By Robert Forto, PhD
No dog driver has the status, the renown and the respect of his colleagues as does Leonhard Seppala. His fame has lasted far beyond his brief national acclaim following the race to Nome against an epidemic. His greatness has long outlasted his success as a racer. Before his death in 1967 at the age of ninety, Seppala had been made an honorary member of four prestigious organizations: The Siberian Husky Club of America, The International Siberian Husky Club (which was originally chartered as the Seppala Siberian Husky Club), The New England Sled Dog Club and The Norwegian Sled Dog Club.
The longest sled dog race in North America was named for Seppala. When thirty four dog teams left the starting line in Anchorage on March 3, 1973 bound for Nome, in the first thousand-mile Seppala Memorial Iditarod Trail Race, no driver wore Number One. Starting position Number One had been reserved in memory of the most distinguished dog driver of all time.
In 1961, at a testimonial banquet at the Alaska Press Club, Lowe Thomas introduced the 84-year-old musher with sparkling blue eyes as “the greatest dog team driver that ever lived.” For Seppala was an original, an innovator, and a pioneer. There was no aspect of dog driving he left untouched. Even today, over one hundred years after his birth, many Siberian Huskies that race today are descended from Seppala’s Siberians.
At the turn of the century young Seppala left his native Norway, his father’s fishing boat and his apprenticeship with a blacksmith, to join the hundreds of new explorers seeking their fortune in the gold fields of Alaska. He soon discovered that a steady, if less spectacular, way to make money was to have a dog team and to freight supplies to the miners. Within a few years Seppala had the reputation as one of the best dog punchers in the new territory.
His life swerved onto a new trail when inspired by the excitement of the new sled dog races in Nome, he entered and won his first race at age thirty-six. The next year, 1914, he entered the All Alaska Sweepstakes with a team of young Siberian dogs he had been training for the explorer Roald Amundsen. After losing the trail and injuring his dogs, Seppala finished last. He started that race with a leader named Suggen, and he was hooked on sled dog racing.
Seppala trained hard and in secret, far away from town and returned to win the race by over an hour in 1915. He repeated this feat in 1916, and 1917, winning both Sweepstakes by large margins. Seppala was to obtain permanent possession of the Siberians when Amundsen’s North Pole trip was cancelled. Seppala’s appreciation of the imported huskies was immediately apparent and years later he wrote, “Once more the little Siberians had proved their superiority over the other dogs and I was proud to have been their driver and to have brought them in such good condition.”
Seppala’s continuing success put him on “top of the list when the chairman of Nome’s Board of Health was looking for fast teams to go for the diphtheria serum being relayed in from Anchorage.”
Seppala’s leader by then was Togo, a son of Suggen. Togo, destined to be a hero as the result of his valiant leadership across the trackless treachery of Norton Sound, began life as a spoiled, hard to handle pup. He was the offspring of some of Fox Ramsay’s Siberian imports. Part of his early training including running free beside the big team, which he loved, but one day he ran into a team of tough Malamutes and was badly chewed up. Perhaps this is one of the ways a future lead dog learns part of his lessons, for Togo became the best passer Seppala ever had. Togo was a master at leading his team well out of reach of any other dogs on the trail.
After the successful life-saving race to Nome, Seppala toured the East Coast of the United States. In 1927 he took his whole team to New England and proceeded to win race after race. He won New England Sled Dog Club races in Maine and New Hampshire; he won Eastern International Dog Derby’s in Quebec; he raced in Lake Placid, although Canada’s great Emile St. Godard did beat him for first place in the Olympic Games exhibition race. Everywhere he went, if he was not actually racing, he was “talking dogs.” Many future dog drivers learned the basics, the fun and the dangers of driving sled dogs by listening whenever “Sepp” was around.
Eastern mushers became just as enamored of the Siberian Huskies as was Seppala and, with his help, selective breeding programs were started at several kennels. Seppala was looking for a slightly larger dog without diminishing alertness, grace and the lightness of foot had contributed to this natural breed’s success in racing. These new kennels provided this by mixing their bloodlines with his.
In addition to the dogs, Seppala introduced to the East at least two innovations to the sport of dog sled racing. To New Englander’s familiar with the single file freight hitch brought from Alaska by Arthur Walden, Seppala’s method of hooking the dogs in pairs with a single leader looked strange. Nothing bodes better for an innovation than success however, and this double tandem hitch, with occasional slight modifications, is standard in races today. The other novelty presented by Seppala was the driver’s more active participation in the race. Although dog punchers and long-distance racers usually ran beside their sleds, the sprint racers would stand on the runners of their lighter sleds, jumping off only to run uphill. Seppala broke through this prevailing concept by introducing a pedaling motion. With one leg, as though on a scooter, timing his push with the dogs’ strides to keep the sled moving at an even rate.
Seppala and his wife returned to Alaska in the mid-thirties, and then after retirement moved to Seattle, Washington. In 1960 the chipper little man flew to Laconia to serve as honorary judge at the World Championships Sled Dog Derby. He was eighty-three years young and still delighted with the sled dogs. He reflected on his forty-five years of dog driving, his quarter of a million miles by dog team, his ninety-three silver cups and eight gold medals. The people of Laconia knew they were witnessing a giant in the sport.
Beyond the trophies, the Seppala-strain sled dogs, the inspired dog drivers, the innovations and contributions to the sport, lies the quality of the man. In a sport where handling dogs well is a necessity, the best still pay tribute to Seppala’s skillful relationship with his dogs. In a sport where some try to win with pressure and punishment, Seppala’s unequalled triumphs were achieved with kindness and encouragement. A driver could be running a good race, but he knew if Seppala was in it, chances were good that the little Siberian team would go flying past, almost soundless. Many mushers would say that Seppala would just cluck them every now and then, and the dogs would lay into their harnesses harder than they have ever seen before. One competitor said, “Something came out of him and went into those dogs with that clucking sound. He passed me every day of the race and I wasn’t loafing any.”
After a long day Seppala would reach for his parka and cap and go out to his dogs one more time before retiring for the night to check on their comfort. Out would go that little weather-beaten Alaskan, a man who pinned his faith and his life on the good health, endurance and loyalty of his dogs.