The following was originally published in 1991 by The Western Producer, a Canadian agricultural publication. It was brought to the Times by Birch Island resident Shannon Allen, the daughter of the author Cecille Carroll. An editor’s note at the beginning of the two-part series reads: The following story details the dog sled trek of Sammy and Paddy Carroll through Canada and the United States during the Depression. It is retold by their daughter, Cecille Carroll.
On March 7, 1936, while winter still locked the desolate wilderness in its grip, Sammy and Paddy Carroll set out on a transcontinental dog team trek to see Canada and the United States.
Their sleigh dogs were five enormous animals whose lineage was part Saint Bernard, part husky and part wolf. They were Old Wolf, the lead dog, two-and-a-half-year-old Tamarac, T-Bone, Scuffles, Ikey and Spareribs, used when one of the others got tired. Eight-year-old Wold was the brains of the team and before the trip was over he had perfected the intricacies of the traffic lights of the big cities.
“Wolf mastered the cities’ traffic regulations in less time than it takes many automobile drivers,” read a yellowed clipping from The New York Sun, dated Tuesday, June 29, 1937. “No reigns are used for huskies. The driver directs the lead dog by word of mouth.”
The dismal depths of the Great Depression were in full swing, Paddy’s prosperous tie business had collapsed along with the stock market, and there was just nothing at which people could make a living. Even the price of fur wasn’t worth the trouble.
They were both writers and Paddy had a book of poetry out called Ditties of a Dog Musher, and they decided to mush their team of dogs from coast to coast. At first the plan was to go from Hazelton, B.C., to Halifax, but they decided to cross the Canadian border in Manitoba and changed their destination to New York instead.
With approximately 350 pounds of gear, they set off on the first 250 miles of their trip, their toughest leg of the journey. The wet, soggy snow of the Coast Range mountains was hip-deep at that time of year, and although the web-ribbed, handlebar Yukon sleigh was loaded as lightly as possible, the dogs floundered in the snow the moment their feet slid off the trail.
Their gear consisted of eiderdown sleeping bags, a 30-30 rifle, cooking utensils, a fly tent and moccasins for the dogs. Their grubstake was a meagre supply of rice, flour, beans, bacon and tea and a little salt and sugar. Just enough to see them through to civilization. Dried fish and moose meat were the team’s main staples and were supplemented by fresh wild game shot en route. Once they reached the Cariboo, they bought food for the dogs for the rest of the trip, although butcher shops often made donations.
Paddy laboriously broke a snowshoe trail ahead of the team and the group trudged on. As the sleigh sunk down in the deep snow, the dogs who strained valiantly at harness had to be helped.
One still, starry night, as they camped exhausted under a spruce tree, they wolfed down their bannock and beans in anticipation of how good the sleeping bag would feel. But a pack of hungry and ill-humoured timber wolves seemed to arrive from nowhere. While the sleigh dogs kept up a mournful, flowing conversation with them, those enormous, wild ghost-like grey shadows eerily patrolled that moonlit, solitary camp until the break of dawn.
The heavy snow had prevented the wolves from hunting their natural prey and so they were very hungry. For several nights the same thing happened. The Carrolls had to keep a big camp fire blazing throughout the nights to ensure their safety. And of course if necessitated sleeping in shifts, which wasn’t very pleasant after rough mushing all day.
From the first light of dawn, they toiled on wearily, slowly breaking trail and helping the straining dogs. Each mile was a rewarding triumph over endurance. But when the snow-capped ranges were awash with the extravaganza of the flaming sunsets, they pitched camp with a great feeling of euphoria.
They laboured on at this slow pace day after day through the rugged, rough terrain of the Chilcotin and down through the Blackwater area. Most of the trip was on dead reckoning, for this area was seldom travelled, until they reached the Cariboo and ran out of deep snow country. Now it would be smooth sledding.
When they came out onto the main highway near Williams Lake, they were more than a week behind schedule.
From Williams Lake, they mushed down through Quesnel, hitting a more populated area, where placer mining had started to pick up once again in the gold fields.
Running out of snow just before Nelson, they renovated the dog sled, putting it on three motorcycle wheels. For effect, they left the webbed snowshoes tied to the side of the sleigh. Later, when mushing through the eastern United States, they would be asked if they were fish nets or tennis rackets.
As they laboured over the Rocky Mountains, the heat was so intense that they had to camp by day and their travelling at night. They were still able to average a speed of about 10 to 15 miles per hour, sometimes 20 miles a day in the mountains. The Carrolls never allowed the dogs to get too tired. Under ideal conditions, with well-broken snow trails and just enough frost to keep it firm, the dogs were capable of doing 30 or 40 miles a day.
Sammy started making booties for the dogs not long after the outfit reached blacktop. She would make thousands of these thimble mitten-like boots before the trip was over, often by the light of the camp fire at night.
At the Calgary Stampede on July 6, 1936, they took time off to enjoy their first really holiday since the trip began. They were asked to join in the grand parade, where they took second prize.
As they progressed slowly across the Prairies, they witnessed first-hand the devastation that had gripped the land — the impact the swirling topsoil left in its wake and the poor, desolate farmers.
The natural disaster of the eroding topsoil could not have happened at a worse time with the world flattened by the Great Depression. Sammy recalled seeing one woman, wearing only a large apron. As she backed towards her sod shack to get them some water, they learned the poor woman did not have a dress to her name. Despite the poverty, the Carrolls found that people everywhere were warm, caring and eager to help.
The trip was being financed mainly by the sale of Paddy’s little book of poetry and picture postcards of themselves and the team. The Carrolls said it was pathetic how many people would spend their last pennies on a postcard. Many times they gave cards away, especially to children.
The dogs took ill only once when they drank alkaline water in a pond in southern Saskatchewan on a scorching hot day in September. They were held up for several days, but with a veterinarian’s care and rest, the dogs recovered.
They followed a route that took them through Regina to Virden, and then south to Morden and up to Winnipeg. Their arrival on Oct. 7, 1936, was announced in the Winnipeg Free Press. Here the Tailwaggers Club donated caribou moccasins for the entire team.
Part two will appear in a future Valley Voices.