I once told a musher I respected about a training run I had with 16 dogs attached to my four-wheeler. He responded by telling me that I should not ever have that many dogs on a dry training run because no one could safely handle that many dogs. I responded by reminding him that Leonhard Seppala often ran as many as 24 dogs on snow and ice! His rebuttal was brief and to the point. “You,” he said, “are not Leonhard Seppala.”
I wanted to argue my prowess as a dog trainer but one thing I could not argue; I am not Leonhard Seppala. No one is! He was by all reasonable accounts, the greatest musher of all time!
Leonhard Seppala: property of Jonathan Hayes
The early years.
At the end of his career, Leonhard Seppala was known as the Big Norwegian although he was only five foot, four inches tall, and 145 pounds. However, Seppala was not always so Big. He was born in Skibotn, Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, in the summer of 1877. He was the son of a blacksmith and arctic fisherman.
Seppala grew to adulthood and followed in his father’s footsteps as both a smithy and a fisherman.
But in 1899, when a friend of Leonhard Seppala returned to Norway, rich from the goldfields of Alaska, the lure of wealth and adventure was just too much for the twenty-two-year-old smithy to overcome and before long he was on his way to the new world.
Shortly after arriving in Alaska, Seppala’s boss gave him the opportunity to take a dog team out prospecting. The two 100lb. mongrels were the best way to travel in this frozen tundra. Seppala’s life would never be the same again. He was a musher.
Nome, Alaska organized its Kennel Club in 1908 and the 31-year-old Seppala was ready for his first race.
Seppala tells the story that he won this first race due to the intervention of a buzzard. The story goes, the buzzard kept landing in the trail just ahead of the team. The team would pour on the steam to catch the lure only to be teased by the bird flying away at the last moment. The buzzard would then land again in the trail just ahead. Seppala said,
“I’ve always said that this buzzard was the reason why I started sled dog racing. The fact that I won that race, started my career as a sled dog racer.”
The very next year Nome ran its second annual, 500 miles, All Alaska Sweepstakes race. Seppala was not yet ready to participate in this, the longest of races. Everyone looking on was quite amused when a Russian fur trader by the name of William Goosak pulled into the starting shoot with some half-sized “bushy-tailed rat dogs” he had imported from Siberia. The odds were set at 100 to 1 against these Siberian runts. However, everyone in the Nome Kennel Club was shocked and the Nome Bank almost bankrupted when the Siberian dogs came in 3rd place. Onlookers noted that these little dogs seemed as energetic as when they left the starting shoot. Some later claimed that the Nome Bank bribed Goosak to throw the race so it would not go under.
Seppala and his Alaska Sweepstakes team: Property of Jonathan Hayes
Leonhard Seppala, or “Sepp,” as he was called by his friends, received his first team of Siberian Husky imports from his employer to be trained in 1913, a few years after the first import by Goosak and the subsequent import of Siberians by Charles “Fox” Maule Ramsey. Sepp raced with these young Siberian dogs the very next year in the “All Alaska Sweepstakes Race” but had to scratch due to a blinding blizzard. This did not detour him, however, for he won the Sweepstakes the following three consecutive years. These three wins made himself and his Siberian Huskies famous. But Seppala was not through yet.
Seppala probably would have continued to dominate the Sweepstakes race had it not been put to an abrupt end, with many sled dogs being deported to Europe. The world had been drawn into its first World War. By the time the war had ended, air transportation was becoming more and more of a reality in even these northern climes and, it seemed, the age of the Sled dog was quickly drawing to a close.
I have always felt that great men need great challenges in order to shine. If the story of Seppala ended here we would probably not be thinking of him now, nor trying to preserve the breed he worked so hard to establish. Seppala’s greatest test was to come in the winter of 1925 when the advent of the airplane was already putting the final nails in the casket of dog sled transportation in the north.
A diphtheria epidemic had broken out in Nome, Alaska. “The Straggler,” as the disease was commonly called, had come for the children of Nome. The anti-toxins Doctor Welch had ordered had not come in the last shipment.
Nome was, as it is today, completely closed to the outside world. No passable winter roads. The Port is iced in for miles and miles. The only way in, then and now, after the snow flies, is by plane. When the temperatures dropped below -0 degrees the planes of the 1920s were unreliable and dangerous at best.
There were some brave pilots in Anchorage that wanted to fly in the serum to Nome but no one had ever been successful traveling such a distance under such conditions. The debate was taken to the floor of the United States Senate in Washington D.C. “Should we give the modern age a chance and risk losing the only serum in the area, or do we send it the slower, but, most reliable way… with the dog punchers?”
The People of Nome had another idea. Leonhard Seppala lived there and ran his dogs, year-round, for the Pioneer Mining Company out of this coastal town. Everyone knew Sepp’s abilities. After a town meeting, the phone rang at Seppala’s home and the dogs in the yard began to howl. They asked him to begin traveling toward Nenana. The serum would be transported to Nenana by train. They wanted the 640 miles between the two towns to be traversed by the dog team. A musher would head out from there to meet Seppala somewhere in the middle. I guess you could say Nome was willing to put all their hope into one basket, Seppala’s sled basket.
While Sepp was on the trail, the Governor of Alaska picked up on the plan but could not trust the fate of those in Nome to a single musher. So, as politicians are apt to do, the Governor complicated the plan to include some 20 teams and mushers in performing a relay. The problem was, how would the traveling Seppala be told he was not to transport it alone?
Seppala traveled a total of 340 miles to save the children of Nome. Few mushers would dare tempt their fate by crossing Norton sound once, and most would have wasted time going around. Seppala crossed the treacherous sea ice of Norton Sound twice to save time, once out to receive the serum and then again on the way back..
He transferred the serum over to the next musher as he was instructed. Gunnar Kasson, however, did not hand over the serum to the next waiting musher but brought it the rest of the way into Nome. Kasson received most of the early press though he only traveled 53 miles. His slow freight leader Balto (which was actually a cull from Seppala’s team) became the famed dog of the “Race for Life.” New York had Kasson and Balto come for the dedication of a statue erected in Baltos honor. Seppala was hurt that His Dog Togo, the true hero of the run, was not receiving his just desert.
Seppala and Togo
Within the year, after the dust had cleared, Seppala and Togo began to be recognized for their accomplishments. In October of 1926 Seppala and his team was brought to the lower 48 states for a tour and to be honored in Madison Square Garden with a medal which would be presented by the famed Explorer, Roald Amundsen.
In Route from Alaska to Washington
Photo of Seppala and his Siberians in Seattle: Jonathan Hayes
For an overview of the History of Seppala in Maine and the establishing of Poland Spring Kennel, click the link above entitled “Poland Spring Derby“.
-Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes