Liz and Sepp. A Love Story.
Based on a true story. The first in a series of short stories -by Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes Getting tangled up The team careened down the ridge at a full gallop. The icy snow rooster-tailed up from the bear-claw brake onto his reindeer skin leggings. This was a veteran distance dog team, and the past few miles had merely warmed up their muscles. The race trail took a hard left at the base of the hill. “Haw!” Seppala yelled, and the team swung instantly. But he couldn't relax and enjoy the ride. “What's the trouble ahead?” he said to his dogs. A team of eighty to one hundred pound Chinook dogs were tangled in a ball of fangs and flying fur. It was apparent to Sepp that this musher was overpowered and needed help to break up the team. “Whoa!” The team of Siberians had just gotten into their groove and were of no mind to stop. Seppala applied the brake to reinforce the commend and his team finally came to a halt alongside the quarreling dogs. Seppala barked sharply at his dogs in a way that made it clear, he expected no funny business from them. He stepped off the runners of his sled to assist. Without a word, he set to work alongside the other musher, sorting the tangle of gangline and harness and fur. “Thank you so much for stopping!” Seppala was taken aback. It was a woman’s voice. “Of course!” he said, pausing to make eye contact with her. “That’s just swell!” she replied, as she flashed a flirtatious smile with a sparkle in her eye.
Of course! Elizabeth Ricker. The wife of Edward Ricker. The owner of the Poland Spring Resort hosting the race. These were the thoughts he had. But they were wrong thoughts. Although she was a “fire bell” (the trendy twenties lingo for a married woman), Seppala would soon learn that she was not to be defined as Edward’s wife. She was not to be defined by her relationship with any man. “Liz.” she stated confidently as she extended her hand for a shake. Following her informal lead, he took her hand and replied with a smile, “Sepp.” Elizabeth was the paragon of the women of the new era. A true “Flapper” as they were called. The nineteen-twenties saw women’s suffrage codified into the bill of rights. But that was merely the fruit of a cultural revolution. The women of the twenties who engaged in this revolution were true feminists. They bobbed their hair, wore pants, smoked in public, drank alcohol at the speakeasies, and generously applied makeup and listened to jazz. But these, too, were the outward signs of the feminist revolution. The flappers expressed their spirit with a disdain of what was deemed “acceptable behavior.” They participated in activities, like mushing dog teams, that had hitherto been deemed too dangerous for women. These women sought danger. They also threw off social restraints and embraced sexual freedom. They were energetic. They were fearless. Elizabeth Ricker was not yet a “Rock of Ages” (the term used by flappers for a woman over thirty). She had turned twenty in the year nineteen-twenty. . In short, she came to age at the dawn of the age. She was one of the trend setters that defined the era. When other women looked at her, there was always one of two looks on their face; admiration or disdain. Seppala had never met a woman like Liz. growing up on his father’s fishing boat in Norway, he had always known a woman’s place to be in the home. His adulthood in the Alaska frontier was no different. His life there too had been a man’s world. His Belgian wife, Constance, back home also saw the world this way. But Liz was a new breed of woman. And Seppala was completely taken by her. Elizabeth’s husband was a businessman and a gentleman. Edward, or Teddy as she called him, was not much older than his wife, but the business of running Poland Spring Resort, and hobnobbing with all the New York and Boston elites that came to vacation there, had made him much older than his years. This had turned him into a “bluenose flat tire,” as Liz would often call him. Seppala went on to win the race that day. He posed for the newspapers with his famed leader, Togo of the Nineteen-Twenty-five Alaska serum run. A few of the wealthy attendees offered to buy Togo from him. “I will never sell Togo. He will be with me till the day he dies.” he told the reporters. Liz was listening.
