A reporter once asked Cecil “Mush” Moore, “What does it take to be a good musher?” “You just have to be as smart as the dogs. Most people aren't.” Moore replied.
All photos in this article are from author's personal collection.
I have often said Maine has a mushing history second only to Alaska, and I have written much to substantiate this claim. Leonhard Seppala and Elizabeth Riccar established the very first Seppala Siberian Kennel at Poland Spring, Maine. The first explorer to attain the North Pole, Robert Peary, and polar explorer Donald MacMillan- both Mainers- planned and launched their arctic expeditions from Maine. Perry Greene attempted a sanctioned summit of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin by dogteam. Antarctic explorer Arthur Walden brought his team of original Chinooks to the Annual Maine Sled Dog Derby. We quickly forget our history if the stories aren't retold. For example, The Baxter Park trail-masters told me that no dogsled attempt on the summit had ever been made, until I produced the newspaper articles to prove it.
The story of Cecil “Mush” Moore and his trans-continental dogsled expedition from Fairbanks, Alaska to Lewiston, Maine is another such story. I first heard of Moore 25 years ago when I was just a year or two into my journey to becoming a musher. I met his great niece (if I remember their relation correctly) at the Lewiston/Auburn Walmart where I was working night shifts after my time in the Marine Corps. She overheard that I was an aspiring musher and that my hopes were to someday mush across the continent. She chimed in. “My great uncle (again I cannot recall for certain what the relationship was) is a famous musher. He once mushed from Fairbanks Alaska to his home here in Lewiston, Maine.” The next night she brought in a three ringed binder with all kinds of newspaper clippings and other memorabilia. I skipped my lunch break the next two nights, choosing rather to devour every word of those remembrances. Since then I have collected what articles and personal letters I could find of his adventure. I want to especially thank Cathy Hoy who donated her family collection to me.
Recently a photo of Mush Moore has been circulating on social media. I cannot tell you how many folks sent the post to me in messenger, asking me what I know of the expedition or the man. So I have decided to write this article. What follows is a synthesis of information I have compiled from articles, booklets, hand written notes and first hand accounts of relatives. But I consider this a “work in progress” and will add to, and amend, this telling as I receive further knowledge from his descendants or those who knew him.
The Musher: CECIL A. “MUSH” MOORE
Maine native, Cecil Moore was an adventurer long before he fell in love with sled dogs. As a structural iron worker he had traveled all over the United States- and the world- on construction contracts as foreman. He worked in places as far flung as Morocco, Iceland, and Africa. He was foreman on the construction of the Augusta Bridge which, at time of construction, was the largest spanned bridge in the world (completed in 1949). But it was on a contract to Alaska that he fell in love with working dogs and the frozen wilderness. When his contract ended in Alaska, Cecil Moore was nearly 41 years old. Rather than leave his new passion for sled dogs behind- Moore decided he would mush his eleven-dog-team back to his family home in Lewiston Maine. There, he would share his new found passion with his wife Jane, and his teen son, Bronson.
As an interesting aside, Cecil's son inherited his father’s sense of adventure. Excited by the war effort, Bronson lied about his age to enlist in the National Guard at the age of fifteen! Moore also hoped to use the his expedition as a fundraiser for the boys orphanage (Healy Asylum) in Lewiston Maine. “I was a poor boy too. And now I'd like to help other boys who need guidance, comfort and encouragement.” Mush said. “I want to prove that modern man can cope with wilderness, alone and depending only on his dogs. At the same time I wish to raise funds for the orphanage.”
Cecil intended to found the “Cecil A Moore Fund” from subsequent lectures, presentations, and endorsements.
Mush Moore departed Fairbanks Alaska on November 14, 1949, with his 11 huskies on a bone chilling -30 degree Fahrenheit day. He was using a custom built sled/wheeled cart designed and constructed by the Philadelphia based “Flexible Flyer” wagon company.
His dogs were a mix of Alaskan village dogs. His leader was a bitch named Minga. “My beautiful Point Barrow Eskimo Dog” as he lovingly referred to her. She was reported to be ¾ wolf and 8 years old by the completion of the trek. Minga gave birth to 6 pups on the trail, contributing to the overall total of a whopping 55 puppies born during the 17 month trek, as Moore later reported in a radio interview. “Part wolf” was a common misconception of arctic sled dogs during Moore’s day. And I am certain he fully believed it was true of the dogs he mushed back to Maine with him. This “Jack London, Call of the Wild” trope was almost never actually true, however. Despite their great endurance and strength, wolves and wolf-hybrids generally make for terrible sleddogs. It is not impossible (there was once a famous Canadian musher that created a spectacle team out of a litter of timber wolves. But that is a story for another day) but it was far less common than most in Moore’s day believed. Most Malamutes, Siberian Huskies and native village dogs were assumed to be part-wolf because of their primitive appearance. But modern genetics show that this was almost never true, and that arctic spitz dogs had diverged from their wild cousins hundreds of years earlier.
