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LEONHARD SEPPALA

A Short Biography
by Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes

Leonhard Seppala was born in the fishing village of Skibotn, Norway, in the summer of 1877. In 1899 a friend of Leonhard’s told him about the riches of gold in Alaska. The lure of wealth and adventure was just too much for the twenty-two-year-old man, so he traveled to Alaska for a new beginning.

Shortly after his arrival in Alaska, Seppala was given the opportunity to take a dogteam out prospecting for gold.  The two one-hundred-pound mongrels were the best way to travel in the frozen tundra. This was the beginning of a new way of life for Seppala- and a lifetime adventure as a musher.

When the Nome Kennel Club was organized in 1908 Seppala was ready for his first race.

As Seppala tells the story, he won his first race by way of some “trail luck.” A raven kept landing on the trail ahead of him. It would take off when the dog team got close, only to land again further up the trail. This encouraged the team ever faster. Seppala said, “I've always said  that raven was the reason why I started sled dog racing. The fact that I won that race started my career as a sled dog racer.” Knowing the special place that ravens have in Norse mythology, I find this life altering encounter far more than fortuitous. Of course Odin’s ravens, Huggin and Muninn, would spur Seppala- a son of Norway predestined to greatness- on to his destiny.

In 1913, Seppala’s boss imported a team of Siberian dogs with the intention of gifting them to the Norweigian explorer, Roald Amundsen, on his planned North Pole expedition. Seppala was tasked with training the dogs. It was believed that Amundsen would take up his original plan of exploring the Arctic Basin after his dash to become the first to attain the South Pole in 1910. But having accomplished the latter, Amundsen had been catapulted to international fame and, thus, his future adventures were of necessity put on hold.

When it was learned that Amundsen would not be coming for the Siberian team, Seppala’s boss gave the dogs to Seppala. After a “team building” season, Seppala went on to dominate the All Alaska Sweepstakes race year after year until a massive export of sled dogs to Europe in 1918 for the first World War, brought the race to an end. These wins made Seppala and his little Siberian dogs famous.

I have always felt that great men need great challenges to rise from obscurity and shine. If the story of Seppala ended here, we would probably not be thinking and writing of him now, nor trying to preserve the breed that now bears his name. No, Seppala’s greatest test was to come in the winter of 1925, after the advent of the airplane which was already putting the final nails in the casket of dog sled transportation.

A diptheria epidemic broke out in Nome, Alaska. “The strangler,” as the disease was commonly called, had come for the children and the antitoxin Dr. Welch had ordered for the season never arrived.

Nome was an arctic town completely shut off to the outside world during the winter. The bay was iced in for miles. There were no roads in winter. The only way in or out of Nome in winter was, as it is to this day, by plane. There were brave pilots in Anchorage willing to attempt the feat, but planes in the 1920’s were completely unreliable in sub-zero temperatures.  No one had ever successfully traveled such distances in these conditions. In short, if the plane goes down, the dim hopes of Nome rescue would go down with it. Despite the great advances in technology, the only hope for Nome rested in a stone-age solution- the dogsled team.

The citizens of Nome were unified in their faith that one man should be tasked with this heroic effort. So after the town meeting, the mayor of Nome called Seppala and asked him to begin the 640 mile trek eastward toward Nenana, where antitoxin was en route via train. There a musher would begin a sled dog trek west. Seppala would meet the musher somewhere in the middle and return to Nome.

While Seppala 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. He did not know Seppala’s abilities and determined spirit the way the townsfolk of Nome did. So, as politicians are apt to do, the Governor complicated the plan to include some twenty teams and mushers in performing a relay.  How would the traveling Seppala be told of the change in plans?

In 4 days it took the state to organize the relay and get it underway from Nenana, Seppala had already traveled the 170 miles in four days, including a treacherous crossing of the Norton Bay sea ice to save time. He intercepted the relay and continued crossing the sea ice with the precious cargo of antitoxin now on board.

Seppala and Togo and the team traveled more than 260 miles to save the children of Nome. This is more than five times the distance of any other participating team. They ended their journey when the serum was handed off to Gunnar Kaasan and his team, who took it the last 50 mile leg or so back into Nome,

Gunnar Kaasan finished the relay, bringing the serum into Nome. His team consisted of Leonhard Seppala’s second string dogs.  The one’s Seppala had deemed unfit to be on the team he’d used himself. The newspapers, however, made Kaasan and the leader of his team, Balto, the heroes of the race. It was not until a year later, that the facts were sorted out and Seppala and Togo received much deserved recognition.

In October of 1926, Seppala and his dogs were brought to tour the lower 48 states. This tour culminated at Madison Square Garden in New York.  Here Seppala and Togo were honored with a ceremony and a medal awarded by the famed explorer Roald Amundsen. The same Amundsen for whom Seppala’s dogs had originally been imported from Siberia back in 1913.
Musher Arthur Walden of New Hampshire was also in New York at the time and invited Seppala to compete in a race in Maine to conclude his trip. Seppala accepted the challenge and so there we will pick up our story in the Poland Spring Dog Derby page of this site.