As late as the 1960s, dog sleds may in fact have carried ballots in Alaska.

Featured image: Dog sled teams resting on the Alaska Range’s south side on their way to a lumber camp. Photo: Browne Belmore (ca. 1900-1930), Library of Congress.

In the days and weeks after the November 2020 election, which now feels like a century ago (the combination of a 24-hour news cycle with a year-long pandemic certainly plays strange tricks with time), you might recall that Alaska was lampooned for taking eons to count its votes. On NBC news talk show Meet the Press, a few days before the election, political analyst Jessica Taylor suggested that it could take a while for the results of Alaska’s race for US Senator to be known. She quipped:

“This is a race that we, I think, don’t know on election night because literally they have to bring in some of the ballots by dog sled.”

Jessica Taylor, Meet the Press, October 31, 2020

Alaska’s Division of Elections quickly retorted on Twitter: “We do not bring in ballots by dog sled.”

But could dog sleds ever have carried ballots in the great state of Alaska?

When sled dog teams delivered the mail

Mail carriers and their dogs with loaded sleds in front of the Imperial Bank in Athabasca, Alberta, Canada, preparing to depart for Calling River, in 1915. Source: Alice B. Donahue Library and Archives, Athabasca University.

In previous decades, dogsleds were actually integral to delivering mail and goods to iced-in communities across Canada and Alaska. In the late nineteenth century, as gold miners poured into the northern interior and railways, roads, and telegraphs were built, demand for regular and reliable mail delivery grew. Dog teams formed an important part of the postal service’s infrastructure in the two countries’ northern territories, as William Schneider documents in his history of Alaskan dog team mail carriers.

Even in northern states in the Lower 48 like Montana and Minnesota, before climate change began warming up the prairies, dog teams delivered mail in winter over frozen rivers. John Lancaster describes of nineteenth-century Minnesota: “When the churning, frigid waters of winter no longer allowed for mail by sail, mail carriers resorted to packsack, dogsled and snowshoe.”

Dog sleds did not only carry ballots: they even carried candidates as they campaigned across the north. In November 1921, the campaign for Yukon’s sole seat in Canada’s parliament was “being run with dog sleds over the trackless white wastes of the frozen North,” according to a newspaper from the time. Liberal candidate Frederick Tennyson Congdon traveled from British Columbia up to Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse, to begin racing around the territory on a dedicated dog team on journey that was far more grueling and riskier than the whistle-stop airplane tours candidates make today. Both candidates expected to “cover hundreds of miles by sleds before the election on December 6.”

Fierce weather further complicated the running of elections in Canada in late autumn in the early 1900s. After the votes were cast in the 1921 race, storms knocked out telegraph lines across the Yukon. Alaska’s Division of Elections may jest today on Twitter, but a hundred years ago in a parliamentary race across the border in Canada, dog sleds did in fact carry the deciding votes.

In 1921, dog sleds in the Yukon did in fact carry the deciding votes. The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), December 12, 1921.

Alaska’s last sled dog mail carrier

In the 1930s, airplanes gradually began to replace sled dog mail teams. Planes were faster and cheaper than teams of voracious canines. But the time and cost savings “came at a heavy price: abandoned trails, broken connections between communities, and the loss of the steady stream of news from mail carriers,” according to Peggy Dillon in her review of Schneider’s book.

In a few places like the remote St. Lawrence Island in the middle of the Bering Strait, where archaeological evidence of domesticated dogs has been found dating back to 400-800 AD, sled dog mail carriers persisted for several decades beyond the 1930s. Although air strips were built in the island’s two largest communities of Gambell and Savoonga, frequent weather often made it impossible for planes to land. Aviation’s unreliability meant that sled dog mail service was still essential. A St. Lawrence Yupik man named Chester Tapghaghhmii Noongwook worked as the town’s trusty sled dog mail carrier, making 100-mile runs between Gambell, on the island’s northwest, and Savoonga, on the middle of the island’s northern coast.

Alaska ceased being a territory and became a state in 1959, just prior to the presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. Noongwook was still delivering mail with his sled dog team then, so it is quite possible that he and his dogs did carry some ballots for one presidential election and perhaps even many other non-federal elections before that. (Nixon, in case you were wondering, won Alaska by 1,144 votes out of a total of 60,762 votes cast.)

A few months after Kennedy declared in September 1962, “We choose to go to the moon,” the era of sled dog mail carriers in Alaska would finally come to end. As the era of animal-powered movement was coming to a close, the space race was taking off. On January 8, 1963, Noongwook made his last 100-mile mail run from Gambell to Savoonga. After the sled dog mail service ended, Noongwook went to work in the service of the very technology that had displaced his previous business, joining regional air carrier Wien and Munz.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is last-sled-dog-mail-run.jpeg
Chester Noongwook getting his sled dogs ready for their last mail run on January 8, 1963 between Gambell and Savoonga. Source: Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Ward W. Wells Collection, AMRC-wws-1867-C-82

Yet in rural Alaska—as across much of the Arctic—traditional and modern technologies continued to intersect in bewildering ways. The combustion that powered rockets to the moon, for instance, helped breathe new life into traditional practices like whaling. In 1972, a little over decade after his last mail run to Savoonga, Noongwook joined the village’s newly established whaling crew, helping to land its first-ever bowhead whale. Savoonga, which has historically hunted walrus, was able to establish a whaling crew thanks to the arrival of petroleum-powered snowmachines, which could carry the heavy skinboats needed for whaling 30 miles across the island to Pugughileq, on the southern shore. Generations ago, whaling had been carried out there, as a research article led by George Noongwook explains, but the community had long been abandoned. Snowmachines made it re-accessible and allowed the descendants of Pugughileq’s old whaling crews to revive the traditional subsistence activity of hunting cetaceans.

A legend on St. Lawrence Island, Noongwook—Yupik Elder, dog sled musher, airline employee, Alaska National Guardsman, whaler, father, grandfather and great-grandfather—passed away at the age of 87 in January of this year. With him, too, have disappeared memories of the vital role that sled dogs did in fact play in Alaska’s mail service up through the second half of the twentieth century—and likely its election logistics, too. If only Noongwook could have commented on the heated debate over whether sled dogs ever delivered ballots in Alaska, we might have learned firsthand that once, in living memory, they really may have.

Categories: USA/Alaska

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