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Defining the True Seppala Bloodline

THE 1976 BOOK, The Seppala Siberian: A Breeder’s Manual, contained the simplest basic definition of Seppala strain:

Seppala Siberian: Any registered Siberian Husky whose pedigree lineage may be traced back exclusively to foundation stock bred by Leonhard Seppala or imported directly from Siberia.
This definition still holds good today, unchanged really since the 1940s when the distinction first began to be made between “Seppala Siberians” and other Siberian Huskies. It remains the one infallible touchstone to distinguish the true Seppala. However, the “registered Siberian Husky” reference is rapidly becoming obsolete now as Seppalas take on their true identity as a separate breed.
Attempts to re-define Seppala strain occurred in two books published in 1986 and 1992 by Douglas W. Willett, replacing the original definition to favour the Willett practice of cross-straining Seppalas with a wide variety of other stock, mostly but not all from mainstream Siberian Husky bloodlines. The re-definition involved an arbitrary “founders list” (which failed to include all known founders contributory to the strain), joined to a “percentage system” that attempted to quantify the actual proportion of Seppala ancestry in a given dog. The Willett percentage system has undergone continual change since its inception, according to the evolution of the Racing Siberian Husky based breeding programme carried out by Willett and his “satellite kennels.”

Large numbers of animals bred and sold under the Willett percentage system have tended to result in considerable confusion in the minds of many regarding how “Seppala” may be defined, as well as whether this or that individual dog should or should not be considered a Seppala. The practice of calculating a Seppala percentage for any Siberian Husky out of racing bloodlines has pretty much obscured the true Seppala genetic identity in the popular mind.

Actually the correct name for the ISSSC/ConKC sleddog is “Racing Siberian Husky”; that is what it should be called to avoid total confusion and to respect the traditional definition of Seppala strain. Current ISSSC practice appears to consider virtually any racing Siberian bloodline, including the Seeley-based strains like Anadyr and Igloo Pak, as a “percentage Seppala.” The ISSSC website claims 500 Continental KC “Seppala” registrations in the two year period ending in summer 2004! (This number does not include AKC Siberians from the same bloodlines not registered with ConKC, nor does it include the SSSD Project Seppala Siberian Sleddogs.) It is unlikely that even one-quarter of that number would satisfy the original definition given above.

There is really no need for confusion. Seppala ancestry is very easy to determine. Once a five or six-generation pedigree has been worked out for the dog in question, anyone can quickly verify Seppala status (although some lines may have to be extended another two or three generations). Every pedigree line should trace back either to one of the ten Markovo-period “Second Foundation” dogs, or to contemporary Siberia import stock such as the Sergei Solovyev dogs. The ten names to look for are as follows:

No other pure Seppalas of the post-McFaul period engendered pure-strain bloodlines that survive today! (Other Seppalas were bred but only cross-strain lines survive today from any dogs other than the ten named above.) If every pedigree line not derived from contemporary stock from Siberia is closed by one of these names, no matter in what generation, then the pedigree is a Seppala pedigree, because all of these founders in turn trace their pedigrees back to the McFaul/Shearer Seppala mainstream.
December 2007 Update: Owners of “percentage-seppala” stock are advised that I.S.A. is not currently approving applications for exceptional acceptance of percentage stock no matter how high the claimed percentage. For a time we had hoped there might be a way to steer a middle way, accepting a few exceptional individuals from high-percentage Seppala bloodlines. As the situation has developed over the past two years, however, it has become less desirable for us to maintain an exceptions policy. There are basically three reasons for this position:
(1) Claimed percentages have been found to be consistently much higher than the actual McFaul/Shearer bloodline content, causing arguments about the actual percentage when analysis is carried out. ISSSC policy from the outset has been to exaggerate Seppala percentages, claiming “100% Seppala” status for many individuals whose actual McFaul/Shearer content may range from 88 to 95 percent, and claiming 75-80% Seppala content for mainstream racing Siberian bloodlines that were never eligible for inclusion in the SSSD Project. This in turn has led many owners to believe their dogs to be genuine Seppalas when such is not the case, at least in Project terms.

(2) Serious questions have arisen concerning pedigree reliability in more than one widely-distributed bloodline, cases in which DNA analysis has disproved the claimed pedigree. Thus we are reluctant to accept stock whose pedigrees are unsupported by WCAC/ISA photographic proof of matings. Percentage Seppala calculations and pedigree analysis have no meaning or usefulness when the pedigree itself cannot be relied upon to reflect actual parentage and ancestry.

(3) Pure-strain Markovo-Seppala stock has become extremely scarce, while “percentage” strains linebred on individual animals unacceptable to the Project has become widely prevalent. It is feared that if percentage applications are allowed at this time, under these circumstances, core Project bloodlines might be swamped by exception and grade applications.

For these reasons it is felt by the Board that in order to safeguard core bloodlines and to avoid arguments with applicants, it is prudent not to allow such applications for the time being. The safety of this decision is backed up by the quality of animals currently produced by the Solovyev/Seppala matings in Project stock, together with the addition of less-related SSSD stock from the Cal Segu bloodline. Since Project ideals are becoming abundantly fulfilled by the current core breeding programme, we see no need to complicate matters by adding RSH bloodlines with no clear end in view.
(A more detailed discussion of Seppala definitions can be found on the SSSD Project Website’s “Seppala Definitions” Page.)

The Story of Leonhard Seppala and Arthur T. Walden

Did they ever meet during the Gold Rush?
BOTH MEN were present for a time in Nome during the Alaskan Gold Rush. Seppala came from Norway to take up residence there in 1900, at the urging of his friend and subsequent employer, Jafet Lindeberg (one of the “Three Lucky Swedes” to strike the first $1,500-to-the-pan on Anvil Creek in 1898). Walden came to the Yukon and Alaska from New England, up from St. Michael to Nome with his team of dogs, by sail boat and on foot, in the summer of 1900, and lived there first with two men, Captain Major, a former sealer captain, and Jack Dustin, his former mate. That fall, after he and his propecting partner’s late season attempt to stake a claim near Grantley Harbor was flooded and washed away, he returned to Nome and took up residence in a sod cabin on the edge of the tundra, and said things went “rather hard” for him and everybody in town that winter. In his own telling of the time in his 1928 book, A Dog Puncher On The Yukon:

“The trips that I got in with my dogs just about paid expenses while they lasted, and most of them were only for a few days. But I was much farther ahead than the poor chaps who had no dogs and had no way of making any money whatever. The town took care of a great many of these people and gave them shoveling to do, but the saloon-men and gambers were the foremost in all charity work. There was a saying in this country, ‘If you ever want charity, ask it from the gamblers and the demi-monde.’
“When the winter was about half over, I had a call from a man who was commissioner at Point Blossom, north of Kotzebue Sound. he wanted to go over there prospecting, taking enough food to last till the middle of summer, when the boats would be coming in. I didn’t know this particular trip, and the three other drivers he engaged had never driven dogs until this winter and didn’t know much about rough work. My team was composed of six dogs in the old-fashioned Yukon hitch, tandem, with two sleds and a gee-pole. The other three teams used the old type of Alaskan basket sled, which is rather like the modern type used for traveling up there now, only longer. These latter sleds were twelve feet long and twenty-two inches wide.”
Walden began a return trip to Nome several weeks later to pick up food for the commissioner, but got snowed in at Topkok. He wrote he “spent the rest of the winter making trips to the outlying country.” One of these was with his partner Fred Fay and another man. At camp, they made a day trip to Nome for more rations, but when they finally got back to Nome later to stay, he said his own sod house was the first one they came to, planning to cook dinner there before the party dispuersed to their own homes. They found the place had been robbed, but luckily for the culprit, didn’t quite catch the man in the act. The friend of the commissioner’s who was supposed to have put up some money for food for him was “busted,” so Walden stayed put in Nome until April (1901), when he met a man that he said “shared the desire I had always had of going prospecting in the region bordering on the Arctic Circle.” Walden continues:

