Historicist: The Mushing Mothers' Adventure
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Historicist: The Mushing Mothers’ Adventure

Two intrepid northern Ontario women mush dog sleighs over 1,000 km to Toronto.

Toronto Star (February 8, 1929)

Toronto Star (February 8, 1929).

Thousands of Torontonians lined Yonge Street to greet two women dog sledders, as they made their way from the city limits to the steps of City Hall on March 2. Having braved harsh winter conditions for more than 1,000 km, Eva Bullock and Annie Edlund were concluding a trek from Edlund, a tiny lumbering community 27 km north of Kapuskasing, to the provincial capital. The major dailies had gotten wind of the feat of endurance and made celebrities of the women, offering regular dispatches from towns, villages, and lumber camps as the women progressed along the rough path of the Ferguson Highway (now realigned as Highway 11).

The two dog teams trotted down Yonge at an easy 10-kilometres-per-hour pace. Kids playfully ran alongside, men doffed their hats, and the city’s canine population barked and howled in salute. Hundreds of housewives smiled and waved from the sidewalks, having been following for weeks the exploits of the “mushing mothers”—getting lost on the trail, facing blizzards, and sheltering in the middle of the nowhere while menaced by wolves.

When the women adventurers arrived, they were tanned by the sun, wind, and snow, and shook Mayor Sam McBride’s hand while dressed in fur-lined mackinaw jackets, scarlet breeches, beaver fur caps, and moccasins. Asked in an interview whether they’d had a good time on their 30-day test of will, Bullock responded: “Just lovely—we had more fun when the going was hard than when it was easy. Everybody enjoyed it.”

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Eva Bullock, 36, and Annie Edlund, 42, first hatched the idea of travelling to Toronto by dog sleigh in November 1928. The two mothers—Bullock to a nine-year-old son, and Edlund to a working-age son and a daughter training to be a nurse—were at a friendly gathering when the conversation turned to the topic of a winter trek from their isolated village of Edlund (which has since disappeared off the map) to Toronto by dog team, a distance of over 1,000 km. It was something that no one, man or woman, had ever attempted—likely because the railroad precluded the necessity—and the idea captured Bullock and Edlund’s imagination.

(Left: Toronto Globe [March 4, 1929].)

“It would be a lark,” Bullock later explained. “If Earharts [sic] can fly over the Atlantic and Ederle swim channels, I guess we can mush [over] 620 miles.” (A less charitable, though equally impulsive motive was ascribed in a syndicated feature story republished in newspapers across North America. If this source is to be believed, the women—whose only winter-time connection to the outside world in Edlund was the radio—heard of a sale on Easter hats at Eaton’s and undertook their perilous journey out of the “glorious vanity” of securing fashionable finery.)

Dog team with man and woman on sled in Alaska, ca  1940  Photo by Taylor G  Morris from the Peel's Prairie Provinces at the University of Alberta Libraries

Dog team with man and woman on sled in Alaska, ca. 1940. Photo by Taylor G. Morris from the Peel’s Prairie Provinces at the University of Alberta Libraries.

“Subsequently we did everything we could to dissuade them from making the attempt—drawing lurid pictures of ravenous wolves, fierce moose, night-flying owls, raging blizzards, snow-choked roads,” Bullock’s husband Edgar, the district schoolmaster, later explained of his reaction. “But all this only served to make the two women more resolved than ever to mush to the provincial capital.” Eventually he and Edlund’s husband accepted the inevitability of temporary duties as cooks and housekeepers.

A social worker, Bullock regularly travelled by dog sled in the far north to “a good many places where even the doctors can’t go.” The level of sledding experience for Edlund, who was born in Sweden but had immigrated with her husband to Canada 25 years earlier, is unknown. Nevertheless, Bullock’s husband characterized both women as “totally inexperienced” at long-distance mushing in an interview with the Star.

For the next few months, the women trained their dogs, most of whom were collies or a collie-mastiff cross. To help the dogs acclimatize to the rigours of long-distance sledding and the women to the peculiarities of commanding dog teams, the women made a few trial runs from Edlund to Kapuskasing and Mattice, 27 and 40 km away respectively.

