Leonhard Seppala

Sepp and TogoLeonhard Seppala, who would, like Scotty Allan, win three Sweepstakes championships, became a living legend in Alaska, and in his own autobiography, Seppala, Alaskan Dog Driver, written with Elizabeth Ricker, he described a harrowing event which took place during his first Sweepstakes race: “The wind drove us on at a great rate of speed. The snow was whirling in front of my face, suffocating me so that I could hardly get my breath at times. Judging by the time we had been on our way, I figured we ought now to be close to the coast, but I knew that unless I hit Allen Creek and Topkok cabin I should run a chance of falling over the cliffs which ran in succession along the shore.

Sepp's Siberian Team“We were racing southward at a breakneck speed when suddenly there came a lull between puffs of wind and I saw that I was very close to some high, steep place, and as I peered ahead I could see way down below the ice hummocks of the Bering Sea. Suggen was close to the edge of the precipice. I jammed both feet on the brake as we sped downward headed for destruction, but the crust was icy and smooth and I was not able to hold the team. I brought out my emergency steel bar and rammed it into the crust through the hole in my brake made for that purpose, bringing the dogs to a standstill. By that time we were on a steep incline close to the edge of the cliff. I tried to call Suggen back to turn the team, but the wind, which was now blowing furiously again, made it hard for him to hear.

Leonhard Seppala

“Finally Suggen responded and tried to swing the team, but the young dogs wanted to go with the wind. My first plan was to leave the dogs and the sled and crawl up to safety, but it was so slippery on the crust that my Eskimo mukluks could get no hold, and the more I thought it over the less I could consider leaving my dogs to face such a tragic fate. I thought that perhaps by scrambling up the hillside I might be able to see landmarks, but as soon as I climbed a few feet the wind blew me back to the sled, and my several attempts proved utterly useless. Apparently our fate rested with Suggen. I saw the ice hummocks several hundred feet below, and I thought with horror of what would happen if the steel bar gave way. But the crust was hard an so far it still held. I pictured my sled, my dogs, and myself falling down the two-hundred-foot precipice to the rocks below. It had often happened that people had been lost here and were never heard of until the snow left in the spring, when they were found frozen and mangled on the rocks and ice hummocks.

LeonardSeppala“I spoke again to Suggen, still trying to call him back to me. He did his best to respond, making several efforts to turn, but still the young dogs refused. I kept shouting, and finally the four dogs behind him got the idea, and as Suggen turned the others followed. To my great relief I saw that little by little the whole team was turning, scrambling back up the hillside, digging their claws into the crust, headed toward safety. By some miraculous chance they were able to pull the sled and me up the incline, but I had no feeling of safety until I reached the top, for it seemed that at any moment the strong wind blowing against them might send them sliding back over the precipice. I kept shouting words of encouragement as every dog scratched and pulled, while I used my steel bar to push the sled along–and at that it was slow progress.”

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About Helen Hegener

I write nonfiction books about Alaskan history, and my titles currently include The Alaska Railroad 1902-1923, Alaskan Roadhouses, Alaskan Sled Dog Tales, The First Iditarod, The All Alaska Sweepstakes, The Yukon Quest Trail, The Matanuska Colony Barns, and others. You can contact me via email at helenhegener@gmail.com
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One Response to Leonhard Seppala

  1. Pingback: Iditarod Trail History | Northern Light Media

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