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.
Despite the multiple setbacks, the warm temperatures, and the lack of conditioning, Seppala’s team of small Siberians still won the day.
1st Place - 2hrs. 11 min. Leonhard Seppala
2nd Place - 2hrs. 18 min. Arthur Walden
3rd Place - 2hrs. 27 min. Walter Channing
4th Place - 2hrs. 28 min. George Constable/Canadian (for owner Mosely Taylor)
5th Place - 3hrs. 3 min Bradgon MacGregor (for Walter Channing puppy team)
6th Place - 3hrs. 8 min. "Leonhard Kingkeah" (for Seppala)
7th Place - 4hrs. Mrs. Edward P. Ricker Jr.
Seppala's winning team at Poland Spring Inn and Resort, Maine
To give one an idea of how fast these teams raced on this first day, the previous 25-mile record, or "World Mark" as it was called by the reporters, was held by the Canadian musher Emile St. Goddard who ran 25 miles in 2:22:30 (equivalent, at best, to running 40 miles in 3:35). In other words, two teams in this race beat the world record for 25 miles (Leonhard Seppala and Arthur Walden), and two other mushers (Walter Channing and George Constable) came within six minutes of it.
After the first day of the race, the fancy of those who preferred the eastern dogs swung completely the other way. Mushers and would-be mushers lined up to speak with Seppala about acquiring dogs from him.
Even though Seppala’s team had overcome some great obstacles, one reporter (not willing to concede the superiority of the Siberians) added this addendum to his comparisons of dogs’ performance: "However, due allowance had to be made for the skillful handling of Leonhard Seppala, …His knack of giving a push with his foot from time to time in perfect rhythm on the level was a contributing factor. …also aided by pushing the sled with his wiry strength on the upgrades. He would paddle with alternating feet, this was one of the little tricks he used. There were others."
Mrs. Carlyl Peabody negotiated for the purchase of a team of Seppala’s "thorough bred Alaskan Huskies." This was the same Mrs. Peabody that dropped out of the 1926 running of the race with her sons of Chinook due to a leg injury. "Friday it was pretty well understood that Mrs. Peabody would have the team, part of which would be made up of dogs used in the race here, with two puppies which would be shipped her from Alaska." noted one reporter. She also negotiated the purchase of Seppala’s wonderful fur Parka.
At the finish line Friday, Seppala was asked "How old are you?" “Me?" he replied, "I’m 55. But I’m 20 in spirits!" And to prove it, he did three handsprings in succession. "And I’ve got a wife and three children!" he added, walking over to give Togo a pat on the head.
"Seppala would sell her other dogs, but not Togo." one reporter noted.
Later that evening, Seppala took Togo into the Mansion House parlor to "tell the kiddies and grown ups, too, the story of the dog from his birth to the present."
Friday night and Saturday morning, it rained. When the rain froze, it turned the trail to glare ice.
The second leg of the race was postponed Saturday morning for the weekend (there would be no racing on Sunday) in the hopes that conditions would be better Monday. The big news for the reporters Saturday was that Seppala announced that the 11-year-old Togo would be staying with Mrs. Edward P. Ricker Jr. This was a complete reversal from his statement the previous day, when "The day prior he (Seppala) said to Mrs. Peabody that he would not sell him (Togo) for the world."
Monday, the 30th of January, it was decided by the Judges that the remainder of the race would have to be canceled due to poor conditions. The Silver Cup was awarded to Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Billiken in front of the Riccar Inn in Poland Spring.
After the race, Elizabeth Ricker, persuaded Seppala to partner with her in launching “Poland Spring Seppala Kennels” at the resort in Poland Spring, Maine. This is the birth of my kennel’s namesake- Poland Spring Seppala Kennels.
For several years they bred, trained and Raced Seppalas throughout new England from this historic kennel. Almost 100 years later, my Poland Spring Seppala Kennel carries on this piece of the Maine’s legacy with the direct descendants of those dogs. After the Poland Spring Kennel years, Seppala returned to Alaska, and most of the kennel was liquidated to Harry Wheeler in Quebec, Willaim Shearer of Massachusetts, and few others. McFaul carried the breed forward into the 1960’s. It is important to note that each of these breeders maintained the Seppala as a separate breed, apart from the mainstream Siberian Husky lines. By the early 1970’s The Seppala Siberian was almost extinct. There were no longer any kennels dedicated to it’s preservation. An American born Canadian named Jeffrey Bragg was a Siberian Husky enthusiast. But he soon became enamored with the Seppala Siberian Sleddog and decided to dedicate his life to rescuing the breed.
Jeffrey Bragg and Tonya of Seppala
Jeffrey Bragg almost singlehandedly rescued the Seppala Siberian from the brink of extinction. Researching pedigrees and purchasing the aging purebred dogs, Bragg began a breeding program at his Markovo Kennels that serves as the major touchstone for breeders of Seppalas today. So much so that, by the time I had come to Seppalas at the turn of the century, the phrase “Markovo Pure” was used amongst breeders to imply that if one traced the pedigree back to a Markovo Dog, it was presumed to be pure Seppala From that dog back.