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In an era when marathon stunts and feats of athletic endurance captured the public imagination—as seen by the immense popularity of marathon swimming at the CNE—and garnered a great deal of newspaper coverage, it’s not surprising that another group of northerners had designs on a trek to Toronto. On January 29, two young men, Kennelm T. Hulme and Jack Forbes, departed Timmins on cross-country skis. On a bet of $250, the two, a sign painter and a superintendent at a local dairy, had been challenged to ski to Toronto in fewer than 20 days. “Not one single bit,” Bullock stated emphatically of whether she’d been inspired to mush to the provincial capital by Hulme and Forbes’s well-publicized departure. “I was training my dogs for months before I ever heard of that ski stunt.”

(Right: Toronto Star [February 9, 1929].)

At daybreak on January 31, 1929, Bullock and Edlund were given a royal send-off by their friends and neighbours—all of whom were confident the women would succeed in reaching their goal. But it would be a week or more before anyone outside the hamlet took any notice of their endeavour. The husbands joined their wives for the first few miles, then broke off and silently waved goodbye as the mushers approached the forest’s edge. Difficulties came quick on the first day, with Bullock’s lead dog, Rover, getting sick, and the women pressing on through blizzard conditions by nightfall. It took them four days to cross the 137 km to Cochrane, though the mushers remained in high spirits.

Toronto Star (March 1, 1929)

Toronto Star (March 1, 1929).

When word of the women’s trek reached Toronto, the Star dispatched a reporter to the north. By February 7, the reporter was in Cochrane, though it’s unclear if he got there in time to meet Bullock and Edlund before they pressed on toward Ramore. Within days, the journalist was priming public interest in the campaign, interviewing Edgar Bullock for background colour and working out arrangements for Eva Bullock to contribute regular accounts of the mushers’ progress for publication in the Star. (Whether she actually wrote the dispatches, transcribing them by telegraph or telephone from the train station, or a ghost writer fleshed out a few details she wired, is anybody’s guess.)

The women had hoped to use the Ferguson Highway, a gravel trunk road built between 1925 and 1927, to connect the rich agricultural, timbre, and mineral resources of the north to markets in the south for tourism and industry, all the way from Cochrane to North Bay. But heavy snow drifts made the highway nearly impassible. Deep snow meant the women had to lead their teams on foot, breaking a trail with their snowshoes, making progress slow and arduous.

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So they switched to the tracks of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway. Crossing gullies on railroad bridges could prove nerve-wracking, as the mushers halted occasionally to listen for any faint whistle that might signal a train’s arrival, then hustled again to reach landfall. Though the dogs had miniature moccasins on their paws as protection, some of the animals’ feet began to bleed slightly, forcing further delays as Bullock and Edlund let the animals rest.

(Left: Map of their route from a photo montage in the Toronto Star [February 8, 1929].)

After travelling 18 hours south of Cochrane, the women spotted a railway flag station with an open door where they could bunker down for the night. When one of the women fumbled in the cold to light a match for the station’s pot-bellied stove, however, she managed to light the whole tin of matches on fire. She tossed the whole mess into the stove. Then the wood chips and pine needles they’d gathered refused to light, and so the adventurers spent the night cold, with the thermometer hitting 28 below. Wolves bayed in the distance, and the women’s dogs responded with howls of their own.

Aiming to reach Swastika, a village that served as the gateway to the Kirkland Lake gold fields, in the early evening of February 8, the women didn’t arrive until late the following morning. Incredibly, Bullock and Edlund undertook their journey with maps but no compass, and had become lost en route. For the first time in their nine days of mushing, the women attempted to travel at night, during which time the eerie silence of the trail was broken only by the menacing wail of wolves.

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Mushing through 35-below temperatures, the journey afforded the women ample opportunity to enjoy breathtaking scenery. “The hills and the valleys were covered with young tamarack trees which reminded us of a garden of ferns,” Bullock wrote of the journey through the Temiskaming District. “The lake, Temiskaming, one of the largest lakes of the north, provides lots of pleasure in the summer time, but in winter we saw it a great white blanket of deep snow. There is a good road on one side and hills on the other. The lake is nestled in the middle and is beautiful.”

(Right: Toronto Star [February 15, 1929].)

By the time the women passed through New Liskeard, Haileybury, and Cobalt, accounts of their trek had spread widely in the press. They were welcomed like celebrities. Big crowds of locals turned out to greet them, and small-town mayors hosted them at receptions. Newsreel cameras whirred, and photographers snapped photos.

Business owners along their route bid them to stop, rest, and enjoy a free meal; hotel managers offered free accommodation. And the dogs enjoyed the royal treatment, too: “the butcher gave us bones and another merchant ran out of his store with a parcel of fresh fillets,” Bullock recalled of Cobalt. “Further on a baker gave us good bread and cakes. Taking it all together, the dogs had a tea party and a good solid meal combined.”

Even in towns without hotels, the women never wanted for a place to stay. At Latchford, a woman from Bullock’s native Yorkshire invited them to stay at her house. That evening, they and their host’s friends feasted on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. On other evenings spent at lumber camps, Bullock entertained their hosts by playing the concertina she’d packed for the journey. Once, deep in the woods, the pair happened across a crew filming a B movie, and partied with the filmmakers into the night, swapping “gags and beer til dawn.”

Their early morning departures from towns had none of the fanfare of their arrival. Locals were usually still asleep when Bullock and Edlund set off, with the smoke from chimneys being the only signs of life. Work crews laying gravel to improve the Ferguson Highway, or men cutting ice waved as the women passed.

Postcard of the Ferguson Highway through Temagami in summer, before 1940  From Wikimedia Commons

Postcard of the Ferguson Highway through Temagami in summer, before 1940. From Wikimedia Commons.

En route to Temagami, the women arrived at a government camp around noon. A diminutive woman, Mrs. Dollard, ran out to stop them, insisting they join her for lunch. Cooking for her husband and 25 men at this lonely, isolated camp, Dollard was excited to see fellow women. Cold and hungry, Bullock and Edlund happily accepted her invitation. “We went into her little room and chatted together. The excited, happy expression caused us to linger longer and we stayed until 2 o’clock.”

At Temagami on February 14, Bullock and Edlund visited Chief Whitebear—likely Frank Whitebear, chief of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai from 1910 to 1925—and his wife, who told them of the district’s forest, lake, and island beauty. “I would imagine this would be a lovely place in summer for those who are fortunate enough to go around its islands on its boats and bathe in its water,” Bullock recalled. “They would say we are lucky, for we have been feasting on the beauties of the north, and they tell us there is still more to follow and that we have the best to come. That will be through the forest reserve.”

Setting out through the Temagami Forest Reserve the next day would also be the most dangerous portion of their journey, with two or more days’ travel through a virtually untouched pine and hardwood forest, and no telegraph or telephone for nearly 100 km. The last section of the Ferguson Highway had been completed within the boundaries of the four-million-acre forest reserve, but there were still few settlements or inhabitants save the local First Nations or the occasional lumber camp. Moose, mink, bear, and beaver thrived in these woods, and the women saw plenty of recent animal tracks in the freshly fallen snow.

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At one point, Bullock and Edlund’s path was blocked by a couple “lean and menacing” black bears, apparently awakened from the slumber of hibernation. The dogs growled, crouched, and paced in a vain attempt to intimidate the bears as the women mushers contemplated their situation. Suddenly, Bullock broke into laughter, letting loose “a real Yorkshire guffaw.” The bears moved on.

(Left: Toronto Star [February 18, 1929].)

It was snowing heavily, accumulating on top of the remnants of a three-day blizzard some weeks earlier. Drifts were so deep that some abandoned automobiles they passed on the side of the road were fully buried. Able to only cover 25 km on the first day though the forest reserve under such conditions, Bullock and Edlund found refuge at Richie’s lumber camp, at Jumping Caribou Lake, about 75 km from North Bay. “Beds were brought into the office for our use that night and we were glad indeed that we had pushed through to the camp,” Bullock wrote in a dispatch for the Star. Had we not done so we would have had no cover for our heads and we did not relish any too well the prospect of a night in the woods by ourselves.”

But that would be their fate on their second night in the Temagami forest. Though they “passed many lakes and beautiful woodland scenery,” Bullock said, she and Edlund didn’t have the luxury of pausing to admire. Plodding along all day on snowshoes to break a trail through the heavy snow, by 5 p.m. the women eventually gave up trying to reach their destination that day.