For the first eight weeks of Moore's trip, it never rose above -30F. When temperatures dipped to colder than -45F Moore would hold up until the weather improved, for his dog’s sake. At the end of his first week he wrote home the following: “It has been a week since I left civilization behind me. In this week I have lived every moment … a day, a week or forever. I have seen Nature and have lived in my mind all these moments, doing this or that at some place in the trail, maybe just to climb up to one of the peaks that surround me, to know that I have conquered one of Nature’s mightiest and most majestic sentinels of this most silent solitude … or maybe my thoughts were on a rabbit that was being chased by a fox.” By February 23, 1950, Moore had reached Highland Ridge in Canada’s Yukon. The temperatures plummeted to a life threatening -75F. “I didnt dare sleep that night. When it gets that cold you dont know if you are freezing to death. I kept moving. All night. Chopping firewood, feeding the fires and drinking piping hot tea. The dogs burrowed int he snow and covered their noses with their bushy tails. I tossed them fish, but they ignored it, knowing their noses would freeze if they opened to the cold.” He recalled. He told reporters the only reading material he brought along with him was his Bible, although he confessed he was most often too cold to read it.
The first 2,200 miles across Yukon and British Colombia were the toughest of the “6,000 mile trek.” It is argued by some that the trek was far closer to 5,000 miles, but the additional distance isn’t so far fetched when one considers the technical manuvering through, around, and over open water, rivers, lakes and mountains. And negotiate obstacles he did! Using only a compass topographical maps, Cecil Moore navigated five mountain ranges, one hundred and twenty nine rivers, and twenty-one lakes, all within just the first- and most difficult- one third of the trip. Of this, Moore recalled his most difficult day being his ascent into "Buzema Pass" (as the reporter spelled it) in the Alaska Range. During the eleven mile ascent, Moore alternated between pushing the sled, and breaking trail on snowshoe. It took him and his team a grueling fourteen hours. But that was merely one of the many trials and tribulations that awaited him. Another story Moore told was of his team dragging him along on a hunt after a caribou on the Cledo River. After several miles his team took him over the bank of the river and they came crashing down into a ball of fangs and fur. “You can't teach them not to fight for the wolf blood in them.” Moore explained. “Sometimes you have to club them, as much as you love them.” Another noteworthy day was when he and his team broke through into the frigid waters on the Silver City Bay ice. But no tale from the trail is more harrowing than when Moore's team was attacked by a pack of wolves during the night.
It was another severe night of -45F temperatures. Moore had stoked the fires. One of the female in his team was delivering a litter of pups, so he set her in a box atop his sled to separate her and her pups from the ground and the other dog. Then he climbed into his sleeping bag and fell asleep. At some point during the night the fire died out. Moore was accustomed to hearing the cry of roaming packs of wolves through his subarctic travels. He believed it was the fires that kept them away. But on this occasion he slept so soundly, he never stoked the flames. He woke up to the unearthly sound of snarling wolves and fighting dogs. I will share the rest of this story in Cecil’s own words. “When I came to, my little camp was in an uproar. The wolves were right on me. The snarling was something horrible to hear. I jumped up but my flashlight was frozen. And wouldn't make any light. Then I discovered what was the matter. The wolves had closed in and made off with the entire family- mother, pups and all. It was a close call for me too but a few shots from my rifle and the situation was under control without losing anymore of my team. You can bet I never allowed the fire to go out after that. NOt even when it meant sitting up all night in -40 degrees.” This was not the last dog Moore lost to wildlife on his year and a half trek. While crossing into Minnesota, one of his dogs lost a deadly duel with a rattlesnake. From hand written notes, taken from his radio interviews, I discovered that Moore harvested three moose and nine caribou during the expedition, to fuel the dietary needs of his team.
After seventeen long months, in April of 1951, Moore finally mushed his team into Lewiston, Maine en route to his home at 15 Elm Street. He was overwhelmed by the great reception the town planned for him and his 9 remaining dogs.
Literally thousands of Lewiston Auburn residents lined the streets to welcome him home! The police met him on the outskirts of town and turned his triumphal return into a full blown procession. The Lewiston High School Band marched before Moore’s wheeled cart to herald the parade, dressed in their all-white uniforms.
Cliff Stevens (a close friend of Moore) later noted to reporters “Any one of these dogs would lay down their life and die for Mush Moore. They are all happy and in good condition.”
The schools had let out for the event. At the Lewiston Armory he spoke to a packed house that afternoon. That evening he spoke at the Lewiston town Hall. There were an estimated 1,300 in attendance. The mayor of Lewiston presented him with the key to the City. When he took to the stage he received a standing ovation that visibly moved the “sun scorched and bewhiskered” musher. (I found it an interesting sign of the time of that “clean cut age” that reporters felt the need to constantly make apologies for his sporting a beard in almost every article).
Teary eyed, Moore began, “This is the day I've been looking forward to for a long, long time. But I never dreamed it would be quite like this. It is wonderful, really. When I viewed the grand turnout this morning in Lewiston and Auburn, it did things to me. When they handed me the microphone this morning in the Town Square, I just couldn’t speak.” After a few days rest with his wife and son, Moore and his huskies began a hurried lecture tour of the state- at the Capital building in Augusta, Maine Governor Payne received a letter from territorial governor Gruening of Alaska- carried faithfully all those thousands of miles by Moore and his team.
“Would you be willing to repeat the trip?” a reporter asked. “Not if you’d lay $200,000 right on this table.” answered the musher.