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.