“The part we wanted to explore lay just south of the Circle and hear the east end of Kotsebue Sound. This country was just being explored. A few prospectors had run over it the summer before. It was a timberless, rolling tundra, and a terrible place for blizzards.
“We started and were gradually feeling our way along, not knowing exactly where we wanted to go, or where we should be, once we got there. The sledding was fairly good for the first hundred and fifty miles from Nome, but from there on we had a good deal of difficulty in crossing the rivers, which are small and troublesome in this section. Being practically busted, we had only a small outfit of two dogs apiece.
“We lived as we could, getting a good many ducks and geese, which had just begun to come in, so as to save our provisions. our general route led us at last to the headwaters of the Inmachuk Creek. Following this down we came to a natural hot spring, and, as the snow was giving out and the sledding had broken up, we decided to make it our headquarters. Here I remained for a year.”
Walden nearly froze to death on the tundra near the end of this journey, and later wrote; “My journey back to Nome soon after this was my last trip in Alaska with dogs. After coming in from the winter on the tundra I found Nome very dull.” A friend nursed him back to health, and Walden began to take on work again. This time, it was “surf-work”, ferrying passengers to and from vessels there in the Behring Sea in row boats. Soon thereafter, he left Nome for the “States” again, afterward writing, “Arriving in Seattle, everybody rushed to a furnishing store for a bran-new outfit from top to toe, and then rushed to the bath-house, where everything except memories was washed away.”

Seppala and Walden both began their dog driving careers with the big mixed-breed sleddogs that were characteristic of the Gold Rush era. Seppala’s first two sleddogs in Alaska were heavyweight mongrels named ‘Nigger’ and ‘Jack’, and one of Walden’s leaders during his time in Nome was named ‘Ribbon,’ described by Walden this way:

“This leader of mine was the first dog I had bought on the Yukon. He had come up from Norton Sound on the steamboat, a little while before, so this type of country was really like home to him. He was a large black malamute, of the old-fashioned type, and I had used him more as a leader than any other one dog. He had never gone back on me in any way.”
During his journey south of the Circle, his only dog left was named ‘Chinook’, his strongest dog, yet not a leader. He had to destroy ‘Ribbon’ due to the madness he contracted the season before.
Neither Seppala nor Walden later mentioned ever having met in Alaska, that the writer is aware, despite their simultaneous adventures in and around Nome. Seppala reported having first met Walden long after the Gold Rush, late in 1926, in Providence, Rhode Island; presumably where the challenge was issued to race his Siberians against Walden and his Chinooks. Walden had offered training quarters at his Wonalancet Farm then, in Tamworth NH, to Seppala and his dogs. After a short trip by rail from his final exhibit and promotional appearance (on his cross country tour) in New York City to Sandwich NH, January 1927, Seppala and Kingiak (a young Eskimo boy and reindeer driver hired by Seppala to accompany him across the country), hitched his Siberians in Sandwich and drove them at a relaxed pace (purposefully) the remaining way to Walden’s farm in Wonalancet. He was pleased that Walden had room for all his dogs in a large barn at Wonalancet Farm. Seppala soon became impatient, however, to learn how he might meet expenses for his dog feed and accommodations. Walden quickly interested Seppala in the race at Poland Spring Hotel in Maine, and set about gaining further financial sponsorship of the event by the Hotel to help with these expenses — since in these early New England Races, there were usually no race purses offered or wagers made, only trophies awarded.

The Wonalancet challenge weight pull
Arthur Walden and team going uphill
Walden shows off with his Chinook team
(Photo by J. D. Hunting, North Conway NH, courtesy Perry Greene Kennel Historical Collection)
During his stay at Wonalancet Farm in early 1927, Seppala challenged Walden that Togo (whose weight was then a mere 48 pounds in harness) could break out and pull any load that Chinook (100 pounds in fit condition) could pull. He offered this challenge only after hearing Walden brag of Chinook’s abilities in harness. Each man had observed the other’s dogs at work prior to the challenge and a bet for two cigars was made on the outcome. Seppala recounted, “Walden was a good sport and conceded that Togo had won the cigars for me.”

