History of the 1925 Nome Serum Run

Sepp Dives Into Dog Sledding
In 1913, Seppala's employer (Jafet Lindeberg) entrusted him with raising and training a group of the Siberian dogs he'd recently purchased as a gift for the famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first man to lead a successful Antarctic expedition to the South Pole.  There were fifteen dogs in all...females and puppies.  Amundsen was planning a new expedition to the North Pole, and Lindeberg asked Seppala to train up the dogs for the task ahead.  He gladly agreed.  Seppala had become quite an adept dog driver for the Pioneer Gold Mining Company, using his "pupmobile" (a wheeled cart with a gangline and harnesses attached to it), which he would drive along an abandoned railway track to perform various jobs for his employer, so it was a natural choice.  Seppala later related:

"I literally fell in love with them from the start, and I could hardly wait for sledding snow to start their training."

A few weeks after the dogs arrived, Amundsen cancelled the planned expedition, and Lindeberg gave the dogs to Seppala.  These early dogs would provide the beginnings of a breeding program which Seppala would undertake on his own, using not only these dogs, but others he subsequently imported through Ramsay, Goosak or elsewhere.  He established a winter kennel in Nome, and a second -- a summer quarters kennel -- deeper into the interior at a place called "Cape Horn" out on the tundra (around 100 miles/161 kilometers away).

Above: Seppala feeding some of his Siberians at his summer kennels in Cape Horn, Alaska.

By the end of 1913, Seppala had developed a reputation as a capable and exceedingly clever dog driver.  Eventually, he attracted the attention of the famous racer Scotty Allan (who had run in the previous years' All Alaska Sweepstakes races).  Allan pressed Seppala about entering the 1914 race, but he remained undecided on the matter until the last minute.  His team was young and inexperienced, except for his lead dog Suggen, a tough freighting dog.  Seppala also questioned his own stamina, and whether or not he could stand up to the rigors of the four-day trail and the competition of it.  Still, he was a great fan of the races, and followed them since 1908, heading down to Nome's Board of Trade saloon every evening after work to keep track of his favorites, especially Scotty Allan, whom he admired.

In the race, Seppala went up against some tough famous on the racing circuit, including Scotty Allan, Fred Ayer and John "Iron Man" Johnson.  But he was the newcomer, and neither he nor his lead dog knew the trail.  The weather for the race was initially calm.  However, a blizzard blew in out of nowhere, and at the worst possible moment for Seppala.  His team was up on Topkok Mountain, which features a sheer drop to the shores of the Seward Peninsula.  His dogs, pushed forward by a strong tailwind from the blizzard, lost the trail.  Seppala remembers:

"By the time we were making it seemed to me that unless I hit the Topkok cabin, we would run a chance of falling over the cliffs which lined the shore."

And his fears suddenly and very nearly came true.  The team came within 20 feet of the cliff, and were it not for Seppala's quick thinking, and the determination of Suggen, they would have toppled over the 600 foot (183 meter) drop and into the Bering Sea.  The team did not finish the race, and Seppala was very embarrassed, but the experience taught him a great deal about the weather, the trail, and about his dogs and what he could expect of them, and how he should treat them.  And it would serve him well in the future.  For the next three years, until the race was halted because of World War I, Seppala dominated, winning the race every time.  In the intervening years, he continued to build upon his rocketing fame and reputation by using his team to ferry U.S. officials, and fellow employees of the Pioneer Gold Mining Company, around the area, and even speeding to the assistance of the occasional accident victim*.  Once he even helped local police chase down a criminal.  In time, he retired his lead dog, Suggen, and promoted up the dog's son Togo, a dog who had proven not only determined to be on a team, but also that he had the kind of spark needed to be a lead dog.

*In 1917, Nome citizen Esther Birdsall Darling wrote a poem in honor of Seppala and Togo.  Early that year, during the winter, Seppala was driving his team with Togo in the lead, and with a man named Stevenson (the superintendent of the Pioneer Gold Mining Company) in the sled.  He had reached Dime Creek after a 40 mile (64 kilometer) run, when a man ran over to the team, covered in blood and in a very agitated state.  He related to Seppala and Stevenson that Bobby Brown, a mutual friend and fellow All-Alaska Sweepstakes racer from previous years, had been cut up and badly hurt in his sawmill and now lay bleeding and in a mangled condition.  Despite the fact that it was afternoon, and that the only hospital was 62 miles (99.8 kilometers) farther away in Candle, Sepp agreed to get Brown and transport him there, even though there were fresher teams nearby.  His sixteen-dog team, with Togo in the lead and Stevenson and the agitated man accompanying them, rushed to get Brown.  When they found him, one of his legs was all but sawed off, and only hanging by a piece of muscle.  The other leg, an arm, and several ribs were broken, and he was bleeding badly.  They placed him in the sled as best they could and drove on to Candle (leaving the man who informed them of the situation back at the sawmill).  They arrived by 11:00 that night through high winds, low temperatures and blizzard conditions.  And while Brown died in the hospital three days later, Seppala and Togo (and their team) had gotten him there alive. 

Here is the poem Darling wrote:

There's a race on the Trail into Candle
With a Nome Sweepstakes team in the game --
Hear the rhythm and beat of the fast-flying feet
Of the dogs that have earned them a name!
But this contest is not for a record,
Neither cup nor a purse is the goal;
For Seppala, intent, on one mission is bent --
Of racing with Death for a Soul.

Some victories may fade and grow dimmer,
Some laurels no longer stay green;
But his undying race is the heartbreaking pace
Neck and neck with an entry unseen.
For at Dime Creek there was crushed, in a moment,
Bobby Brown, well-beloved far and wide;
Whose life ebbing fast strikes the driver aghast,
As he faces his harrowing ride.

There's the broken and pain-tortured body
Lying heavy on Stevenson's lap.
There are unuttered fears, and his friends' bitter tears,
As they fasten each buckle and strap.
Then the swift-spoken word to the leader,
While as swiftly he answers the same:
"There's a race to be run and a stake to be won --
Come, Togo, live up to your name!"

After weary miles stretching to Candle,
There is skill and a hope for the best.
"Give all of your speed, taking never a heed
Of hunger and thirst, nor of rest."
They are dashing o'er limitless tundra,
Over depths where the ice menace lies;
And the glare of the sun, on that nerve-wracking run,
Is a flame to their half-blinded eyes.

There's the sting and the rage of the blizzard,
As the Arctic unleashes its gale;
There's the night falling gray at the end of the day,
And there's Death riding hard on their Trail.
Man's pluck, and the strength of a dog-team --
"On, Togo!  We trust to your pace."
There's the flash of a light -- then there's Candle in sight --
And Seppala beats Death in the Race!

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