How Chinook, a Wonalancet Sled Dog, Became a Breed Loved Worldwide

The story of how a local oddity became a favorite of dog enthusiasts starts in Tamworth, specifically the sleepy little hamlet of Wonalancet, that Arthur Walden and his trusted Chinook called home.

In 1920, a man by the name of Arthur Walden debuted a new line of sled dogs at the winter carnival in Gorham, New Hampshire. The “husky half-breds,” as he called them, made an immediate impression on the crowd for their good trail sense and ability to pull a fully laden sled. In the lead was Chinook, a large, tawny-colored dog Walden had marked out for his strength and intelligence.

He didn’t know it then, but Chinook would become the father of a long line of sled dogs—and a breed bearing his name—that would go down in New Hampshire history as the state’s own contribution to the sport. The story of how a local oddity became a favorite of dog enthusiasts starts in Tamworth, specifically the sleepy little hamlet of Wonalancet that Walden and his trusted Chinook called home.

The Beginning

Arthur Walden, the son of a Boston minister, came to Wonalancet in the late 1800s to work as farm manager on Katherine Sleeper’s Wonalancet Farm. An adventurer and entrepreneur, he headed west to Alaska in 1896 to work in the gold rushes, where he learned to drive sled dogs across the frozen wilderness. When he returned, he and Sleeper married and took up sled dog breeding along with running their farm and inn.

The dogs that would become Chinook’s parents came to Walden via the Boston and Maine Railroad’s Whittier Station, which still survives today near the intersection of Route 41 and Route 16. Chinook’s mother, a Greenland husky, was descended from one of the sled dogs on Admiral Robert Peary’s 1909 North Pole expedition, offering a hint of the adventures her offspring would have later in life. His father was a mixed breed of unknown parentage, though accounts describe him as similar to a mastiff or St. Bernard. On January 17, 1917, the husky gave birth to a litter of seven puppies, including Chinook, the beginning of Walden’s famous sled dog team.

Early on, Walden realized the breed’s potential as both a sled dog and a family companion. Breeding Chinook to German shepherds, Canadian Eskimo dogs, and other working breeds, he created a team strong enough to haul freight but gentle enough to be around children. The combination allowed Walden to promote the breed as a working dog while also introducing them to guests at the Wonalancet Inn.

“You wanted a dog who could pull your hotel guests and then at night, sit by the fire and listen to Walden play music and tell stories,” said Bob Cottrell, historian for the Chinook Owners Association and curator of the Henney History Room at the Conway Public Library.

Cottrell, a former Chinook owner whose own dog died last year, described Walden as a P.T. Barnum-type character who never missed an opportunity to market the new breed. It wasn’t long before Walden was entering his Chinook team in sled dog races around New England, founding many of them himself. In 1922, the first international sled dog race from Berlin, New Hampshire, to Canada made headlines around the country, with Walden’s dogs, led by Chinook, plastered across the pages as first-place winner.

In 1927, Siberian husky breeder Leonhard Seppala and Walden raced their teams at Poland Spring, Maine. Walden underestimated the speed of the smaller huskies, who beat his Chinooks by a full seven minutes. The event proved Chinooks were not the fastest sled dogs around, but they continued to be a much-loved breed due in part to Walden’s promotion in Tamworth and beyond.

“You wanted a dog who could pull your hotel guests and then at night, sit by the fire and listen to Walden play music and tell stories,” said Bob Cottrell, historian for the Chinook Owners Association and curator of the Henney History Room at the Conway Public Library.

 

Journey to the South Pole

In 1928, Walden and his dogs joined Admiral Richard Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole, with Walden serving as lead dog driver for 100 or more dogs. Through the winter, teams assembled in Tamworth to train in the fields near Wonalancet Inn, where recreational sled dog racers still practice today. Newspapers around the country featured shots of the teams training on handmade sled gear, much of it created by workers in the Tamworth area.

The teams left Whittier Station on September 14, 1928. During the expedition, which lasted two years, Chinook was lost and never seen again. Walden told newspaper reporters the great lead dog had wandered off after losing a fight to a younger dog, though Cottrell cautions all the stories from the time should be taken with a grain of salt.

“Walden was never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story,” he said.

