Canine Adventures in the Tahoe Sierra, Part II

Thula Geelan with her best dog Jack, circa 1929. | Mark McLaughlin

The Tahoe Sierra is a dog’s paradise, known for its crisp air, wide-open spaces, clean water and stimulating snowfall. For more than 150 years, canine superstars have accomplished many impressive achievements in this region, including mountain transportation, search-and-rescue missions and in exhilarating sports such as sled dog racing.

Read Part I. Click on History under Explore Tahoe
Read more about Rex the Blizzard King

In the decades before World War II, Truckee thrived as the sled dog racing capital of the United States, attracting thousands of spectators each winter. Dog mushers traveled from as far away as Montana, Canada and Alaska to compete for cash awards and the prestigious national title.

In 1915, John “Iron Man” Johnson, a legendary Finnish musher, arrived in Truckee with his dog team. Johnson had won the punishing five-day, 408-mile All-Alaska Sweepstakes in 1910 and 1914. His 1910 time of less than 75 hours set the speed record for that era. Johnson had been invited to participate in an exhibition sled dog race from downtown Truckee to Donner Lake and back. Among the throngs of spectators and fans in attendance for this highly publicized event was the author Jack London. Three sleds competed in the sprint, including Alaskan Bill Brady with his Malamute dog team and Ed Parker with Huskies in the harness. This first race in the contiguous 48 states was easily won by Iron Man Johnson and his fleet-footed Siberian wolves.

Dog sledding quickly became a popular winter activity and sport in the mountainous West. In the late 1920s, civic boosters hosted a race along the Truckee River from Truckee to Tahoe City and back again. The event was won by Fred Prince with a team of Irish Setters.

Men dominated sled dog racing until 1928 when Thula Geelan entered the Sierra Dog Derby. Geelan, from McCall, Idaho, was North America’s first woman to match her skills and endurance against men in the international professional sled dog-racing circuit. In 1931, with her best dog Jack in the lead, she won the derby by beating seven men, among them some of the most noted drivers in the world. The 60-mile competition was held during a raging Sierra snowstorm, but Geelan and her energetic Irish Setters finished in less than 6 hours, winning the $1,000 prize. The following year, Geelan set a new record in Idaho when she was victorious in a 25-mile sprint race, crossing the finish line in just 1 hour and 35 minutes, bringing in her sled 1 mile ahead of the nearest competitor.

In 1929, another legendary musher arrived in Truckee with his Huskies. The famed North Country frontiersman Scotty Allan was in town to race and to film scenes for a movie shooting that week at Soda Springs near Donner Pass. Born in 1867 in Scotland, Alexander “Scotty” Allan, moved to Alaska after the Klondike gold discovery where he began breeding and training sled dogs. Scotty lived the life of an adventurer, champion racer, breeder and a man whose exploits aroused excitement about running dogs, not only as a means of transportation or moving freight, but as a recreational sport. Scotty’s favorite dog was Baldy, a scraggly mutt that he acquired from a young boy named Ben Edwards who was forced to sell his pet when he could no longer afford to take care of him. With Baldy in the lead harness position, over the course of a decade Scotty took first place three times in the grueling All-Alaska Sweepstakes and reached the podium eight times. Quite a feat considering that the race was held only 10 times from 1908 to 1917. It was Scotty and his trusty companion Baldy who inspired Jack London to pen his classic novel “The Call of the Wild.”

The 1929 Sierra Dog Derby and its $3,000 winning purse drew 10 sled teams with nearly 100 howling canines, along with more than 1,000 cheering spectators. Along with Allan, Fred Prince was there again with his Irish and English Setters. Covering the event were print and film newsmen from around the country. Truckee residents and businessmen proudly decorated their town with large banners stretched across streets and buildings. You may think that Freddy Prince’s Irish Setters might look comical in a sled dog race, but the team took first place again, “kicking snow on Scotty’s Alaskan team all the way.”

Rex the Blizzard King

When it comes to canine superheroes in the Tahoe Sierra, Rex is probably the most famous dog you’ve never heard of. Rex was a Samoyed known for more than 30 mountain rescues during his lifetime, including a remarkable effort in January 1952 to deliver a Truckee doctor along with food and medicine to 226 passengers and crew trapped in a snowbound train west of Donner Pass. His exceptional endurance and uncanny ability to forge ahead on stormy missions despite shape-shifting drifts and blinding snow earned him the moniker: “The Blizzard King.”

Rex’s trainer, Lloyd Van Sickle, moved to Truckee from Idaho to get involved in sled racing, bringing Rex with him. For many winters, Van Sickle kenneled his teams at Truckee’s Hilltop Lodge. Strong and intelligent, Rex was Van Sickle’s premier lead dog. By 1949, the team was dominating the Truckee-Tahoe racing circuit and even became national champions. Van Sickle and his dogs were more than local celebrities; the team was always on call during winter emergencies, ready to help whether it was a crashed plane or people stranded in their home or automobile.

Rex weighed about 70 pounds, but in 1954 he set a new world record for weight pulling at a contest in Montana, with a solo pull of 1,870 pounds. Yes, Rex the Blizzard King was strong, but as one observer noted, “He 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 reports that there have been recent appearances at Hilltop Lodge of “a white dog and a white-haired man who appear at night then move through walls and disappear.”