Seppala Siberian Sleddog History 101
Id like to tell you the story of how the Seppala Siberian Sleddogs made their way from Chuckchi villages in Siberia one hundred years ago, to our Poland Spring Kennels here in Maine. There are some in depth works on the early years of the breed. There are also some pieces written on the latter breed history (usually with one bias or another). This will be a high level overview. My hope is to write as simple and as unbiased a presentation as I can without getting too far off into the weeds- A challenge to be sure. Should I succeed, I am sure I will frustrate interested parties on both sides of the story. But in negotiations, they say that is how you know you are on to a good solution. So without further adieu, let’s dive in by starting where few others start, with Norweigian Explorer, Roald Amundsen.
Norwegian Explorer, Roald Amundsen
By the year 1906, the great polar explorer, and one of my personal heroes, Roald Amundsen, had already earned international acclaim by being the first to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage off the arctic coast of Canada. Amundsen’s next goal was to be the first to reach the geographic North Pole and claim that glory for his native Norway as well. This ambition was thwarted however when, in 1909, American explorer and Maine resident, Robert Peary attain the North Pole
Amundsen had already raised much of the funds for his North Pole expedition- funds he still wanted to use, so he shifted his efforts, therefore, and continued to publicly raise funds for another arctic expedition with vague scientific goals.
His proposed expedition would begin in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. Nome Alaska would serve as his point of entry and therefore his last supply point. Plans were made there to outfit his men with Eskimo garments and to acquire sledges and dogs.
Nome resident and fellow Scandinavian Jafet Lindenberg, purchased and imported an entire compliment of small Siberian native Chuckchi dogs as a gift to Amundsen’s planned expedition. Siberian dogs had recently become exceedingly popular amongst Alaskan Dog Drivers.
Consolidated Gold Fields Owner, Jafet Lindenberg
Early gold prospectors and trappers had long assumed the large dogs used by the Malamute Eskimo of Alaska were the best for mushing. When the supply of those dogs could not meet the gold rush demand, large dogs from all over the northwest coast of America were bought or stollen and shipped to Alaska’s ports to be sold as as draft animals. It was said that “No dog over the size of a spaniel is safe from abduction.” Bigger is better, was the early assumption.
But those assumptions had been proven wrong in recent “All Alaska Sweepstakes” races. The “little Siberian Rats,” as many Alaskans called the new arrivals from across the Straight, proved quickly to run further, faster, and with less food than their Alaskan counterparts. Pound for pound, the Siberian imports were the way to go. It was with great pride, therefore, that Lindenberg gifted them to Amundsen’s upcoming expedition. Until Amundsen came to claim his team, they were placed in the care of one the Consolidated Goldfields Mining Companies dog driver, another Norwegian immigrant named Leonhard Seppala. This is how the ancestors of my team of Seppalas came to America. They were destined for greatness, one way or another. But Providence had a different, albeit no less glorious, plan in store for these dogs than a trek to the top of the world.
Secretly, Roald Amundsen was planning an altogether different expedition than what he claimed publicly. The North Pole having been achieved, he knew there was no more lasting glory to be gained there. He could not afford to lose fund raising momentum for his new true purpose by publicly changing his goal. His new vision would pit Norway against it’s ally in competition for the last place on earth- Amundsen intended to beat the upcoming British expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott, to the South Pole.
Once Amundsen was underway to Antarctica he made his intentions known to the world. He beat the British to the South Pole by a few weeks to the glory of Norway and returned his entire crew in health and safety. Scott and his British team did not make it back alive.
Back in Nome Alaska, when Lindenberg learned that Amundsen would not be coming to the arctic in 1909, he gifted the imported team of Siberians to their keeper and trainer, Leonhard Seppala.
Seppala had already fallen in love with his new team. Perhaps he saw a bit of himself in the Chuckchi dogs. In many ways he was their perfect human counterpart. He too was small and light on his feet. He too was an immigrant. He too had piercing ice blue eyes. He too had an indomitable spirit.
Within a few years, Seppala and his little team of Siberians dominated the Alaska racing circuit. These were not afternoon sprint races. These were the ancestors of the modern Iditarod and Yukon Quest- races of hundreds of miles over and through some of the harshest terrain and weather imaginable.
The racing in Alaska declined for a time, following the First world war. But Seppala continued to be considered the premier musher in the territory. In these times it must be remembered that the dogsled team was the only reliable form of transportation for most of Alaska during the long dark winter months. Seppala continued freighting supplies to the minefield and transporting high profile customers through the frozen wilderness. For most of these years he used his most trusted leader, the now famous dog Togo.