The State Dog of New Hampshire

In 2008, the seventh-grade class at Roth Lurgio Middle School in Bedford started a campaign to make the Chinook the state dog of New Hampshire. Jen Johnson Wells, their teacher, had been a Chinook owner since 2003, and the students fell in love with the dogs when she brought them to school events. At the time, 12 other states had official state dogs, most of them without the strong ties the Chinook has to New Hampshire.

The following spring, a bill sponsored by then-Senator Sheila Roberge made it to the state legislature. Johnson Wells and her students attended the committee hearing to make the case for the Chinook. After unanimous votes by the committee and full Senate, the bill moved to the House, where the entire 100-member class came to watch the vote. After voting in favor of the bill, House members turned to recognize the students in the viewing gallery.

“They all stood up and turned around and gave the kids a standing ovation, which was amazing to see,” recalled Johnson Wells.

In June 2019, then-Governor John Lynch came to Roth Lurgio Middle School to sign the bill into law. While there, he got to meet a Chinook—and many excited students.

Decline and Revival

With his lead dog gone, Walden turned to building up and promoting the breed from Chinook’s offspring. Upon returning from Antarctica, he sold the Chinook Kennels name to Milton and Eva “Short” Seeley, who continued to breed huskies and Alaskan malamutes in Wonalancet. The remainder of the breeding stock went to Julia Lombard’s Wonalancet-Hubbard Kennels, where Walden served as kennel director. Eventually, Lombard sold the line to outdoorsman Perry Greene, who moved the breed to Maine.

Karen Hinchy, a New Jersey-based breeder who’s studied the Chinook’s genetic history, described how the breeding policies of the time kept the dogs from spreading and multiplying. Greene, and to some extent Walden and Lombard, were famous for only selling spayed females to prevent others from breeding their own Chinooks. This meant that as time went on, the breed began to dwindle and lacked the genetic diversity now known to increase a dog’s health. In the 1960s, Guinness World Records named the Chinook the rarest dog in the world, and by the 1980s there were only a handful of Chinooks left.

“Without them publicizing, certainly they would’ve had a few generations of lovely companion dogs and that would’ve been the end of it,” said Hinchy.

In 1981, a group of Chinook owners stepped in to implement a new breeding program and save the dog from extinction. Since then, the number of dogs has continued to rise, though they still suffer from the results of inbreeding. In the 1990s, at the recommendation of scientists, Chinook owners began a program of crossbreeding with malamutes, huskies, and other sled dogs in order to maintain the breed’s health. Today, Hinchy is one of several breeders who participates in a similar program overseen by the Chinook Owners Association (COA).

“The good news is Chinooks have been kept out of puppy mills,” she said. “We don’t have anyone looking at Chinooks that have 30 or 40 dogs in a dog yard. So we really rely on people who aren’t necessarily breeders to not neuter a male dog and be open to breeding down the road.”

25th- anniversary Chinook Winter Carnival

Feb 22-23, 2020    Tamworth History Center

The Chinook Owner’s Association is celebrating the 25th anniversary of this event and all are welcome!

New England Sled Dog Club

In 1924, a group of local sled dog enthusiasts gathered at the Wonalancet Farm and Inn in the first meeting of what would become the New England Sled Dog Club. Arthur Walden was chosen as the first president.

The club began hosting races throughout New England, a tradition that continues today. One of the more popular events is the annual race on Chocorua Lake. Co-sponsored by the Tamworth Outing Club, the event traces its roots to 1937 and is considered one of the longest-running sprint races in the world. Conditions permitting, mushers and their dogs take to the frozen lake in early winter to test their skills in sled racing and skijoring against the backdrop of Mount Chocorua.

This year’s event has been rescheduled from Saturday, January 25 and Sunday, January 26 to February 29 – March 1, weather permitting. Admission is free for spectators.

For updated schedules and weather conditions, visit www.nesdc.org.

Coming Home to Tamworth

Today, Chinooks are famous as both sled dogs and household companions. Though some owners are local to the area and familiar with the breed’s history, most stumble across them online, where search engines recommend them as active dogs that also enjoy down time. Hinchy made the find in 2004 while searching for a dog similar to a husky, but without the same boundless energy. Shortly after, she drove up to New Hampshire for an annual gathering of Chinook owners and visited the Wonalancet sites tied into Chinook history.

“It’s actually the first time I had ever been to New Hampshire, and I just fell in love with the White Mountains and the scenery,” she said.

A few years later, she purchased a second home on Chinook Trail, the same road where Walden once ran his kennel. Now, she and her dogs spend their vacations in Tamworth and have become part of the town’s Chinook heritage.