The proposition The following day, the race was canceled due to rain. The mushers spent the day socializing in the Riccar mansion between visits to the stables to tend to their dogs. Dinner was a grand affair. Afterwords, the competitors were invited into the great hall. Arthur Walden and Leonhard Seppala were invited to bring their leaders, Chinook and Togo, into the social. Mushers liberally poured out their adventures in stories. Walden told of his days in the Yukon Klondike during the gold rush. Seppala told of his perilous crossing of Norton Sound to bring life saving serum to the children of Nome. The wealthy resort guests drank them in like the illegal alcohol being liberally poured into their glasses. “Sepp?” Elizabeth projected as she approached, interrupting the men’s conversation as though whatever it was they were discussing was unimportant. No one was offended. They were all enamored by her charisma. “May I speak with you for a moment?” She held a theater length cigarette holder loosely between her fingers. The crowd around Seppala understood that “alone” was implied and quickly said their niceties and melted away. Liz invited him to sit across from her. “Thank you again for your help with my team yesterday! I know it cost you time in the race.” “I'm not a wealthy man, lady. But I try to be a gentleman, nonetheless.” he replied with his simple words and a smile as he sank into the velvet cushions. “Liz! We agreed!” she scolded playfully, and then continued, “Your tour of the country has ended on my doorstep. What now?” “Back to Nome, Alaska I guess. It has been an exciting trip. While I was in New York I even received a medal from my fellow countryman, the South Pole discoverer, Roald Amundsen. Beating Walden and his Chinooks today was icing on my cake!” “You’ll be returning to Alaska with your dogs, I presume?” “Of Course.” “I want to ask you to consider retiring Togo with me here at Poland Spring. You know he will be king of the resort. King of the mansion. I can give him the very best of care.” Seppala looked down at his old leader and friend. He was noticeably considering her words. But she had only just begun. She leaned over and began to stroke Togo as she continued, “I also want to make you an offer. I want you to consider partnering with me. Here. In Maine. With your full complement of Siberians. I would buy in at half the worth of your team, and kennel them here at my expense. You and I would train them and race them every winter. During the summer I would cover your expenses to travel to and from Nome to see your wife. Constance… is her name? I'd also give you an annual salary equal to what you were making working for the mining corporation.” That is quite the offer, Misses… Liz. Sorry. Liz.” Seppala paused and smiled. “ Do you mind if I have a night or two to think it over?” “Of course. Take all the time you need! Until I have your answer you are here as our honored guest. Anything you and your team needs is on the house. At this moment a reporter broke their privacy with a request. “Mr. Seppala, would you mind if I took a picture of Togo by himself before the hearth?” Seppala leaned down slowly and stroked Togo as well. Togo was old. And he deserved far more than Seppala could ever give him back home. His hand accidentally touched Elizabeth’s. She smiled and did not retract her hand. This made the fifty year old’s heart race just a little, to have the kind affections of such a woman. He bent over and kissed Togo’s head before standing to address the reporter. “To answer that question, you’ll need to ask his new owner, Misses Ricker. Togo will be retiring here at Poland Spring under her gracious care.” “But didn’t you say yesterday that…?” the reporter puzzled “Yes, well… I've changed my mind.” he interrupted with a smile. Then he turned away to retire for the evening. Partners Seppala took Elizabeth up on her offer. It was the beginning of the first Siberian Husky kennel in the United States. Together they spent the next five winters dominating the racing circuit of New England and eastern Canada. Poland Spring Kennels would enter two teams into each race. One driven by Leonhard Seppala. One driven by Elizabeth Ricker. During this period, Elizabeth became the most accomplished female musher in in the world. No woman before her had ever achieved the success in competitive mushing that she enjoyed. Seppala thought he had seen more in her eyes that night. He hadn't been mistaken. There was something in her soul for him from the moment they met. She was initially as enamored by him as he was of her. She looked beyond his aging, wind and sun kissed skin and saw the