Leonhard Seppala (September 14, 1877 – January 1967) was a Norwegian of Kven descent. Born in Skibotn and growing up on the nearby island of Skjervøy, he eventually emigrated to Alaska during the Nome gold rush of 1900 and, in 1913, inherited a team of imported Chukchi huskies, later to be known as Siberian dogs or Siberian Huskies. Those dogs, owned by the mining company that employed Seppala, had originally been scheduled to take explorer Roald Amundsen to the North Pole, but with the impending outbreak of WW1 the trip was cancelled and dogs were given to Seppala.
The first Chukchi (Siberian) dogs had been imported to Alaska in 1908 to run in the 1909 All Alaska Sweepstakes (a 408-mile race from Nome to Candle and back), and a team of Siberians took first place in record time in the annual race in 1910. At first derisively called "Siberian rats" by Alaskan mushers because of their small stature in comparison to the local sled dogs, the Siberian dogs’ excellent temperament and stamina soon made them very popular for transport, mail runs, and racing in Alaska.
Seppala entered his first All Alaska Sweepstakes in 1914; his team was inexperienced and he had to withdraw in the middle of the race. But in 1915, 1916 and 1917 the All Alaska Sweepstakes was won by Seppala and his teams of Siberians. This established a racing fame for Seppala that continued into the 1920s & 1930s. Sled dog racing was also a demonstration event at the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games in 1932 where Seppala earned a silver in the event.
When an outbreak of diphtheria occurred in Nome in January 1925, temperatures ranging down to -50F along with 80mph winds meant that the primitive air transport of that day would not be able to deliver the needed medicine. Instead, the serum was carried by rail from Anchorage to Nenana and relays of dog teams were sent the remainder of the way -- 674 miles. After only five and a half days, Gunnar Kaasen -- with a dog named Balto leading his team -- was the last relay driver into Nome. Kaasen and Balto captured most of the media attention at the time, and in the aftermath of the hoopla, a statue of Balto was erected in New York City's Central Park. However, Leonhard Seppala's team traveled 340 miles out from Nome and back through the most treacherous sections of Alaska's wilderness, including across the perilous ice of Norton Sound, and carried the serum over 91 miles of the relay route. (Seppala's lead dog was the famous racing champion, Togo.) In comparison, most other drivers in the Serum Run covered approximately 50 miles. Both Kaasen and Seppala used teams of Siberian Huskies. This emergency delivery, also known as the "Great Race of Mercy", is commemorated annually with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
After the Serum Run, Seppala and some 40 of his dogs toured the “lower 48” with an Eskimo handler. His tour ended in January 1927 with the dogsled race at Poland Spring, Maine, where he accepted the challenge to race against Arthur Walden, founder of the New England Sled Dog Club and owner of the famous lead dog "Chinook." Despite a series of amusing and time-consuming mishaps on the trail, Seppala won the race against the bigger, slower dogs driven by Walden and his followers. The enthusiasm for sled dog racing in New England together with the Serum Run publicity and the victory over Walden made it possible for Seppala and partner Elizabeth Ricker to establish a Siberian kennel at Poland Spring, Maine. This was the start of the spread of the Siberian Husky breed in the United States and Canada.
Seppala continued to work for the mining company and in 1928 moved his permanent home to near Fairbanks, Alaska. In 1931 the Seppala/Ricker partnership ended and Seppala returned permanently to Alaska until his retirement. In 1946, he and his wife Constance moved to Seattle, Washington, where he lived until his death at age 90.
Today, Seppala is considered the father of the Siberian Husky breed, which was accepted by the American Kennel Club as a registered breed in 1930. A street is named after Seppala in Nome, AK. Seppala Drive connects Nome to its airport.