LEONHARD SEPPALA is Viking Gold!
Leonhard Seppala, is arguably the greatest dog driver in history. Though he didn’t exceed five feet in height, his work with the Siberian husky is legendary. “Sepp,” as he was known to most, is equally remembered for his expertise in importing, raising, training, and breeding this “fast, strong, and enduring” dog, native to the Chukchi people of Siberia. No one has come close to Sepp’s reputation in handling Siberian huskies and controlling his sled. Some say he must have hypnotized his dogs, they responded so well to him. More than this, his dogs laid the foundation and pedigree for AKC registered Siberian huskies in America today. Without Sepp leaving Norway to follow the lure of adventure and gold in frontier Nome at the turn of the twentieth century, there would be no more Siberian husky in America or likely anywhere else. This fact is little known, but well documented.
Leonhard Seppala’s character figures prominently in Arctic Will, the third book in Watch Eyes Trilogy. This frontier fiction fantasy comes historically alive, under his guiding hand. There’s no greater treasure to the Siberian husky name and sled dog history than Leonhard Seppala and the story he lived out on America’s last frontier. Thus, Sepp is true Viking gold! I wanted to capture the history he made during gold rush days and the hay day of sled dog racing, on the pages of the closing book in my arctic series.
A fit, athletic, tough, self-reliant Norwegian, Sepp achieved the status of master blacksmith in Oslo but returned home when his childhood sweetheart he was about to marry, died. He farmed in his village until his good friend, Jafet Lindeberg, urged Sepp to join him in Nome and work for his Pioneer Mining Company. Lindeberg was one of the “Lucky Swedes” who first discovered gold in Anvil Creek. Sepp arrived in Nome, June 14, 1900. He had to learn mining from the ground up. Grueling night work, shoveling, sluicing, and driving a wagon—all against the constant roar of the Arctic Ocean and in Alaska’s unforgiving weather—provided hardships that Sepp met day in and day out, no matter what.
Everything changed for him when Jafet Lindeberg sent him to the Kougarok gold strike to help drive sled dog teams, needed to pull wagon loads. The mongrel mixes weighed well over a hundred pounds, yet “pulled loads that would have staggered ordinary dogs,” Sepp had said. He’d never worked with dogs before but took to this right away. This would prove to be his life- long work and passion. From the start, he could work magic with these animals.
Watch Eyes Trilogy gives an account of the running of the All Alaska Sweepstakes, begun in 1908 by the Nome Kennel Club. With the inception of sled dog racing, the popular sport of skiing would take a back seat. Instead of being drawn to a ski event, people gathered now to watch the excitement of the four hundred eight mile sweepstakes over the toughest terrain the Alaska frontier offered. In 1913 Sepp was charged with raising and training Chukchi dogs/Siberian huskies; primarily females and puppies. The next year he decided to race his team in the All Alaska Sweepstakes, but a blizzard forced him to drop out when he and his team came too close to the cliffs’ edge, and almost fell two hundred feet into the waiting Bering Sea! His dogs’ bloody paws and injuries suffered during this disastrous run taught Sepp a lesson he’d never forget. He vowed he would not put his beloved huskies in such danger again.
Not only did Sepp win the 1915 All Alaska Sweepstakes with his Siberian team, but he proved to be a consistent winner over the years.
In 1916, when the Ruby Kennel Club challenged the Nome Kennel Club to a race, no one would accept the challenge from the native Yukon drivers but Leonhard Seppala. Later that night in a saloon after his win, Sepp evidently heard a local gambler who’d bet on Ruby, complaining, and recalled the following:
“I saw a small man about my own size. He looked me over from head to foot, then nodded his head up and down, saying to me: ‘So that is all there is to you — and still you got away with my twelve hundred dollars with those little plume-tail rats of yours! … I am a small man myself, but always admired big men and big dogs, and it has cost me twelve hundred dollars to learn that it is not always size that wins.'”
With the advent of WWI, the era of sled-dog racing in Nome came to an abrupt end.
What happens next to Sepp and his beloved huskies might just break your heart.