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“At last, tired and weary, with backs and heads aching, we turned into an unused stable. It must have been used when the highway was made. We had nothing to eat and nowhere to lay our heads,” Bullock later recalled in a dispatch to the Star. “We drank coffee all night trying to keep ourselves warm, but that was impossible for as the fire burned the smoke was three feet thick. Our eyes filled with tears more than once. As the place got a little warmer the ice began to melt and so, through the night, every part of the stable was showing signs of it being turned into a shower bath. By five o’clock in the morning the clothes on our backs were frozen stiff.” Once again, their attempts to slumber were disturbed by the baying of wolves, who seemed to be lingering outside, quite nearby.

(Right: Toronto Star [February 20, 1929].)

The next day, February 17, the still-exhausted mushers had a lunch of tea, pork, and beans with some lumbermen at work in the woods, but again found the trail challenging when they pressed on that afternoon. A local First Nations man named Matice, who came across them as they struggled to climb a hill, warned them of the rough trail conditions ahead. “You had better come over and stay at our house,” Matice invited, leading them to a Marten Lake house he shared with Mr. and Mrs. Conrad Ross. After the women rested the remainder of the day, the following morning Matice packed their belongings on their sleds and got their dog teams in order.

At North Bay, where a Star reporter was waiting, anxiety was high. Word-of-mouth rumours suggested that the dogs were exhausted or injured, and that the women, now several days behind schedule, were in trouble. Worries were abated, however, when Bullock and Edlund wired the city from a lumber camp on the morning of February 19. Later that afternoon, when the women finally arrived at North Bay, the streets were lined with enthusiastic citizens as they made their way to the Pacific Hotel.

Postcard of the Pacific Hotel in North Bay, 1910  From the Toronto Public Library Digital Collection

Postcard of the Pacific Hotel in North Bay, 1910. From the Toronto Public Library Digital Collection.

According to the syndicated newspaper feature, it was in North Bay that Bullock and Edlund received word that their husbands, with whom they were rarely in touch by telegram during the journey to Toronto, wanted the women to return home. They were nevertheless unswayed from their goal, and in a later interview, Bullock underlined their husbands’ support. “Oh, they’re so proud of it,” she said. “My husband wrote me how grand it was to be on the front page of the Daily Star all the time.”

After many days without contact with the outside world, Bullock and Edlund heard the news that the marathon skiers, Hulme and Forbes, had arrived in Toronto on the Saturday afternoon, February 16. Like the women mushers, the skiers had enjoyed the hospitality of the communities they passed through, being feted by mayors and other dignitaries at banquets at local hotels, and signing autographs for locals. Although they won their bet by arriving at Toronto City Hall after a journey of only 19 days, and were welcomed by a large crowd, neither the mayor (nor any other municipal official) turned out to officially greet Hulme and Forbes. After making a paid appearance to sign autographs at the Eaton’s sporting goods department, with their $250 winnings in pocket, Hulme and Forbes soon set off on their next adventure: cross-country skiing to Chicago. But within a few days, at London, lack of snow forced them to drop the skis in favour of hitchhiking.

Toronto Star (February 18, 1929)

Toronto Star (February 18, 1929).

When it came time for Bullock and Edlund to leave North Bay, they were delayed once again, not by snow but by the overwhelming crowd wanting photos, autographs, or answers to questions about the trek. Telegrams arrived asking the mushers to endorse all manner of products. Similar receptions awaited as they made their way to Callander, then South River, and down to Burk’s Falls. Once they reached the Muskokas, however, the women discovered that the resorts and restaurants—so busy in summertime—were completely closed up for the winter. They had to fish for food, using pearl buttons as bait.

The crowds eager to welcome Bullock and Edlund to Barrie on February 27 were so large that traffic was stopped in all directions as they mushed through town to the Queen’s Hotel. That evening, the pair made an appearance onstage at the Capitol Theatre, hosted by the mayor, then were entertained at a prominent resident’s home. Interviewed by the local newspaper, Bullock insisted that the dogs were not in rough shape with sore feet, as rumoured. But she admitted: “One animal is tired and a little out of sorts, so I took him on the sleigh with me.”