courageous hero that lived within. This brought a vigour back into his life that he hadn’t felt since his Alaska Sweepstakes Race wins. Not even the serum run had made him feel so vigorous. Elizabeth grew to love him. But not in the way Seppala had hoped. No, her love was a patronizing paternal love. She had become fond of referring to him playfully as “father time.” Although this was a common flapper term for any man over thirty, and she meant no harm, it hurt him every time he heard it. It reminded him of the gulf of two decades that existed between their ages. Liz had a poor relationship with her father as a child. Her feelings for Seppala had become those of a young woman towards a father figure. But this was not a role Seppala wanted. And in time, she tired of him as a spoiled child tires of yesterday’s toy. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t her fault. It was inevitable. Just as she would not be defined by her marriage, so she would not long be defined and confined to her partnership with Seppala, no matter how much she loved him. The Viking Lover Nineteen-thirty. Winter set in at Poland Spring, Maine without the snowfall that had been hoped for. Elizabeth decided they would take their teams to the Grey Rocks Inn in Quebec and train for the upcoming season. This would not only provide her and Seppala the opportunity to condition their Siberians, but also, doubtless, to free her from her humdrum home-life with Edward, if even for a few months. The owner of Gray Rock, Harry Wheeler, was a pilot and musher. His Saint Jovit, Quebec resort attracted global and eccentric elites. Nightly dinner parties at the Inn made Seppala feel out of place. Not because he felt beneath the wealthy. On the contrary, he knew who he was. In fact, he once confided to Liz that he felt, around the social lights, like an eagle in a chicken yard. Many were the nights that he would excuse himself from the gaiety and steal away to the stables to lay in the hay with his dogs. But one night in early December, he and Liz were enjoying some liquor, or “giggle water” as she called it, just the two of them, in the Inn saloon. Sepp did not steal away this night. No. He would relish this connection with Liz as long as he could. But the bliss was broken by a sound that was both familiar and foreign to his ears. “God kveld, landsmann!” To be in a country that speaks french and English and then to hear the Norwegian of his childhood, took Seppala’s mind a moment to register. “Hello… Hallo! hyggelig å møte deg.” Seppala replied. It was the pilot and adventurer Kare Nansen, the son of the most famous Norwegian since the age of the Vikings, Fridtjov Nansen. And what a Viking Kare Nansen was. He was all that Seppala was, and what he was not, in stature, if not in heart. His eyes were the same piercing glacial blue and glimmered with the same sense of adventure. He carried himself with the same calm assurance. His english bore the same Scandinavian accent. But he was twenty years younger than Seppala. And taller. And broader. Kare was also far more cultured and refined, having grown up in the highest echelons of Norwegian society. They were temporarily swept up in the kind of rapturous conversation typical of two expatriates finding one another in a foreign land. But Kare’s eyes kept drifting from Seppala’s, to the woman beside him. “Where are my manors!” Seppala shifted to English. “May I present to you my kennel and racing partner, Elizabeth Ricker of the Poland Spring Inn Rickers of Maine.” “Oh pish posh! Call me Liz!” she exclaimed with that same flirtatious smile Seppala had seen on the trail four years ago. “Charmed!” Nansen replied. These were the first breezes of what quickly became a whirlwind romance between Kare and Liz. Every night Liz returned later and later to her suite. She began missing training runs with the dog teams to spend her days with Kare as well. One day, as Sepp and Liz hitched their teams, Sepp asked a question he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer to. “So when shall we return to Poland Spring?” She paused, without making eye contact. “I don't know, Sepp… I have filed papers with the courts to divorce Teddy.” Seppala didn't know what to say. Sure, there was plenty to say, but it would all be rhetorical. Divorce? He had never known a woman that divorced her husband. But Elizabeth wasn't just any woman. And If she has divorced her husband then they could not return to live and train at Poland Spring again. Not ever. “Let’s just get through this racing circuit season, and we will have something else planned out by then, okay?” she offered. “Okay.” The following