Leonhard Seppala was small of stature, but strong and persistent. In Alaska he became known as “the Big Norwegian”.
Seppala was among the most accomplished dogsled riders of his time. Much due to his tireless work, the dog breed Siberian husky, also called “Seppala husky”, is still used as sled dogs today.
He was also central in the rescue operation when diphtheria was ravaging the children in Nome, Alaska.
Born in Skibotn, Troms
Leonard Isaksen Seppala was born in Skibotn, Troms, on September 14, 1877. The surname was originally Seppälä which means blacksmith in Finnish. His grandfather, the blacksmith Isak Lars Larsson Seppälä, came from the village of Junosuando in Pajala municipality of Sweden, but moved with the whole family to Skibotn in Norway.
The son Isak married Anne (Henrikka) Henriksdatter from Lyngen. When Leonhard was 2 years old the family moved to Skjervøy where his father worked as a farmer, blacksmith and fisherman. Leonhard was the oldest of his siblings and had to help at home on the farm at an early age. He became a blacksmith apprentice and from the age of 12 he also went along on the strenuous, yearly fishing expeditions to Finnmark.
When the multi-millionaire and gold miner Jafet Lindeberg came visiting from America he immediately became a great hero among the youngsters at Skjervøy.
Lindeberg offered to pay for Leonhard’s travel to Alaska. In return he would have to work at Lindeberg’s Pioneer Mining Company. Leonhard accepted the offer and soon after he arrived in Nome, Alaska.
From gold to dog sledding
However, it was not the gold that would make Seppala into “the big man”, it was the dogs. On ice and snow in Alaska, dog sledding was both a means of transport and leisure. Seppala quickly became an accomplished dog driver. Small in stature, but strong he had a perfect body for the task and as a Norwegian he was used to harsh winter conditions. He was reluctant, but was persuaded to participate in a minor race in 1907, The Moose Burden Handicap Race, and to his own surprise he won!
Leonhard Seppala used the opportunity that suddenly opened up for him. The next 12 years he won all dog sledding races he participated in.
The race “All Alaska Sweepstakes” was a 657 km long race from Nome across the Seward Peninsula to Candle and back. The cash prizes could reach up to $ 10,000 and Seppala won the race three times. He also held the record for the distance Fairbanks – Nome, 1086 km in 13 days, with a passenger. He averaged 83.5 km per day.
Seppala, the life saver
Seppala won great fame in the winter of 1925 when diphtheria ravaged among the children in Nome. It was about life and death to get the serum against the disease from Anchorage to Nome. The weather was stormy and with temperatures down to -35 degrees C the airlines at that time could not manage the hazardous journey. It was determined to try to transport the serum by dog sled. This was a distance of 1085 km over the deadly ice of the Norton Strait and across the mountains and wilderness of Alaska.
The distance had to be taken in stages, but the time factor was important and the transport was thus set up as a relay so the serum could be transported without breaks.
A dog team set out from Anchorage and Leonhard Seppala started with his team from Nome towards them. When the teams met he was handed over the serum. On the return trip new teams with rested dogs were in relay. That way relays continued until Nome was reached and many of the children were saved.
Seppala and his lead dog Togo had covered more than 500 km. None of the other dog teams covered more than 85 km of this legendary race. Two of Seppala’s dog teams were included in the relay, the second team made the final stretch and were led by Gunnar Kaasen. He was from Kvænangen, also in Troms.
Seppala died on January 29th, 1967, almost 90 years old. He is buried in Nome, but a memorial has been erected in Skibotn in Norway.
Leonhard Seppala was appointed an honorary member of the Norwegian Sled Dog Club (Norsk Trekkhundklubb) in 1950. This club is still arranging the Seppala Race every year.