Robert E. Peary was an American explorer who for many years was believed to be the first person to reach the North Pole, on April 6, 1909. A U.S. Navy admiral, Peary was granted leave to pursue exploration of the land to the north of the United States and the Canadian territories.
In the late 1800s, Peary made numerous trips to the Arctic, exploring Greenland in 1886, 1891, 1892 and 1902 by dog sled. He made treks across the frozen Arctic Ocean in 1905-1906 and in 1908 and ’09, using a specially outfitted ship and dog teams, the last trip when he claimed to have reached the North Pole.
Whether or not he actually reached the specific point he believed he had – there is conjecture today that he may have miscalculated by as much as 3,000 miles – Peary became a master at navigating and surviving in the harsh terrain of the frozen North. He relied on the native Inuit of the region to drive dog teams, and he also made practical use of the Inuit way of life, which for the explorer became a means of survival in the Arctic climate. He was quoted as saying that without the sled dogs that hauled essential supplies, he would never have reached the North Pole.
The lead dog from Peary’s 1909 expedition was a dog called Polaris, identified as a “Greenland husky.” When Peary returned to the United States from his final expedition, Polaris accompanied him, and eventually sired puppies. It was one of his granddaughters that is said to have spawned a breed that is soon to become recognized by the American Kennel Club, more than 100 years later.
Author Mark Derr, in his book, “A Dog’s History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent,” describes how, in 1928, Adm. Richard Evelyn Byrd put together an expedition to Antarctica. “Following Admundsen’s advice to take ‘lots of dogs,’ Byrd packed on his ship ninety-four, seventy-eight of them ‘Greenland huskies’ from kennels in Labrador ‘of the breed and blood with which some of the greatest marches in the polar regions have been made.’ He also took sixteen ‘Chinook’ dogs, from the Wonalancet, New Hampshire, kennel of Arthur T. Walden, ‘heavy draught animals, of his own breed, with a splendid record in transport.’”
Derr also writes, “Walden had created his Chinooks by crossing a Saint Bernard with a ‘Greenland husky’ he had obtained in Alaska, reportedly a granddaughter of ‘Polaris,’ Robert Peary’s lead sled dog. He then crossed that dog to German and Belgian shepherds and appears to have used them primarily in local New England events.”
Walden is credited with creating the American sled dog known as the Chinook. As a young man, Walden ventured from the Eastern seaboard of the United States to Alaska, where he became part of the Klondike Gold Rush, when as many as 100,000 people are said to have traveled to the Yukon in northwestern Canada after gold was discovered there in August of 1896. The Klondike region was remote, marked by extreme winters, and prospectors had to travel long distances through mountains to reach the area. Walden is said to have learned to drive sled dogs during this time in his life, using mixed-breed dogs. He carried supplies and freight for the gold prospectors and delivered mail. One husky, named Chinook, was a particular favorite and a dog that Walden remembered long after he left Alaska.
When Walden resettled in New Hampshire with his wife some years later, he began to breed and train sled dogs with an eye toward creating a new breed. Walden is said to have bred Ningo, the granddaughter of Peary’s sled dog that he had acquired while in Alaska, to a large yellow mastiff-type dog, which resulted in three puppies. One he later named Chinook, which in Inuit means “warm west wind,” after the dog that had so impressed him in Alaska and the Yukon.
As the males grew, Walden began training them for sledding. All were competent at the task, but as they matured and he tried each in the lead position, it was Chinook that became the ideal lead dog. He would become Walden’s most trusted lead dog and the foundation sire of his line of sled dogs. Walden bred him to two shepherd-mix females on the farm and kept the ones that had the ideal sled dog characteristics of their sire, including his intelligence and trail sense. Chinook’s offspring became the foundation of the breed that today bears his name.
Walden promoted his dog teams to logging companies in the East as a faster, more economical method of moving equipment and supplies to their camps. In 1922 he persuaded the Brown Paper Company of New Hampshire to sponsor a three-day,123-mile sled dog race as a way to encourage others in the region to breed high-quality sled dogs. Four teams, two from the U.S. and two from Canada, entered the race. Although Walden’s team won the race, with Chinook in the lead, it was here that he realized that a dog of lighter weight than Chinook’s 100 pounds of hard, muscled condition would be faster as part of a race team. Now his goal became to breed dogs that were as intelligent and trail savvy as Chinook, but of lighter weight.
Walden continued to promote the sport of sled dog racing and founded the New England Sled Dog Club, which is still in existence today. When Walden heard that Rear Adm. Richard Byrd had plans for what was then called the “million dollar expedition” to the South Pole, which involved exploration and mapping using both ship and air power, he applied to join. After meeting with Byrd, he became the trainer and lead driver of the expedition’s dog teams. He trained three other drivers and 97 dogs for a year at his farm in Wonalancet, N.H., before leaving home to begin the Antarctic adventure.