evening at dinner, Seppala watched Liz and Kare as they talked. it was clear to him that she was in love with Kare. The kind of new, intoxicating, reckless, irrational love that is the bane of youth. And by all appearances, young master Nansen felt the same. He remembered when he once harbored such primal love for a woman, in his youth. Back in Norway, when he was apprenticing in Kristiana to build a life for himself and his first love- before death prematurely took her from him. The thought of her, and the love he had for her, made him smile. Seppala hadn’t realized that he had healed from the loss of her until this moment, when he could think of her and not swell with tears. “Margit.” he whispered her name with a smile. “Margit.” He was happy for Liz. Perhaps he could embrace the role of her father figure after all. These new paternal feelings came to full fruition almost as soon as he’d allowed it to take root in his heart. For no sooner had he pondered thus, than Elizabeth rushed over to where he sat. Congratulations “Sepp! I have news! Kare and I are to be married tomorrow! Look at the handcuffs he’s slapped on me!” Elizabeth flashed the diamond ring on her left hand at Seppala. Her face was so radiant with the news that Seppala couldn't feel sorry for the future or himself and his dogs. She continued, “And I want you to stand with me as my best man!” This was so Liz. Of course she wouldn't ask him to give her away. That would have been too traditional for such a modern woman. She had essentially asked him to be her maid of honor. “For you, Liz, of course I will!” At this reply, Elisabeth’s thoughts turned from herself to her Seppala. “I do have other news, Sepp. Teddy, has accepted the divorce without contest… but he iis now refusing to pay our stay here as he had agreed. So I have offered my half of the dogs to Harry, to pay for our stay here. Harry says you can stay here too, as long as you like, to help him settle the dogs in and learn to work the dogs your way.” “For me to stay here? Where are you going to, dear?” “Kare is returning to Norway next week and I will go back with him.” “And the Olympics next year, Liz? Lake Placid?” “I don’t have all the answers, Sepp. I'm sorry, but this is what I have decided.” Seppala checked and reset his heart, “Congratulations my dear! I am happy for you.” Elizabeth searched his face for any sign of sarcasm, but only found sincerity. “Thanks, Sepp.” The Wedding Harry Wheeler attended the impromptu wedding. After the ceremony he pulled Seppala aside to discuss the future. They took a walk down to the stable that had been converted to a kennel. Wheeler was now owner of half of the dogs. He offered a full partnership to Seppala similar to the partnership Elizabeth had offered four years prior. But Harry wasn’t Liz. Seppala refused the offer.
Instead, Sepp counter offered.
“I will give you the remainder of the dogs, in a year, if you will allow me to finish what I’ve set out to do here. Liz and I have had the Olympic Race of 1932 as our goal for the past four years. I wanted to complete this, and achieve this last honor. He wanted to do this for his dogs. For himself. And for Liz.
Wheeler answered, “Sure Sepp! If you will stay on here with me, and train with me, we will both compete in the Olympic race together next year. I will pay our expenses between now and then, and when it is accomplished, I'll take full ownership of the dogs.
But Sepp, what will you do then?”
“I'll go home, Harry.
For far too long that parable of the “Prodigal Son” has been reciting itself in my head. You know the story, right?
Well, like the prodigal son, I've traveled into a far country. I’ve spent my inheritance, on a life with folks that loved me for my inheritance. My dogs. And just like that son, I've come to myself in that far country. I'm awake again. And I see that all this time, as constant as the prodigal’s father, my wife Constance has kept the home fires burning for me.
Yes, Harry. After the Olympic race, I'm going home to Constance. And thats where Ill spend the rest of my days.”
Elizabeth Nansen eventually returned to Canada and bought some dogs back from Harry Wheeler. She also became a renowned Canadian dog show judge.
Harry Wheeler carried the torch of the “Seppala Kennels” and the Siberian Sleddogs forward to 1950, when the “Seppala Kennels” torch was passed to J.D. Mcfaul.
Leonhard Seppala stayed true to his word. After his silver medal finish at the 1932 Olympic Exhibition, Seppala stayed true to his word. The eagle finally flew the chicken coop. Sepp returned to his wife Constance, in Alaska.
By her side, he lived out the remainder of his 89 years.