In his own words (from “Early Sled Dog Racing in Maine, A Frying Pan of Hot Meat Wrecked my Chances in the First Race” by Leonhard Seppala with Raymond Thompson), here’s Seppala’s amusing narrative of the historic pull:

“In any event, we finally left Wonalancet headed for Poland Spring, 90 miles away. The first day we crossed from New Hampshire into Maine and stopped for the night at Fryeburg. Walden, who had passed us with his team was waiting for us and had a good place arranged for to accommodate the dogs, my Eskimo, Kingiak, and myself. Also I learned that we were invited to speak at Fryeburg Academy, a school where once the great Daniel Webster had taught. By this time I had also learned that my competitor in the forthcoming race would be Arthur Walden. I already knew enough about him and his dogs to feel certain that I could win the Poland Spring race.
“The evening we were to speak at the Fryeburg Academy, Walden preceded me and proved to be a good speaker. When it came my turn, I spoke of the trails back in Alaska and explained that although I was 50 years of age, my physical condition was excellent and stated that I attributed this largely to my abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. To demonstrate my agility, I turned a summersault and handspring, and while doing this, two cigars, which I had won from Walden in a bet, rolled out on the floor. The audience let out a roar and gave us a great hand. They evidently considered it all a part of the show.
“How I came to have the cigars in my pocket is something of a story in itself. A short time before this, Walden had bragged that his Chinook would break out and pull a heavier load than any dog in the country. I had watched his dogs perform and answered with a challenge that my Togo, who weighed only 48 pounds in harness, could pull any load that Walden’s Chinook could. Although neither of us smoked, we bet two cigars on the result.
“The sled was loaded with several sacks of cement onto which Walden hooked his dog. Chinook could not even start the load until Walden had kicked the runners loose from the snow. I knew that Togo could do better but felt that here was an opportunity to inject a little comedy into the act. Kingiak, my Eskimo helper, hid one of Walden’s farm chickens under his parka and stepped out ahead of Togo a distance of 20 feet or so. On my command, Togo leaped to one side with his full weight straining against the collar, then another leap to the left and the sled runners were loosened. Just then Kingiak let the chicken clap his wings and Togo was upon him in a couple of jumps with a loaded sled following easily behind. Walden was a good sport and conceded that Togo had won the cigars for me. And that, as I intimated, was how I happened to have the cigars on me when we spoke before the audience at the Fryeburg Academy.”
The Poland Spring challenge race
Seppala’s 1927 team
The Leonhard Seppala 1927 team
(Photo courtesy Elsie Chadwick, The Siberian Husky Archive)
Walden didn’t think too much of Seppala’s little Siberian dogs. Seppala overheard Walden as he told Mrs. Ricker (race entrant and wife of the Hotel manager) so, upon their arrival at Poland Spring Hotel. The New England mushers had apparently picked up on the Alaskan catch phrase of “Siberian rats.” Seppala, for his part, seemed equally unimpressed with what he later referred to as Walden’s “big, awkward mongrels.” So the challenge had certainly been set; it was to be won, again, by Togo.

Seppala later described his first race in New England — the NEW ENGLAND SLED DOG RACE, Poland Spring, Maine, January (28-29 per race program, but 25-26 per Seppala’s account), 1927, as a series of hard luck incidents. The team bolted off trail and dragged him over a stone wall at the start of the race. Then they went directly thru the wide open door of a house on the bend in the trail, where a woman was frying a pan of hot meat on the stove, scaring her half to death and into a faint. Then Mrs. Ricker lost her team just after he had safely passed them; Seppala quickly made the decision to help her, saving her team from tangles and potential dog fights. She thanked him for his efforts on the trail and remarked that his stopping to help her would surely lose the race for him! Another report included a skunk having crossed the trail near the end, providing his Siberians with just the boost they need to finish first and fast, miraculously not bolting off trail again.

