The Death of a Northern Legend

The Whitehorse Star, October 16, 1985
by Philip Adams, Staff Reporter

    There is something missing in Bruce Johnson's life. His lead dog of the past 12 years, Thor, is dead.
    On Sept. 4, two wolves entered Johnson's dog kennel and dragged Thor off. It was the end of a legend.
    "There are such things as super-dogs. Thor was a 'super-dog'," said Johnson. He looks down and away when he talks about him. Thor was a pal, a champion, a leader, the father and trainer of some of the best lead dogs in the recent history of dog mushing.
    Thor was the guardian of Johnson's homestead, on the shores of Atlin River, but that night he didn't even bark. All Johnson found were bits of fur the next morning.
    "I thought at first that he had just slipped off the collar. But when I called him, he didn't come." That was Johnson's first indication that something was wrong.
    Johnson finds it strange that he didn't hear anything that night. "It makes me wonder. They (wolves) are smart. Very smart. He was the weak one, no doubt, but he was also one of the more intelligent ones.
    "It is all pretty perplexing. In many ways it was a blessing. When you think about it it was a pretty honorable way for him to go."
    Thor was born in the fall of 1973 when Johnson was trapping in Antler Bay in the south part of Atlin Lake. Johnson knew right away that the dog was going to be different.
    "There was just something about him and his sister. I knew they were going to be special." Johnson saw in him a born leader and within six months both dogs were pulling.
    There is something very special about the relationship between a musher and his lead dog. And the sensitivity that Johnson is known for on the mushing circuit, emerged when he talked about Thor. That relationship is something that could only be developed after sitting for hours on the trail, trusting and relying on each other.
    Thor was a very obedient dog. "He would sit when told and stay for hours. Then with a pat on my leg he would come."
    But at other times his loyalty was almost a kind of nuisance. A day after Johnson left for the bush and Thor was left off the chain, he would take off after him, eventually reaching him a day's travel away.
    Thor was famous throughout the dog mushing world. "He had a poor build for a racing dog. But he had so much drive and a will to please. Incredible drive. He loved children and knew to stay away from the chickens. He was a big yellow dog, half Lab, half husky, and not the kind of dog one would look for as a lead dog.
    The stories about Thor aren't really legendary - he was just a super dog. Ken Davies owes his life to him. The young Atlin man went for a walk one winter day to visit the Johnsons.
    He missed their trail and ended up on the wrong side of the Atlin River. He was lost, cold, and having fallem through the thin, March ice, was dangerously close to hypothermia.
    It was dark, he had been lost for five hours, the cold was weakening him and his calls for help were lost against the roaring of the river. There was no one else living in the area except the Johnsons.
    Thor heard his shouts. "He had a bark for everything. Moose, fox, wolf, bear, and people. This one was a people bark." Jenielle, Bruce's wife, heard the bark and knew that it was a people bark. She went down to the river to see what the fuss was all about.
    There on the other side was Davies, his feet frozen into his boots, his hands and face frost bitten and hypothermia was starting to set in. But Thor found him.
    Johnson tells another tale of the first running of the Percy DeWolfe Memorial race between Dawson City and Eagle, Alaska. "It was a new trail. No one knew where to go. There was all kinds of open water and thin ice. But he knew. In the dark he knew where to go, and where to stay away from." Johnson won the race. In fact Thor won 14 out of the 17 races he entered.
    "It was just a lot of little things. Like being out on a lake, in the dark, in a blizzard he wqould remember where the portage was. He would hit the trail bang on."
    The Johnsons moved to N.W.T. for five years. When they came back Thor remembered where those same trails and portages were.
    Or the time he started to bark when one of the dogs got his chain caught up around his leg. The chain was tight and could have frozen due the lack of circulation overnight. Thor set up to barking and drew their attention thereby saving the dog's leg.
    One of the other talents was his ability to train other lead dogs. Hitched beside the new dog, a trainer pulls or pushes the new dog in the correct direction on the musher's commands. "Thor was so heavy he would just ram the dog, or drag him off his feet in the other direction."
    Thor hadn't raced since 1982. In fact he hadn't even run in the last year. Instead he just limped around the dog kennel after an accident crippled him.
    He was crossing Atlin Lake one afternoon when all of a sudden his hind end just went numb. Johnson didn't understand what it was and just didn't know what to do with him.
    Johnson has only had to put down two dogs. "The others I have just found homes for them or they have died on their own. Thor was the first one to get attacked by wolves."
    This does not mean the end of Johnson's dog line. Duke, his new lead dog, has great resilience and will bounce back from exhaustion and fatigue more readily.
    He will be leading Johnson's team in the Yukon Quest and other races, hopefully for a few years to come.


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