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Tahoe Nugget #198:

Rex the Blizzard King (Part 2)
January 9, 2011

Many Americans are familiar with Hollywood's version of heroic dogs, canine superstars like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. But few have heard of Rex, "The Blizzard King." Rex was the real McCoy and he played an important role in the Truckee-Tahoe region's vital search and rescue operations.

In part one of this story, readers learned that Rex, a pure bred Siberian Samoyed, appeared in movies and competed in competitive dog shows. But there was much more to Rex than acting roles and genetic breeding lines. For many winters Rex's trainer, Lloyd Van Sickle, kenneled a team of sled dogs at Truckee's Hilltop Lodge. Strong and intelligent, Rex was Van Sickle's premier lead dog.

By 1949, Van Sickle's team was dominating the Truckee-Tahoe racing circuit and had even become national champions. Van Sickle and his dogs were more than local celebrities; the team was always on call during winter emergencies. Rex led most of these rescue operations, and over the years displayed such unerring skill and determination negotiating drifts and blizzards that he earned the moniker "Blizzard King."

In February 1949, Van Sickle and Rex made national news when a plane flying from Sacramento to Reno went down with engine trouble near Truckee's snow-covered emergency airport. The small charter plane had crash landed and flipped over with four people inside. When a tractor sent to aid them bogged down in snow, the call went out for Van Sickle.

Nugget #198 Van Sickle Team Rex
Lloyd Van Sickle and Rex's owner Agnes Mason ride the Samoyed sled.

Van Sickle recounted the effort in a letter: "I started out at 10 o'clock at night in pitch dark and it was 18 degrees below zero. I hooked 18 dogs up and towed two sleds and Ed Crandall went with me. There was generally no trail and I just had a general idea of the direction to go. But I put Rex on lead and since he has that most important quality of keeping the towline tight we made it there in good time without any entanglements although I couldn't see the dogs."

The injured passengers and pilot were all sledded out to a waiting ambulance. Later the rescue operation was mentioned by the legendary radio broadcaster Lowell Thomas on his national newscast. Most people assumed that Samoyeds were strictly a show breed, but Rex proved that not only were Samoyeds handsome, but they could hold their own and even beat traditional sled dogs like Huskies whose entire life had been spent in a racing harness.

The media loved this story and several magazines ran articles illustrated with photographs of Samoyeds. Southern Pacific Railroad published posters announcing Truckee's upcoming Sierra Dog Derby and offered special rates to passengers attending the races. Nearly 1,000 spectators showed up at Truckee to watch Van Sickle's team led by Rex take the first place trophy. Later that summer, Rex performed in front of 10,000 people at the Western Sportsman show in Los Angeles, pulling a demonstration sled on wheels around the arena.

Over the next few years, Rex excelled in his role as leader of Van Sickle's sled team as they participated in parades across California and Nevada, and in racing competitions at Truckee. In 1950, the dogs attended the University of California-Berkeley's homecoming parade where the Samoyeds were a big hit with the students. Van Sickle's sled on wheels carried the bear "Oski" (Berkeley's team mascot) as Rex's team trotted along (a bit nervously), leading the marching band to a football rally at the Greek Theatre.

Nugget #198 Dogsled Lake Van Norden 1940s
Dog sled at Lake Van Norden near Donner Pass, circa 1940s.  

Things got more serious in January 1952 when a series of powerful snowstorms slammed the Donner Pass region. Heavy snow driven by 90 M.P.H. wind gusts piled drifts higher and higher in the Sierra. People were snowbound in their cabins and even a passenger train became trapped west of Donner Pass. While the storm was raging in the mountains, Rex was being exhibited by his owner, Mrs. Mason, at a dog show in San Francisco. Up in Truckee, Van Sickle heard that his services were needed for rescue operations so he called Mrs. Mason and asked her to release Rex from the show.

Rex and another dog were flown to Truckee during a break in the weather. They were quickly put to work rescuing a caretaker and his crippled wife from their buried cabin near Donner Pass where they had been holed up for a month. Referring to Rex's dual roles, an April 1952 article in Western Kennel World observed; "This change from life as successful show dogs to actual rescue work is another proof of the versatility of the Samoyed."

Nugget #198 City SF Snowbound
City of San Francisco engines snowbound near Yuba Gap.   

The big story in January 1952 was the entrapment of the luxury streamliner, City of San Francisco, with 226 passengers and crew on board. The lead engines had rammed into an avalanche across the tracks near Yuba Gap, about 20 miles west of Donner Pass. (See Tahoe Nugget #106 for that story and more photos.)

Nugget #198 Clearing Hgwy 40 1952
It took a month to clear Highway 40.

Authorities contacted Van Sickle and notified him that they needed him to transport a doctor from Truckee to the train. Unfortunately, Rex was in San Francisco again, competing at the Golden Gate Show. Once again, the judging officials had to bend the rules and release the "Blizzard King" so he could be flown to Truckee for a rescue operation.

Nugget #198 Marines Pickel Meadows 1952
The weather was so bad in January 1952 that U.S. Marines training for the Korean War were evacuated from their Mountain Warfare Training Center near Sonora Pass. American Marines continue to train there today for deployment to Afghanistan, etc. 

In short order, Van Sickle had the dog team rigged with Rex at lead and Truckee's Dr. Nelson stowed safely on the sled. This wasn't the first time Dr. Nelson had ridden with Van Sickle and Rex in a rescue effort so he hung on tight. As they approached the stranded train, the sled had to be tilted on its side to keep from going over a steep embankment and to slow its downward approach to the train. Despite the risk, Rex safely delivered Doc Nelson to the train where he began administering to sick and injured passengers.

Nugget #198 Cottonwood Hilltop Lodge
Some think Rex and Van Sickle may still haunt the Hilltop Lodge (now called Cottonwood).

Rex weighed about 70 pounds, but two years later he broke the world record for weight pulling at a contest in West Yellowstone, Montana, with a pull of 1,870 pounds. Yes, Rex the Blizzard King was strong, but more importantly "Rex was five pounds of bones and hair, the rest was all heart." This canine hero's spirit may still be with us, if you believe the reports that there have been recent appearances at the Truckee Hilltop Lodge (now Cottonwood Inn) of "a white dog and a white haired man who appear at night then move through walls and then move through walls and disappear."

Nugget #198 Classic Mt Rose berm July 52
The classic photo of deep snow in July 1952.

Special thanks to author Jim Cheskawich and film director Michael Kanyon who intend to produce a documentary and book based on the accomplishments of Rex, "The Blizzard King."

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