The Blizzard King: Rex of White Way took to the Truckee hills
Special to the Sun
TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8212; Results from this winter’s March 1 snow survey verified the water content in California’s mountain snowpack is still well above average despite a very dry January and first half of February. Recent storms contributed materially to our regional snowpack here in the Central Sierra and water content is currently running at 121 percent of normal for the date. We’re still on target for a healthy runoff this spring.
The town of Truckee is probably best known for its railroad, logging, and winter sports history, but most people don’t know during the 20th century, dog sled racing was a major tourist attraction. The races generated big crowds and drew luminaries like novelist Jack London, author of and#8220;Call of the Wildand#8221; and and#8220;White Fang.and#8221;
Rex of White Way is probably the most famous dog you never heard about. Rex was a super hero Samoyed canine known for more than 30 mountain rescues during his lifetime, including an impressive effort delivering a Truckee doctor to a snowbound train west of Donner Pass in January 1952. His exceptional endurance and uncanny ability to forge ahead on his stormy missions despite deep drifts and blinding snow earned him the moniker and#8212; Rex, and#8220;The Blizzard King.and#8221;
Initially Rex didn’t impress anybody. A few months after he was born in 1946 at the Sacramento-based White Way Kennels, owner Agnes Mason took one look at the puppy and figured he couldn’t be a candidate for their champion breeding program. Rex was too tall, his thick coat too short and his legs too gangly. Agnes almost considered Rex an embarrassment to her well-respected kennel, but over time he became the top male of all American-born Samoyeds through his breedings and offspring.
Rex wasn’t a big dog, but he had heart, intelligence, speed, and world-class strength. Among his many exploits Rex set a world record in weight pulling for a pure bred dog, worked on a movie set with actor John Wayne, rescued crash victims from Truckee’s airfield, and won countless sled races. As an adult Rex weighed from 62 to 70 pounds; he was exceptionally fit and had the perfect temperament to lead dogs in harness. Rex led with a bearing, strength and calmness other team dogs recognized and respected, which minimized fights. What made Rex go? One observer said, and#8220;Rex was five pounds of bones and hair, the rest was all heart.and#8221;
Lloyd Van Sickel, the chief trainer at White Way Kennels, believed Samoyeds were far easier to break in to sled and stunt work than other breeds. Van Sickel personally took charge of Rex’s training in the spring of 1947 and later moved to Truckee to get involved in sled dog racing. Sled racing had enjoyed popularity during the early 20th century Winter Carnivals at Truckee, but World War II disrupted the contests. By the winter of 1949, however, the Donner Trail Association was sponsoring a team of racing dogs and challenging others. Mrs. Mason had 11 Samoyeds kenneled at the Hill Top Lodge above Truckee, along with a team of Irish Setters owned by Van Sickle.
Lloyd Van Sickle and his dogs soon became part of Truckee’s local color and from winter’s first snow could be seen daily, mushing along the town’s icy streets. Van Sickle’s location in Truckee made him the and#8220;go to guyand#8221; when it came to mountain rescues during the winter months. Engine-powered snow cats and snowmobiles were still in early development; dog sleds were the only way to get supplies in or victims out of the snowbound backcountry.
Stay tuned for more on Rex’s heroic feats in my next column.
Special thanks to author Jim Cheskawich and film director Michael Kanyon who are producing a documentary based on the accomplishments of Rex.
and#8212; Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at http://www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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