A prolific writer, Jeffrey Bragg has generated a wealth of knowledge about the breed that continues to inform enthusiasts today. I was honored to spend a weekend with Jeffrey Bragg on two separate occasions during the first decade of this century. The first was when he relocated his kennel from Yukon Canada to Manitoba. Aging and looking to the future, he wanted to relocate “Seppala Kennels” to the geographic center of the continent to better facilitate an expanding breeding program of prospective satellite kennels. I drove the 3,000 mile round trip to help set up fencing and to bring home a bred bitch from his kennel. Just as important as these goals was the honor of meeting the man I believed to be a living Seppala legend. The second trip was after the Jeffrey Bragg’s marriage to Maine Chinook dog breeder, Susan Bragg. I loaded a horse trailer full of personal belongings at her family farm here in Maine and made the 3,000 mile round trip again to deliver her belongings and bring home a few more Seppalas to my Poland Spring Kennel. I found Jeffrey to be a mixture of brilliance and eccentricity, as is often the case that those two characteristics are paired. He had a single-minded devotion and dedicated focus characteristic of men who accomplish great things and leave their mark in the world. “This one thing I do” would define his every waking moment, to the detriment of all else. The Seppala was Jeffrey. Jeffrey was Seppala. And nothing else mattered to him. The 1980’s and 1090’s saw another true musher immerge to take the torch and carry it forward. Doug Willett raced Siberian Huskies early in his mushing career, but transitioned to Seppala Siberian Sleddogs. He not only bred scores of Seppala litters, but proved once again that the breed was still capable of doing what it had initially become so famous for- winning races.
Doug Willett’s great mid-distance racing success brought a surge of new interest in the breed. Over a quarter century, Willett created a network of satellite kennels (Riverview, Deer Creek, Sepp-Lok, Chuckchi, TayMarr etc). Eventually Willett and his satellites formed a breed club- The International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club. Initially, Bragg and Willett attempted to work together in the launch of this club, but these two strong minded leaders soon butted heads. As an aside, most of my first Seppalas were bred by Doug Willett at his Seppalta Kennels- Freud of Seppalta, Eve of Seppalta (daughter of the famous Race of Seppalta. Others came from Doug's Satelite Kennel Tay Marr, owned by Bob and Tammy Davis- Tay Marr's Jade and Tay Marr's Pirate.
Jonathan Hayes with Eve of Seppalta and Tay Marr's Pirate (2004)
Mostly, Willett and Bragg differed on how to deal with the genetic bottleneck of the breed. The Markovo rescue had produced a “Second Founder Effect” that meant the dogs were all more closely related than desired. They both agreed it must be addressed, but differed on how to go about it.
At the risk of oversimplifying the opposing positions, let me here briefly explain the dichotomy.
Bragg rightly noted that Siberian Imports had been used in the past to create breeding options and should be the method used today. Willett noted that since there has been Siberian Husky reintroduction to the Former Soviet block by breed enthusiast, and since there was no way to prove that the import Bragg used was from the same original fountain head, that it would be best (and easier) to judiciously use Siberian Huskies from racing lines- many of which predominantly spring from early Seppala Kennels themselves- as outcross options. Both men had strong points. And it is sad that our breed- already struggling numerically- was split by these two camps.
Over the past two decades, both men have retired from running breeding kennels. Bragg declared his project closed in the early 2010’s. When Willett retired, the International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club (or ISSSC) carried on for a few years, but with two economic recessions and fewer breeders and racer, the club went dormant.
It almost seems that the breed had been propelled forward by the sheer will of these two men, and with the loss of their leadership and vision, the movement waned. In 2018, I reached out to the last board members of the ISSSC and asked them to consider relaunching the club in the hopes of creating a home for the remaining kennels of both camps. The board members agreed to serve until a new election could be held. We did a membership drive and were surprised at the interest. The ISSSC relaunched with twenty-two members. A new election of board members was then held.
The current board of the ISSSC as of this writing retained Tabetha Berge of Deer Creek Seppala Kennels in Wyoming, Zena Thomas as the club’s international board representative in the UK. The new additions to the board were RJ Williams of Evergreen Seppala Kennel in Michigan, and I was also elected to the board from Poland Spring Seppala Kennels here in Maine. I then wrote Doug Willett on behalf of the board to offer him a lifetime honorary position on the board of the club he founded. He agreed and now serves as the tie breaking vote for the board, should any tie breaking votes occur. As we expected, the release of Disney’s movie “Togo” in December of 2019 created a great surge public interest in the descendants of Togo and Seppala’s dogs. Sadly, it has also created a great surge in Siberian Husky breeders claiming to have and sell Seppalas in a successful attempt to cash in on their popularity amongst unsuspecting buyers. There has, therefore, never been a greater need for a breed club to clearly define what is and what isn’t a Seppala. I am honored to serve on the board and help in facilitating the continuance of our beloved breed.
If you’d like to learn more about Seppalas, the International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club, or just hang out with some people who really love heritage breed sled dogs, Check out the club website at www.seppalas.com, drop into our club facebook page, or reach out to our family kennel. Poland Spring Seppalas is on Facebook at (8) Mush Maine- Poland Spring Seppala Kennels | Facebook Or you can drop a comment below! We look forward to hearing from you.
Poland Spring Seppalas at 2019 Can Am Crown Sleddog Race