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For a few days, there had been less and less snow on the ground as the women mushed into warmer weather. After their arrival at Bradford, on February 28, the road became impassable for lack of snow. Wheels from children’s toy vehicles were quickly commandeered and strapped under the sleighs, allowing the women to drive their teams along the snowless provincial highway for the penultimate stretch from Bradford to Thornhill.

(Left: Barrie Examiner [February 28, 1929].)

As Bullock and Edlund neared the end of their journey, news of their impending arrival was splashed on the front page of Toronto’s major dailies. An editorial in the Globe (March 1, 1929) praised the women’s unique courage in crossing the expansive, perilous northern wilderness in winter conditions. “The journey they undertook and have so admirably carried through shows that the old spirit of adventure still lives in modern days,” the editorial concluded, “and that the women of the North are not easily appalled by difficult or dangerous journeys.”

Escorted by a police officer, on March 2 Bullock and Edlund made the final leg of their journey down Yonge Street from Thornhill to the heart of Toronto, still rolling along on “Kiddie Kar” wheels. Shortly after noon, they arrived at City Hall, roughly 1,046 km from their starting point at Edlund—though the women had likely travelled closer to 1,300 km after having to go out of their way to find more passable trails, and having gotten lost a handful of times.

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Surrounded by a cheering crowd of 2,000 or 3,000 spectators, the women climbed the City Hall steps to be received by Mayor Sam McBride and the presidents of the men’s and women’s branches of the local Yorkshire Society. “I am ready for another five hundred miles,” Edlund said, though she most often allowed her more loquacious, gregarious friend to speak as the adventurers’ spokeswoman, “but I must have a long, long sleep first.”

(Right: Toronto Star [March 2, 1929].)

Bullock and Edlund shook hands and posed for photographs. The dogs were friendly with onlookers outside City Hall—as they had been throughout the trip—and relished being pet by children, seeming to understand that the celebration was in their honour.

Finally, the exhausted women retired to the comfort of the Ford Hotel, while Rover, Jenny, Nero, and the other dogs were placed in the care of a local veterinarian. Responding to concerns that the dogs had been overworked, Bullock protested vehemently. “Not a bit,” she insisted. “They enjoyed it just as much as we did. Go and look at them, if you doubt it. They’re just looking grand. And every morning, when we appeared, you just should have seen them wag their tails. Even at the city hall they were jumping up on us—they knew we had put it over just as well as we did.”

On Monday morning, having replaced their winter travelling clothes with regular women’s attire, Bullock and Edlund were back at City Hall, where McBride accorded them the freedom of the city. Moreover, he placed a car at their disposal for the duration of their visit. “I am so delighted I could give a dance right here,” Bullock exclaimed to the mayor.

“The men think women are capable of so little, we just wanted to show them,” Bullock explained in an interview with a Star reporter, answering the all-important question of why they’d undertaken the test of endurance. “And we never once turned back, did we, Annie?” she added. Even as the wolves howled nearby, she explained, the women kept their spirits high. Never once, she stressed to the Star, had the women bickered on the trail. “Do men scrap when they’re fixed like that?” Bullock asked the reporter, gently scolding him for a sexist line of questioning.

The women planned to stay in Toronto for a spell, during which time—according to the syndicated article—they succeeded in acquiring their much-desired Easter hats. The adventurers eventually returned to the north in the comfort of a railcar—with the dogs riding in the baggage car—over the objections of Bullock’s nine-year-old son Donald, who was insistent that she and Edlund also return home by dog sleigh.

Sources consulted include: The Ferguson Highway: Beauty Spots and Points of Interest in Northern Ontario (Ontario Department of Northern Development, 1929); and articles from the Barrie Examiner (February 28, 1929); the Hamilton (Ohio) Journal News (June 1, 1929); the Montreal Gazette (February 8, 1929); the Ogden (Utah) Standard Examiner (May 26, 1929); the Timmins Times (February 22, 2012); the Toronto Globe (January 31, February 18, 21, 23 & 25, March 1, 3 & 22, and May 30, 1929); and the Toronto Star (February 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 14, 15, 18, 20, 23, 27 & 28, and March 1, 2, 4 & 5, 1929).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.