On Christmas Day in 1928, the expedition landed on the Ross Ice Shelf off the coast of Antarctica, and for the next three months, in the harshest conditions, the sled drivers and dogs moved a reported 650 tons of supplies, equipment and gear from the ships to a base camp eight miles inland. In his book, “Little America,” Byrd wrote: “Had it not been for the dogs, our attempts to conquer the Antarctic … must have ended in failure. On January 17th, Walden’s single team of thirteen dogs moves 3,500 pounds of supplies from ship to base, a distance of 16 miles each trip, in two journeys. Walden’s team was the backbone of our transport. Seeing him rush his heavy loads along the trail, outstripping the younger men, it was difficult to believe that he was an old man. He was 58 years old, but he had the determination and strength of youth.”
Sadly Chinook, who by then was almost 12 years old, was lost during the South Pole expedition. When members of the Byrd expedition returned home in 1930, they found the country in the midst of the Great Depression. Walden discovered that his wife had been ill and part of his farm had been sold. He was without financial means. Julia Lombard, a neighbor to whom Walden had given “a few choice puppies” in the years prior to leaving for the expedition, bought the Chinook dogs that were left, hired Walden as her kennel manager, and together the two continued to breed and race them. When the time came for Lombard to turn the breeding of the Chinooks over to someone else, she selected a gentleman named Perry Greene.
Greene purchased the Chinook breeding stock, reportedly 20 dogs and five sleds, from Lombard in 1940, and moved them to Maine, where he and his wife built a kennel and home. Greene, promoting the dogs more as the ideal companion dog rather than sled dogs, allowed others to purchase Chinooks as house pets, but he only sold males and females that were spayed, and thus he became the only breeder of Chinooks in existence.
Two years after Greene passed away in 1963, the “Guiness Book of World Records” called the Chinook the rarest dog in the world. By 1981 only 11 breedable Chinook remained, all of them at the Sukee Kennel in Maine. A woman who worked there named Kathy Adams was trying to save the breed, and eventually she was joined by Neil and Marra Wollpert from Ohio, and Peter Abrahams of California. The 11 remaining Chinook were divided among the three locations, and their numbers slowly began to increase again.
Other admirers of the breed joined in, and by 1990 the Chinook population had grown to 140. In 1991 the breed was recognized by the United Kennel Club. In 2001 the breed was added to AKC’s Foundation Stock Service, and as of August 2009 there were 638 Chinooks registered with the AKC FSS. The Chinook Club of America is today a partner with the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) with 75 Chinooks in the database.
Today’s Chinook combines “the power of freighting breeds with the speed of the lighter racing sled dogs,” according to the AKC breed standard. The ideal male is 24 to 26 inches tall, females 22 to 24. In proportion, they are slightly longer than tall, and “of moderate bone.” The ideal Chinook should be athletic, in good muscular condition, with good reach and drive in motion and a “seemingly tireless gait,” as one would expect from a dog bred to pull a sled over long distances.
The Chinook’s broad, wedge-shaped head bears an intelligent and kind expression, with medium-sized, almond-shaped eyes surrounded by dark markings. A dark “apostrophe shape” at the inner corner of each eye is preferred. Ears, set near the top of the skull, may be drop, prick or propeller – which will retain a fold when at attention – but dropped ears are preferred. The muzzle, which tapers to a blunt wedge, is shorter than the skull, with a ratio of 2:3.
Chinooks carry a thick, close-fitting coat that, in its tawny coloring, is a distinguishing characteristic of the breed. The standard says the coat can range in color from “pale honey to a deep reddish-gold.” The coat forms a ruff about the neck. The back is straight and strong with a slight arch over the loin.
The chest of the Chinook is moderately broad with a prominent prosternum, and the brisket reaches to, or nearly to, the elbows. The ribcage is oval and well-sprung, the underline has a moderate tuck-up, and the croup is slightly sloping. The tail, a saber, is set just below the level of the topline. Thicker at the base, it tapers to the end and has a moderate fringe, and should reach the hock in repose. When moving, the tail is carried in a sickle shape.
The Chinook is built to do the job that its predecessors did on the South Pole expedition more than 80 years ago, but the breed also retains the temperament that makes it an ideal family pet. The breed standard says that he is “an affectionate and playful family companion with a special devotion toward children.” Naturally they are willing workers, and the Chinook is also intelligent, “eager to please, enthusiastic to learn, highly trainable … and versatile in his abilities.” As they are bred to work in packs, the breed naturally gets along well with other dogs, and although they may be somewhat reserved with human strangers, they should never be shy or aggressive.
The Chinook becomes eligible to compete in the Working Group at AKC conformation shows on January 1, 2013. To learn more about this North American breed, visit the Chinook Club of America or the Chinook pages on the American Kennel Club website.