Rex the Blizzard King: Truckee’s Canine Superhero, Part II

By Mark McLaughlin · 

Read Part I at TheTahoeWeekly.com

Many Americans are familiar with Hollywood’s version of heroic dogs — canine superstars such as Lassie and Rin Tin Tin — but few have heard of Rex, “The Blizzard King.” Rex was the real McCoy and he played an important role in critical search and rescue operations near Truckee and Donner Pass.

Trainer Lloyd Van Sickle and Rex. | Courtesy Jim Cheskawich

In Part I of this story, readers learned that Rex, a purebred Siberian Samoyed, appeared in movies and competed in competitive dog shows. But there was much more to Rex than acting roles and genetic breeding lines. As a young puppy, Rex appeared long-legged and gangly and ill suited as a show dog by the Sacramento kennel where he was raised.

While still a juvenile, he was loaned to Lloyd Van Sickle in Idaho for training as a work dog, pulling sleds and delivering mail. The 64-mile mail run from Ashton, Idaho, to West Yellowstone Ranger Station was known for severe winter weather, but Rex rarely faltered. Van Sickle always said that after 20 years training dogs, Rex was the best dog to break trail in virgin snow. Later, Van Sickle moved to Truckee to get involved in dog racing, bringing Rex and other dogs with him.

Rex weighed about 70 pounds, but … he broke
the world record for weight pulling at a contest
with a pull of 1,870 pounds.

For many winters, Van Sickle kenneled his team of sled dogs at Truckee’s Hilltop Lodge. Strong and intelligent, Rex was Van Sickle’s premier lead dog. By 1949, Van Sickle’s team was dominating the Truckee-Tahoe racing circuit and had even become national champions. Van Sickle and his dogs were more than local celebrities; the team was always on call during winter emergencies. Rex led most of these rescue operations, and over the years displayed such unerring skill and determination negotiating drifts and blizzards that he earned the moniker “Blizzard King.”

In February 1949, Van Sickle and Rex made national news when a plane flying from Sacramento to Reno went down with engine trouble near Truckee’s snow-covered emergency airport. The small charter plane had crash-landed and flipped over with four people inside. When a tractor sent to aid them got bogged down in snow, the call went out for Van Sickle.

He later recounted the effort in a letter: “I started out at 10 o’clock at night in pitch dark and it was 18 degrees below zero. There was no trail and I just had a general idea of the direction to go. But I put Rex on lead and we made it there in good time although I couldn’t see the dogs.”

The injured passengers and pilot were all sledded out to a waiting ambulance. Later the rescue operation was mentioned by the legendary radio broadcaster Lowell Thomas on his national newscast. The media loved this story and several magazines ran articles illustrated with photographs of Samoyeds. Later that summer, Rex performed in front of 10,000 people at the Western Sportsman Show in Los Angeles, pulling a sled on wheels around the arena.

Over the next few years, Rex was everywhere in his role as leader of Van Sickle’s sled team. They participated in racing competitions in Truckee and in parades across California and Nevada. In 1950, the dogs attended the University of California, Berkeley’s homecoming parade where the Samoyeds were a big hit with the students. Van Sickle’s sled on wheels carried “Oski” (Cal’s Golden Bear mascot) as Rex’s team trotted along, leading the marching band to a football rally at the Greek Theatre.

Things got more serious in January 1952 when a series of powerful storms slammed the Donner Pass region. Blizzard conditions piled drifts higher and higher in the Tahoe Sierra. People were snowbound in their cabins and even a passenger train became trapped near Yuba Gap. While the storm raged in the mountains, Rex was being exhibited by his owner, Mrs. Mason, at a dog show in San Francisco. In Truckee, Van Sickle heard that his services were needed for rescue operations so he called Mrs. Mason and asked her to release Rex from the show.

Rex and another dog were flown to Truckee during a break in the weather. They were quickly put to work rescuing a caretaker and his crippled wife from their buried cabin near Donner Pass where they had been holed up for a month. Referring to Rex’s dual roles, an April 1952 article in Western Kennel World observed: “This change from life as successful show dogs to actual rescue work is another proof of the versatility of the Samoyed.”

After the rescues were complete, Rex was returned to San Francisco where he competed in the Golden Gate Show. One week later, the luxury streamliner, “City of San Francisco,” became trapped with 226 passengers and crew on board. The lead engines had rammed into an avalanche across the tracks near Yuba Gap nearly 20 miles west of Donner Pass. Authorities notified Van Sickle that his team was needed to transport a doctor from Truckee to the stranded train. Once again, the canine judging officials had to bend the rules and release the “Blizzard King” so he could be flown to Truckee for a rescue operation.

In short order, Van Sickle had the dog team rigged with Rex at lead and Truckee’s Dr. Nelson stowed safely on the sled. This wasn’t the first time Dr. Nelson had ridden with Van Sickle and Rex in a rescue effort so he hung on tight. As they approached the stranded train, the sled had to be tilted on its side to keep from going over a steep embankment and to slow its downward approach to the train. Despite the risk, Rex safely delivered Doc Nelson to the train where he began administering to sick and injured passengers.

Rex weighed about 70 pounds, but two years later he broke the world record for weight pulling at a contest with a pull of 1,870 pounds. Yes, Rex the Blizzard King was strong, but as one observer said, “Rex was five pounds of bones and hair, the rest was all heart.”

This canine hero’s spirit may still be with us, if you believe the reports that there have been appearances at Hilltop Lodge (now Cottonwood Restaurant) of “a white dog and a white-haired man who appear at night then move through walls and disappear.”

Special thanks to Jim Cheskawich for his photos.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books, including his new book “Snowbound! Legendary Winters of the Tahoe Sierra,” are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

Join Mark McLaughlin for a talk on Tahoe ski history
Jan. 4 & 11 | 5 p.m.
The Chateau | Incline Village, Nev.
See the Events calendar for details

 

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Mark McLaughlin
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.