Often photographed in his signature parka, with his handsome huskies beside him, legendary Alaskan dog driver Leonhard Seppala cuts a giant swath across sled dog racing history. Born in Norway, Seppala emigrated to Alaska during the gold rush and learned to drive dogs by hauling freight and supplies for the mines around Nome. His kennel partner in later years, Elizabeth M. Ricker, described Sepp as "a modest, unassuming character," but she also unhesitatingly defines him as "King of the Alaskan Trail."
Seppala entered his first All Alaska Sweepstakes race in 1914, but being unfamiliar with the trail, he made a grave miscalculation and lost. He returned the following year and won, and he won again in 1916 and 1917, equaling the record of another great dog driver, "Scotty" Allan. When the 1925 diptheria epidemic threatened Nome -- and Sepp's own daughter -- he and his dauntless team travelled over 260 miles in "The Great Race of Mercy," and thereby secured their place in history.
The most famous dog in Seppala's kennel, Balto, wasn't even supposed to be in the Serum Run; in fact, he'd never led a team before. He was a freighting dog, and Seppala had selected against including him in the team when he left Nome. It was only when the Governor of Alaska decided to speed up the relay, by authorizing the addition of more drivers to Seppala's leg at the end, that Sepp's young assistant Gunnar Kaasen chose the big, black Balto, whom he had long favored, to lead his team.
Seppala's easy choice had been his older, trusted leader, a small, tough husky called Togo. He was a Siberian husky with a black, brown and gray coat, and he weighed less than 50 pounds. But what Togo lacked in size he made up for in heart, and Seppala considered Togo his best sled dog, a strong and determined leader. Sepp wrote "I can safely say that he has won more races than any dog in Alaska." Named after a Japanese Admiral, Seppala often said that Togo was "the best dog that ever traveled the Alaskan trail" and "I never had a better dog than Togo."
The largely unsung hero of Seppala's kennel, Togo's half-brother and also a veteran of the Serum Run, was Fritz. Born in 1915 and bred by Seppala, Fritz was a cream-colored Siberian husky with a mottled brown and gray saddle, neck and head markings, who became an important foundation sire in early Siberian husky pedigrees. He often led Seppala's team in tandem with Togo in races and on cross-country jaunts, and during the Serum Run he was co-leading with Togo. In Elizabeth Ricker's biographical book, Seppala, Alaskan Dog Driver, Sepp called Fritz "a great dog."
Balto, Togo and Fritz were all mounted after they died, and their tales -- especially Fritz's long journey back to Nome's Carrie McLain museum -- are interesting examinations of what happened in the aftermath of the great publicity and controversy surrounding the 1925 Serum Run to Nome. Togo is on display at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race headquarters cabin in Wasilla; Balto is still at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Cleveland, Ohio.
At the end of Elizabeth Ricker's book, Leonhard Seppala writes about leaving his old friend Togo in her care, and it must have been difficult for him to write the final lines: "It seemed best to leave him ... where he could enjoy a well-earned rest. But it was a sad parting on a cold gray March morning when Togo raised a small paw to my knee as if questioning why he was not going along with me. For the first time in twelve years I hit the trail without Togo."
Leonhard Seppala: www.seppalas.org/leonhardseppala.htm
All Alaska Sweepstakes: www.allalaskasweepstakes.org
Nome Serum Run: www.serumrun.org/
Helen Hegener is an author and a documentary filmmaker specializing in long distance sled dog races and the men, women and dogs who run them. Learn more at Northern Light Media.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing