With its wide-open spaces, clear streams and lakes, and absence of ticks and fleas, the Tahoe-Truckee region is a dog’s paradise. By the 1860s, sled dogs were common in the mountains along with horse-drawn sleighs. In the early decades of the 20th Century, Truckee thrived as the dog-sled racing capital of the United States, attracting thousands of spectators each winter.
Rex with trainer Lloyd Van Sickel. | Jim Cheskawich
Men dominated the sport until 1928 when Thula Geelan entered the Tahoe Dog Derby. Geelan was the first female to match her skills and endurance against men in the international dog-sled racing circuit. In 1931, on her third attempt, she won the Tahoe Derby beating seven men, among them the most noted drivers in the world. Geelan and her team of Irish Setters finished the 60-mile race in less than six hours, winning a $1,000 prize.
History is replete with tales of amazing canines that made their mark on the region, but one stands out above the rest. Rex of White Way was a superhero Samoyed known for more than 30 mountain rescues over his lifetime, including an impressive effort delivering a Truckee doctor to a snowbound train west of Donner Pass in January 1952. His exceptional endurance and uncanny ability to forge ahead on stormy missions earned him the moniker The Blizzard King.
The story of Rex represents the classic lesson that perseverance and hard work can overcome obstacles and lead to success. Initially, it didn’t look like Rex was going to have an exceptional life at all. A few months after he was born in 1946 at a Sacramento kennel called White Way, owners Agnes Mason and daughter, Aljean, took one look at the puppy and figured that he couldn’t be a candidate for their champion breeding program.
Rex of White Way was a superhero Samoyed known for more than 30 mountain rescues over his lifetime … His exceptional endurance and uncanny ability to forge ahead on stormy missions earned him the moniker The Blizzard King.”
According to breeding standards at the time, Rex was too tall, his thick coat too short and his legs too gangly. Agnes almost considered Rex an embarrassment to her well-respected kennel, but over time he became the top male of all American-born Samoyeds. During his life, Rex excelled in so many ways that he became the new standard for the breed. The height standard for male Samoyeds was raised 1.5 inches and 59 years after his death in 1957, the vast majority of Samoyeds in the United States can be traced genetically to Rex of White Way.
Rex wasn’t a big dog, but he had heart, keen intelligence, speed and world-class strength. Among his many exploits, Rex set a world record in weight pulling, worked on a movie set with actor John Wayne, rescued crash victims from Truckee’s airfield and won countless sled races. As an adult, Rex weighed from 62 to 70 pounds; he was exceptionally fit and had the perfect temperament to lead dogs in harness. Rex led with a bearing, strength and calmness that other team dogs recognized and respected, which minimized fights. What made Rex go? One observer said, “Rex was five pounds of bones and hair, the rest was all heart.”
Rex’s storied career in wintertime rescue operations is legendary, but search and rescue training was almost a tradition at the Mason’s White Way Kennels. During World War II, the Masons volunteered their Samoyeds for service in the U.S. Army and several dogs were trained to parachute from small aircraft for remote rescue missions. A sled rigged with a parachute was first dropped from the plane, and then the dogs, one by one, each with a chute. Once on the ground, the dogs were gathered and hitched to the sled. The military exercises demonstrated the adaptability and trainability of the Samoyed, but criticism about animal cruelty from the Samoyed Club of America forced Ms. Mason to eventually discontinue the program. It’s likely that Rex received parachute jump training, but no one knows for sure.
Lloyd Van Sickel was the chief trainer at White Way Kennels. Besides his work for the Mason’s kennel, Van Sickel owned a ranch for training and boarding dogs. Over the years, he provided dogs for the film industry, including John Wayne’s “Island in the Sky” filmed near Truckee and popular TV programs such as “Have Gun Will Travel” and “Bonanza.” Van Sickel took charge of Rex’s training when he was a pup and later moved to Truckee to get involved in dog-sled competitions.
Sled racing had enjoyed great popularity during the annual winter carnivals at Truckee, but World War II disrupted the contests. By 1949, however, the Donner Trail Association was sponsoring a team of racing dogs and challenging drivers of teams in Truckee (Van Sickel) and Tahoe City (Constable Harry Johanson). Ms. Mason had her 11 Samoyeds kenneled at the Hill Top Lodge above Truckee, along with a team of Irish Setters owned by Van Sickle.
Lloyd Van Sickle and his dogs soon became part of Truckee’s local color and from winter’s first snow could be seen mushing along the town’s icy streets. In March 1949, Van Sickle became the U.S. champion of 11-mile dog-sled racing when his team, led by Rex, 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.
Van Sickle’s location in Truckee made him the go to guy when it came to mountain rescues during winter months. Engine-powered snow cats and functional snowmobiles were still in early development and unavailable; dog sleds were the only way to get supplies in or victims out of the snowbound backcountry. Tahoe City Constable Harry Johanson had been using his own teams for search and rescue in the Lake Tahoe area.
In 1949, Rex was involved in several rescue operations and over the next few years he was credited as the sled leader to at least three airplane crashes at Truckee’s airfield where pilots and passengers were successfully rescued.
Stay tuned for Part II in the Dec. 29 edition and at TheTahoeWeekly.com.
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 [email protected] Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.