She’s not the only one whose dogs introduced her to the White Mountains. Kim Kramer, another who also lives in New Jersey, had a similar experience of buying property in Tamworth after driving up for Chinook events. The community, Kramer said, is very tight knit, and owners make regular pilgrimages to Wonalancet to meet other owners and revisit the breed’s history. In 2017, Chinooks and their owners gathered on the shores of Lake Ossipee to celebrate the 100th birthday of the original Chinook.

“We were blessed with good snow and great weather and I think we had, across the day, 50 dogs and 80 humans,” she said. “It was just a cool time to be there with all these people who had all of these different interests.”

Kramer is a past treasurer of the Chinook Owners Association, one of two parent clubs for the breed. The COA is associated with the United Kennel Club, which recognized the Chinook as an independent breed in 1991. In 2013, the American Kennel Club also recognized the breed, using the Chinook Club of America as its parent affiliation. The two clubs have slightly different standards for the breed, mostly related to the color of a Chinook’s coat, but both are devoted to maintaining the breed’s culture and history.

“It really is like a family,” said Kramer. “Families have squabbles, and we have squabbles occasionally because we feel really passionately that we want the best for this breed.”

Every year, the Remick Country Doctor Museum & Farm hosts a winter carnival that includes a showcase of Chinooks. Last February, Laurel Wilkinson and Patrick Phillips, two Chinook owners who lived on Martha’s Vineyard at the time, traveled to Tamworth to participate in the event with their dog, Rhea. The couple had been looking to open a climate-focused farm and guesthouse and were instantly struck by the countryside surrounding Tamworth village. In September, they moved to a historic farm on Cleveland Hill Road, opening their property—called The Long View—to guests in December of this year.

Every year, the Remick Country Doctor Museum & Farm hosts a winter carnival that includes a showcase of Chinooks.

“To have a farm in Tamworth with so much room for [Rhea] and so much room for us and our ideas to realize them was too much to pass up,” said Phillips.

If all goes well, they hope to begin breeding Rhea for the first time next year. The idea of helping continue a breed that started just down the road is an exciting prospect, one that places them in the heart of Chinook history.

“She might be the first Chinook bred in Tamworth in a long time,” said Phillips.

An Uncertain Future

Today, it’s estimated there are 1,200 to 1,300 Chinooks living around the world, largely due to the power of the internet. While prospective owners no longer have to stumble across the breed on New Hampshire back roads, there are still concerns. The number of active breeders, said Hinchy, has declined in recent years. As a result, puppy counts—once topping 130 in a good year—have dropped significantly

“We’ve had less than 50 puppies so far [in 2019],” she said. “And last year, I think we had 54 all year. That’s a pretty dramatic decline from 100.”

It’s a concern for John Habermahl, a New York-based owner who serves as president of the COA. While he wishes more owners would be active in the breeding program, he recognizes there’s a time and financial commitment that some people aren’t prepared to take on.

“The demand is there, but it’s just demand for the pet is there,” he said. “Demand for the breeding program, it’s sustainable, but it could also use a little more.”

For Chinooks owners, there’s no question of whether the dog will continue to capture the hearts of dog owners everywhere. For a breed sometimes thought of as Tamworth’s best kept little secret, Chinooks have woven their way into American history, where their devoted humans hope they will remain for many years to come.

“These are sort of America’s undiscovered canine treasure,” said Hinchy. “If we only knew more about them, more people would be interested in them. And we can only use more support in preserving the treasure for the future.

25th Anniversary Chinook Winter Carnival

Feb 22-23, 2020    Tamworth History Center

The Chinook Owner’s Association is celebrating the25th anniversary of this event and all are welcome!

Sled Dog Rides in New Hampshire

You can experience the thrill of a sled dog ride for yourself by visiting the following outfitters throughout the Mt. Washington Valley!

GREAT GLEN TRAILS

Gorham, NH    (603) 466-3988

www.GreatGlenTrails.com 

MUDDY PAW SLED DOG

Jefferson, NH    (603) 545-4533

www.dogslednh.com 

MOUNTAINVIEW GRAND

Whitefield, NH    (855) 837-2100

www.mountainviewgrand.com 

Catch this article in the Winter 2019/20 printed edition of Mt Washington Valley Vibe available at any of these locations around the region.