Seppala managed to finish in first place, in spite of it all, seven minutes ahead of Walden. He had methodically concealed his team’s true capabilities during training at Wonalancet Farm. Walden could hardly believe that Seppala had won. The judges reportedly cancelled the remainder of the race next day, due to icing of the trail overnight and in order to save the dogs’ feet for the next month’s scheduled 133 mile New England point to point race (which Seppala also went on to win!).

The Poland Spring race was a great thrill for Seppala that also won him many life-long friends, including his soon-to-become manager and Seppala-Poland Spring kennel partner, one and the same Mrs. Elizabeth Ricker. After the race, Seppala also gifted Togo, his favored leader, to Mrs. Ricker, in Togo’s retirement. After the race season, Seppala reportedly returned to Alaska in April 1927, and removed back to Poland Spring kennel again with his remaining dogs from Nome, in October of the same year. Also in mid-1927, Walden turned to the serious business of preparing dogs and drivers for the first Byrd Antarctic Expedition.

Chinook and Togo
It is remarkable that these two breed legends and most trusted leaders presumably shared barn quarters and trails during one fated racing season in Wonalancet NH and Poland Spring ME, January thru March 1927, especially given how otherwise divergent were the origins and travels of the dogs themselves, not to mention those of their drivers. Chinook was of Walden’s own breeding and a “Husky Half-bred,” “born of an Eskimo mother and a mongrel father.” Togo was of Seppala’s own breeding of his half-breed Siberian leader Suggen and a Siberian import bitch named Dolly.

That their descendants have met yet again in the International Seppala Association ‘barn’ this January some 87 years hence, this writer finds equally remarkable. Walden remarked in his book, A Dog Puncher On The Yukon, that he thought he had a full team waiting for him already in the happy hunting grounds. “But trouble will certainly be brewing, for they were all leaders,” he said. May the ‘trouble’ between Chinook and Togo remain in the brewing then! For above all else, the two remain legends in their own time, remarkable team and trail leaders, as well as breed founders.

Mission Statement

THE MAIN GOAL of the International Seppala Association is to advance and support the survival of historic sleddog breeds in their original form (as nearly as possible), doing their traditional work.
The Association was founded with seven distinct purposes enshrined in its Constitution.

Our first and foremost purpose is the protection, preservation and maintenance of historic sleddog bloodlines, particularly the Leonhard Seppala Siberian sleddog lineage and the Arthur Walden Chinook sleddog lineage, but we stand ready to assist others in similar tasks involving other historic sleddog lines.

The second purpose is to foster and encourage the preservation, furtherance and enhancement of versatile working sleddog ability in Seppala sleddogs, Chinooks and other historic sleddog breeds. No historic breed can long retain its original form unless it continues to do its traditional work.

The third purpose is to encourage the importation of indigenous sleddog stock from Siberia, particularly with a view to the genetic support and renewal of the Leonhard Seppala bloodline; and also to foster and facilitate efforts to preserve and provide genetic support to the Chinook bloodline.

Our fourth purpose is educational: to collect, preserve and make available general information, historic material and other data about historic sleddog breeds and bloodlines, and to foster knowledge and education about all aspects of historic sleddogs among the general public, the dog fancy, and those involved in such breeds and bloodlines.

Our fifth purpose is to collect, to keep, and to make available ancestral records and pedigree data of individual sleddogs in the breeds we support.

Our sixth purpose is to promote and stand guard over sleddog welfare in both the individual and the collective sense, and to take whatever action may be appropriate to protect and represent sleddog welfare, including making representations to government when needed.

Our seventh purpose is to sponsor and/or to hold any sleddog activities or support activities decided upon by our membership.

The International Seppala Association is a non-profit organisation of concerned sleddog owners, breeders and fanciers who donate their time and expertise in the service of the above purposes.