Togo had been a small, sickly pup. Seppala had little hope for Togo’s future. But Togo had a courage, spirit and intelligence that more than compensated for any physical lack. He was truly more than the sum of his parts. Over the years Togo and Seppala developed a strong bond. In time, Togo became as famous throughout the territory as Seppala himself.
Seppala and Togo
In the winter of 1925, Nome Alaska found itself in the throws of an outbreak of diptheria, with an outdated and insufficient supply of antitoxin. Unlike the Covid pandemic of our age that preys on the old and week, Diphtheria was the strangler of young and healthy children. A child could be as right as rain on Friday and dead on Sunday.
No serum could be brought by ship as the ocean was frozen for hundreds of miles. Airplane technology had not advanced enough to make arctic flight a viable option. The only way to get the serum to Nome is over hundreds of miles of frozen trail and by the ancient technology of the Inuit- it would have to be transported by dog team.
If you had asked anyone in Nome how Seppala’s Siberian dogs ended up there before the diphtheria outbreak of 1925, they would all tell you the story I have here shared; Amundsen’s aborted polar expedition. But destiny had brought Seppala from Norway and those Chuckchi dogs from Siberia for such a time as this. The governor of Alaska called for a relay of mushers to bring the serum hundreds of miles to Nome. Roadhouses spaced a day’s travel along the route would serve as relay stations. But Nome residents trusted Leonhard Seppala as the fastest and most secure musher for the job, so they sent him south to intercept the relay.
Many heroic feats were done by many great mushers and dogteams in this “race for life” for, to add insult to injury, Alaska was in the throws of the most inhospitable storm and temperatures experienced in decades. The names of the heroes include such notable names as the lead dogs Blackie and Balto, and the mushers Gunnar Kasson and Wild bill Shannon.
It is not my purpose to retell the story of this great undertaking here. I would suggest readers turn to such great volumes as “The Cruelest Miles” for an in depth exploration of this event. For my purposes here, I will only make a few points.
Most teams traveled an average of 30-50 milers. But the contribution of Leonhard Seppala and his team of Siberians led by Togo are unrivaled. Togo led Seppala and the team through a deadly storm and across Norton Sound (a frozen bay of unstable sea ice) twice on their trip to save time and save lives.
Initial reports wrongly attributed Togo and Seppala’s heroic exploits to Balto and Kaasan. A statue was erected to Balto in New York’s Central Park. But within a couple years, the true heroes were heralded and Seppala was invited to bring Togo and the rest of the team down to the lower 48 states, to tour and speak.
At the culmination of the United States tour, Leonhard Seppala was awarded a medal in New York by Roald Amundsen, the same explorer for whom Seppala’s dogs had originally been procured.
There was another musher present that day. New Hampshire native, Arthur Walden had gained notoriety as a former Yukon gold prospector, author, and the lead dog man on the Byrd expedition. He had created his own breed of sleddog he called Chinooks, so named after the foundation sire of his breeding program.
Arthur Walden extended an invitation for Seppala to bring his Siberians to Poland Spring Resort, in Maine, where a dogsled race was soon to be held. Despite the dogs having been transported across the States by rail, and not conditioned for racing that season, Seppala accepted the friendly challenge.
Arthur Walden and Chinook
The race in Poland Spring, Maine was held the weekend of January 27th in 1927. Many of the Northeast’s best mushers were present.
Seventeen years ago, I decided to spend a few days at the Maine State Library pouring over microfilm to read the newspaper accounts of the race.
Online, Id read that Seppala brought his team to the lower 48 states after the famous "Race for Life" that saved the children of Nome. I knew that he'd been challenged by Arthur Walden to race his Siberians against Walden's Chinooks at the 1927 Poland Spring Sled Dog Derby in Maine. But I wanted more. I wanted details. What follows is "the rest of the story" I discovered over those afternoons of research. Ill include the verbiage as I found it in those articles. 1927 Poland Spring Dog Sled Derby
Poland Spring, Maine’s second Carnival Race was held Friday, January 27, 1927. It is remembered today as the epic event in which renowned dog drivers Leonhard Seppala and Arthur Walden competed head-to-head, with Seppala the winner despite a series of setbacks on the trail.
The Race Judges were Dr. Harry A. Souther, Vice President of the New England Sled Dog Club (the Starter and official time keeper of the race), Herbert J Pearson, State Humane Agent, and Edward Payson Ricker, Jr.
