Dog Sledding: The Amazing True Story Of Leonhard Seppala And His Dogs
While sled dog races may be relatively new, the working relationship between humans and their canine companions is a tale as old as time. The archeological remnants of dog sleds date back to 1,000 AD.
Although it’s disputed as to who exactly invented dog sledding, the practice was first adopted by the indigenous peoples of Northern Canada, North America, and Siberia. Even in the parched landscape of the North American plains, First Nations women built the travois: a dog sled designed to be pulled by dogs and horses on dry land.
The travois was used mostly to transport wood and food, as were all early dog sleds. Later, they were adapted to carry humans through the snow.
Dog sledding was born out of necessity, and remained so until 1908, when the first dog sled race took place in Alaska.
The Remarkable True Story Of Leonhard Seppala
Norwegian-born Leonhard Seppala emigrated to Alaska after his friend, Jafet Lindeberg, offered him a job during the Nome gold rush of the 1900s.
Although mining for gold in Nome was lucrative, conditions were brutal. The work was backbreaking, and the Alaskan winters made Seppala yearn for Norway. Seppala contemplated returning to Norway, but everything changed after Lindeberg charged Seppala with transporting goods via sled dogs. Seppala enjoyed spending time with the dogs, and found dashing through the snow on a sled far more enjoyable than spending time in the mines.
Although sled dogs are now synonymous with Huskies, the Siberian Husky had not yet been bred in the early 20th century. In fact, it is believed that Seppala himself developed the breed that we now recognize as the Husky.
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A Russian fur trader named William Goosak brought 10 small “Siberian dogs” to Alaska in 1909, where he raced them against the local sled dogs in the first recorded dog race. Local Alaskans refused to believe that the lithe Siberian dog could beat the heavy-set Alaskan dogs, but they were sorely disappointed when Goosak’s dogs dominated the race.
Seppala was later given a litter of Siberian puppies, whom he began to train and breed as sled dogs. By 1914, Seppala had earned a reputation as the best dog sledder in Alaska, and he was encouraged to join the All Alaska Sweepstakes races with his dogs. It was a last-minute decision, but Seppala did join the race for the four-day trail with his team of dogs. However, bad luck would plague his maiden voyage across the Alaskan wilderness.
Neither Seppala nor his dogs were familiar with the trail, and once a blizzard set in, conditions began to deteriorate.
Fearing that he was lost in a whiteout, Seppala brought his sled to a stop to try and pinpoint how close he was to the perilous cliffs that gave way to the frigid Bering Sea. As it turned out, he was a mere 20 feet from the edge of the cliffs. When Seppala checked on his dogs, he found that they had shredded paws and broken claws from the journey. Feeling as if he had betrayed his dogs, he quit the race immediately.
Although Seppala would race again, with dogs that had been properly trained and prepared for the rigid conditions, it wasn’t a competitive dog race that cemented his status in history. Instead, it was a race against time to save his home village of Nome, Alaska.
In 1925, Nome was plagued by an outbreak of diphtheria. Diphtheria was a serious infection of the nose and throat that proved fatal to the villagers who fell ill. The outbreak occurred during the middle of the worst winter Nome had seen in 25years, and the only cure was an antitoxin serum. However, Nome’s serum supplies were past their expiration date and couldn’t help those who fell sick — including Seppala’s 8-year-old daughter who lived in Nome.
The only way to transport the serum through 400 miles of treacherous terrain was via dog sled. Those familiar with the route knew there was only one dog sledder with enough experience to pull it off.
Seppala’s route included a perilous shortcut through the Norton Sound. Although this would cut a day off the total journey, it would be the most dangerous leg of the trail. The Norton Sound, an inlet of the Bering Sea, was open water during the summer months and a giant ice rink throughout the winter. The ice underfoot was constantly moving, and small cracks could develop in seconds, potentially plunging the team into freezing, fatal waters. There are no trees, rocks, or mountains to protect the sledder from the winds, which reached 70 mph with a windchill of minus -100°F. The ice routinely broke apart during high winds, and an unwitting team could find themselves suddenly stranded on an iceberg floating into open waters.
Seppala’s three day race across the Norton Sound was chaotic. Upon reaching the Norton Sound, Seppala had to choose between continuing the journey in the dark as a blizzard closed in, or lose a day waiting for the weather to pass. He chose to ride out in the darkness, where he couldn’t see or hear the ice around him. He raced through the Sound, taking only a few hours to rest while running 84 miles a day.
Seppala managed to avoid soft spots in the ice and the open water, but just a few hours after he had touched down on solid land, the ice behind him suddenly broke apart and floated out into the Bering Sea. But despite conditions that made the Sweepstakes race look like a walk on the beach, Seppala handed over the serum, and the village was saved.
Every year afterwards, Seppala’s amazing race was commemorated with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Seppala’s only brush with heroism. According to one story, after a man was badly hurt in a sawmill accident, Seppala and his dogs traveled 40 miles through the snow with the injured man to get him to a hospital.
Balto — the secondary dog in the Serum rush — was commemorated with a bronze statue in Central Park. This actually angered Seppala, who felt the efforts of the lead dog, Togo, were ignored! However, Disney acquired the rights to Togo and Seppala’s story, and a film is currently being developed based around the events of the serum run to Nome.
Dog Sledding Today
Since the advent of snowmobiles and airplanes, sled dogs are seldom used in Alaska for travel or transporting goods. However, dog sledding — or mushing, as it’s also known — is still a popular recreational activity in Alaska and other places with intense snowfall.
Only dogs trained for sledding should be used as sled dogs, but if you’re aching to try it out, there are multiple dog sledding tours available in snowy regions like Colorado and Alaska. Alternatively if you’re dreaming of frolicking through the snow with your own pack of dogs, you can look into local dog mushing associations to find training resources and equipment.