Winter for people in Alaska’s past was not as easy to endure as are ones we experience today.
Ice skating was done only on ponds, not indoors. Long john underwear was made of wool, not quilted rayon, and while keeping you warm, it was uncomfortable to wear. Fur parkas were heavy and cumbersome. And battery-operated hand warmers were still a thing of the distant future.
Yet, there was plenty of opportunity to have fun during the cold and short winter days.
Today, NASCAR events let fanciers of one type of vehicle compete against owners of a different kind as they try to prove which is faster. At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, automobiles were still in their infancy. In the far north, dogs were the beasts of burden. They were depended upon to pull sleds loaded with gear and people headed there from here. But the competitive spirit of racing was as strong then as now.
Along the Yukon, those who whiled away the time while waiting for the ice to thaw bragged about their dogs. Which could pull the heaviest load? Which team was the fastest? What musher could best handle his team over a long distance and reach his destination with the dogs still in good condition?
Those questions were debated around pot-bellied stoves in saloons all across the Northland. Before long, it was either put up or shut up.
In the Nome area, several short races were held under the sponsorship of the Nome Kennel Club, formed by a group of mushers, in the first decade of 1900. Most of the early teams were made up of dogs used to haul freight, driven by the men who used them in their jobs. They were large dogs, strong and able to endure over long distances.
In the fall of 1907, the idea of a long-distance race was broached. The club embraced the idea, offering a large cash prize and a silver trophy to the winner. Gambling was a popular pastime in Nome and the race, to be known as the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, became a popular event. Its course was to follow the Army’s telegraph line from Nome to Candle and return, a total distance of 408 miles. The route was chosen because its terrain varied from flat land to hills and was cleared. Several telegraph stations positioned along the route made it possible for updates so that fans could follow their favorites.
Esther Birdsall Darling described the purpose of the race: “It was early seen that not only would the races furnish much of the winter entertainment, but that there would also be a consistent effort on the part of the dog owners and dog drivers to improve the breed of sled dogs, which up to this time had been but little considered; an effort to instill into all dog users an intelligent understanding of the accepted fact that care and kindness to their dogs bring the quickest and surest returns from all standpoints. This has resulted in the development of such a high standard for dogs that not alone is their worth acknowledged throughout Alaska, but their supremacy is conceded the world over.”
Darling, the wife of the co-owner of a Nome hardware store, was a founder of the Nome Kennel Club and its president in 1916. She partnered with musher Scotty Allan in a kennel of sled dogs. She authored several books on racing and the proper care of dogs. Allan was to become a three-time winner of the Sweepstakes, as was Leonhard Seppala.
Emphasis on the welfare of the dogs showed in the race rules.
Each team could be made up of 10 to 20 dogs, and all must be present at the finish line even if sick or dead.
Record time for the race was gained in 1910 by John “Iron Man” Johnson, who completed the race in 74 hours, 14 minutes, 37 seconds. He was to win again in 1914. The Sweepstakes races were run from 1908 through 1917 when they were suspended due to the Great War. Two commemorative races were held, the first in 1983 on the 75th anniversary of the first event and on the centennial anniversary in 2008. In the 2008 race, Alaskan Mitch Seavy was to set a new record time of 61 hours, 29 minutes and 45 seconds.
The Sweepstakes races are credited with introducing the Siberian Husky breed to America. Fox Maule Ramsay, the relative of an English nobleman by the same name, brought 60 of the Siberians to Nome and entered three teams, one driven by himself and the other two by other mushers, including Johnson.
In the initial race, the appearance of the smaller and thinner Siberians brought derisive reaction. The dogs were dubbed “Siberian Rats.” The performance of the three teams, though, quickly caught the attention of serious mushers. They were not only fast and had good endurance, but were very intelligent.
Two descendants of the original imports were to become famous worldwide. A diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome in 1925. Balto, lead dog in the team of Gunnar Kaasen, was heralded as the hero when they reached Nome with the life-saving serum. Togo, Seppala’s lead dog, however, was the real hero of that grueling event. His owner was to be forever dismayed that it was Balto and not Togo who was memorialized by a movie and statue in New York City’s Central Park.
Togo was born Oct 17, 1913, sired by Seppala’s lead dog Suggen, one of Ramsay’s Siberians.
He was smaller than others in the litter and, while mischievous, was slow to train. At six months old, his owner gave him to a friend as a pet. The pup, however, ran back to his owner’s kennel. Difficult to control, Seppala found that if put in harness, the dog was eager to run with the team. The dog worked his way up until set in lead alongside the regular leader. It was there Togo tangled with a much larger malamute leading an oncoming team and came out by far the loser. Recovering from his injuries, he decided henceforth to give plenty of clearance to other teams on the trail. Seppala then realized he had a dog on which he could depend.
Notified of a potential epidemic on Jan. 22, 1925, officials decided to rush a supply of serum from Anchorage by train to Nenana and from there to Nome by a relay of dog teams. Twenty experienced mushers readily agreed to position their teams at strategic points along the route.
In Nome, Seppala was the obvious choice to make the dangerous trek across Norton Sound. He left for Shaktoolik where he was scheduled to rest before receiving the metal container containing vials wrapped in quilting for protection against freezing. After three days and covering 170 miles, the team was hailed by Henry Ivanoff, who had picked up the antitoxin in Shaktoolik after it reached there ahead of schedule. It was Jan. 31.
Seppala decided to immediately turn back and retrace his steps without stopping to rest.
The temperature was at minus 30 with a heavy wind making the chill factor 85 below zero. Headed west across the Sound and into the storm, the musher could not make out the train through the ice floes. Although then 12 years old, Togo was able to navigate through to a roadhouse at Pilot’s Point where Seppala paused to feed the dogs and take a six-hour rest. Resuming, he drove his team over the 5,000-foot Little McKinley Mountain before descending to Golovin. There on Feb. 1, he was able to pass the precious package to Charlie Olsen who in turn passed it to Klaasen. The serum arrived in Nome at 530 a.m. on Feb. 2. Not a single vial had been broken. The serum was ready for use by noon and was sufficient to stave off the threat.
The event was widely celebrated throughout the world as news of the historic relay effort was spread.
Later, Seppala took Togo and the team on a tour which included Madison Square Gardens in New York City. In 1960, he was quoted as saying, “I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty, and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.”
A house in Nome where Seppala once lived has been moved from its original location and is to be restored and used as a museum. A fundraising effort is underway by the Seppala House Project. Information is available at http://www.leonhardseppalahouseproject.com.