Prior to this historic race, it was surmised that the "Siberian-type dogs frequently crossbred to wolves" from Alaska would stand little chance against the larger mongrels of the East, bred largely from dogs brought from Labrador and beyond. When this theory was presented to Leohard Seppala before the Poland Spring race, his only response was that he hoped for cold weather on account of his dog’s heavy fur and would have liked more time to prepare his team. Seppala’s dogs had been doing little other than being on exhibit across the country over the past few months.
The Thursday prior to the race, it was reported, five teams were registered and ready for the race. "Sippala," as it was misspelled in the article, "has two teams entered in the race." Friday, the morning of the race, seven teams readied themselves for the first day’s 25-mile leg.
The famed adventurer and New Hampshire resident, Arthur Walden, had entered the race accompanied by his famed lead dog Chinook. Author Walden had Chinook registered in the Mansion House with him. The other dogs, of course, stayed in the barns. Walden was the favorite of the race, as he was last year’s winner and had developed a knack for handily winning the New England Sled Dog Club races. Many of the region’s mushers ran dogs sired by Walden’s "Chinook."
Walter Channing, a serious musher and second place finisher of the previous year’s race, was also entered. E. P. Clark, the third place finisher in the 1926 running, did not enter the race, because he and the Minot, Maine Post Master, Alden Pulsifer, were delivering mail gifts from the Governor of Maine by dogsled team to New York’s Governor Smith and Albany’s Mayor Thatcher.
The race was to begin at 9:30 AM, and teams would leave in 10-minute intervals.
The original race route was planned thus: from Poland they would mush to Dry Mills; from Dry Mills they would travel to West Poland; leaving West Poland, the teams would follow the shoreline of Lake Tripp to Poland Corner and then back to Poland Spring. However, after the course was inspected, there was a last-minute change of course due to broken ice on the roads. The actual running of the race was on the following route:
Mushers started at the Mansion House in Poland Spring; traveled through the Shaker village and past Sabbath Day Lake to Dry Mills; turning right onto North Raymond, passing Churchill’s Store to West Poland; following the shore of Lake Tripp, the teams would turn onto the state highway above Poland Corner to their finish in front of the Riccar Inn, 200 yards below the Mansion House.
As the race commenced, the temperature rose from the single digits to well over freezing. Strong gusts of wind, however, would help keep the dogs from overheating. Before the race the temperatures were very cold by Maine standards. "Not enough sting in it," Seppala told a shivering reporter, "Want it good and cold."
Walden’s team, however, was locally bred and they were, in every way, fully acclimated. This was their weather. Leonhard Seppala would later comment to reporters that it was too warm for his heavy-coated Siberians.
Seppala left the starting chute at 10:20 and had two major delays during the race.
At the starting chute, Seppala’s team twice broke for the barn where they had been quartered, and he had to wrestle them back to the course. This delay cost him at least two or three minutes according to reporters.
The other delay was not reported by Seppala after he crossed the finish line. It remained unknown until Elizabeth Ricker crossed the finish line at 2PM. She told everyone present that Seppala had caught up to her and that she had given her lead dog, Sport, the command to lead her four-dog Chinook team off the trail and give way for Seppala’s Siberian team. Her dog team got tangled and began to fight. Seppala, seeing her distress, left his team loose and unattended to aid Mrs. Ricker with her unruly team. After the Race on Friday, the headlines read "Alaska Dog Driver, Hero of Race at Poland Spring."
Surely Seppala’s time would have been at least 4-5 minutes faster had he not encountered these two delays and displayed such good sportsmanship on the trail.
Elizabeth Ricker, herself, had yet another incident while racing. She was taking a break to eat a sandwich when her four large Chinooks caught sight of a skunk and ran off the trail after the smelly beast.
Seppala’s time started at 10:20 and he crossed the finish line 25 miles later at 12:31 PM. "Experts figured Seppala traveled 11 miles an hour."
Arthur Walden left the Mansion House starting line at exactly 10:30 AM and finished at 12:48 PM. Although Walden had Seppala in his sights twice during the race (due to Seppala’s hold ups), Seppala kept pulling further and further away. Walden never caught the Alaskan musher.
Walter Channing, with his lead dog Tom, came in 3rd, averaging 10 miles per hour. It was "usually taken for granted this speed would win any dog race under similar circumstances.”
George Constable also had a great run time despite the fact that he crossed the finish line with two dogs on traces rather than in harness.
Seppala's old leader Togo did not run on Seppala’s main team due to his age, but instead led the team of the "Mina Laklut," Alaskan Eskimo "Kingkeah." Kingkeak (reporters stabbed at his name repeatedly with Kingeah, Kingea, Kingkea, Kingkeak) and Togo would finish the day in sixth place.