Ray Bonnell, sketches of Alaska. Daily News Miner
Adventurer Clyde “Slim” Williams moved to Alaska in 1900. According to his biography, “Alaska Sourdough,” Slim lived in the Copper River Basin in the 1930s, and one fall, while buying supplies at Copper Center, heard rumors of a Nome musher’s plan to drive a dog team from Alaska to the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.
Slim responded that his team of wolf-dog hybrids was the only one with the stamina and strength to make that trip. After a little goading, He agreed to attempt it (probably thinking that nothing would come of his bluster).
Slim’s boast became newspaper headlines, and the Alaska Road Commission’s Donald MacDonald contacted him. MacDonald was an ardent supporter of building a road from Alaska to the contiguous U.S. He believed Slim’s journey would be great publicity for the project. With MacDonald’s encouragement, Slim agreed to make the trip.
On Nov. 21, 1932, Slim left Copper Center with a loaded sled and a team of seven wolf-dog hybrids and two dogs. One dog died in the Yukon, but the other was Slim’s leader, a MacKenzie huskie named Rembrandt, who guided the team all the way to Chicago and then Washington, D.C.
Slim’s first destination was Dawson. From there, he followed the old Dominion Government Telegraph route through Whitehorse, Atlin and Telegraph Creek on his way to Hazelton in central British Columbia to connect with the continental road system.
At Carcross, southeast of Whitehorse, Slim modified his sled. Twenty-two inches wide with runners, his sled was fine for packed trails. However, from Carcross onward, he would be mostly breaking his own trail, and a sled with runners would founder. Slim discarded the runners, narrowed the sled to 16 inches (the width of a pair of snowshoes) and fitted it with a toboggan bottom so it would float over deep snow.
Slim then set off for the settlement of Telegraph Creek, at the head of navigation on the Stikine River in British Columbia. As far as Carcross, Slim had shared the hospitality of Athabascan Indians and westerners living in the region. From Carcross to Telegraph Creek visits with people were less frequent, but from Telegraph Creek to Hazelton he was alone, breaking trail for hundreds of miles along what would later become the southern corridor of the Cassiar Highway.
Slim reached the road system in BC just before breakup, and as winter warmed into spring, was forced to again modify his sled. This time, with a blacksmith’s assistance, he attached axles and a set of Model T wheels.
With wheels in place, he and his team crossed into the U.S., and continued toward Chicago. As spring turned towards summer, he switched to traveling at night to keep his team cool. Slim worried about his rig being seen in the dark, but was assured by a passing motorist that the light from headlights reflected in 16 canine eyes gyrating along the side of the road was enough to force any driver to proceed cautiously.
Slim finally arrived in Chicago on Sept. 16, 1933, almost 10 months after leaving Copper Center. After a short stay, he drove his dogs on to Washington, D.C. to meet with government representatives, including President Roosevelt. He then returned to Chicago for the duration of the Century of Progress Exposition as part of the Alaska exhibit. Helen Hegener’s book, “Alaska Sled Dog Tales,” states that Slim’s dogteam traversed more than 5,600 miles during its odyssey.
Later, Slim toured the United States as a public speaker. In 1939, he repeated his Alaska-Lower 48 adventure — this time via motorcycle. His sled, minus its wheels, is now on exhibit at the Knik Museum, south of Wasilla.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident.