feet to get it off. If we did not act quickly, we would be frozen to death in a few minutes.
Fortunately for us, I spied a dry tree leaning over the river, as if it had been put there by Providence. Shouting to Emmet to start chopping the tree, as he was the least wet, I drove the team ahead, breaking through the ice as I went, and began turning the dogs loose from their harness, jumping in the water meanwhile to keep from freezing stiff. I got two candles from the sled and lighted them with matches we carried in a shotgun cartridge case to keep them dry.
Emmet grabbed a double-bitted axe and went for the tree, but on raising it for the first stroke, the axe handle broke in two from brittleness caused by the intense cold. Emmet was now beginning to freeze. I told him to jump in the water while I tackled the tree. After having chopped it about half through, my axe handle broke. Things looked bad. I had a little tin of kerosene, but that had frozen. We had placed the lighted candles in a sheltered place and warmed our hands over them, because if our hands became stiff we would be unable to light the matches. I jumped back in the water, as Emmet came up with his second axe, with which he got the tree down, stripping off the branches in a second, and setting them ablaze.
In the meantime, three of his dogs had chewed through the traces and gotten loose before I had been able to let them out. But in a moment we had a roaring fire, and everything was changed. Before long, I had a fine meal ready.
Within a few hours we had dried everything, repaired the harnesses where the dogs had chewed through, and prepared the dogfood of equal parts of bacon, rice, and king salmon. I always carried the best food obtainable for the dogs and fed them in individual dishes so as not to lose any of the substance in the snow and ice. Each dog was trained to come to his own dish, while I stood over them with a twenty-foot whip, ready to pounce on any animal that tried to steal his neighbor’s food or make trouble.
We whittled out a couple of new axe handles from spruce wood, and started out again next morning. There was a mail station somewhere in the vicinity, and we expected to meet the mail carrier coming north from Valdez at any time. We should have met him the day before, but I figured he had been delayed. Soon I could see by the action of my lead dog that he smelled a habitation. It is remarkable how these animals show by their actions what lies ahead of them. We were running along at the base of a steep bank when I noticed ahead of us a place where a sled had evidently broken into the ice.