Date archives: November 15, 2023

“On a cold spring day in 1907 a group of us gathered around the stove in a Nome saloon and began talking about dog races. After a few weeks of arguing we worked out the rules of the ‘All-Alaska Sweepstakes.’ Beginning with the spring of 1908 this great race of dog teams was run every year until the war, the last one in 1917. It became world-famous, and has set the pace for every important dog race since.” A.A. (”Scotty”) Allan, in Gold, Men and Dogs (G.P. Putnam Sons, 1931)

And of the trail from Candle to Council the Archdeacon wrote: “For a while there would be travel such as one sees in children’s picture-books, where the man sits in his sled and cracks his whip and is whisked along as gaily as you please – such travel as I had never had before; but there was no pleasure in it – the wind saw to that.”

Allan Alexander “Scotty” Allan

Allan Alexander “Scotty” Allan wrote in his autobiography ‘Gold, Men and Dogs’ (1931, G.P. Putnam’s Sons), “It was great fun winning a race. No matter how much you suffered you felt all right in the end; the same applied to the dogs. The toughest job of all was to go through with a race which you lost. You not only had the disappointment, but the dogs always seemed to know that things hadn’t gone right.”

Scotty tells of the harrowing 1910 race when he literally “fell off a mountain,” when a snow ledge gave way beneath his team and he and his team rolled over two hundred feet down a nearly vertical drop, but they gathered themselves and finally arrived at the finish line with “five dogs hitched, two in the sled, and three tied behind.”

Scotty later wrote that the last three and one half miles of the race were a total blank, “I never remembered any of it afterwards.” And he didn’t remember tying the three loose dogs to his sled.

Alaskan author Barrett Willoughby’s novel The Trail Eater: A Romance of the All Alaska Sweepstakes (1929, G.P. Putnam’s Sons) featured a hero based on the real Scotty Allen. The foreword to her book captures the legend of the race: “In this novel of love and reckless adventure I tell of the gold town of Nome in the heyday of its glory–rich, careless, luxurious, and ugly. Nome in evening clothes and on the trail. Nome where the wolf-dog was king, and fortunes were lost, and gold mines were won on strings of racing malemutes. I tell of the Sweepstakes Trail, and the daredevil drivers who risked their lives on that four-hundred-mile course that is the longest, most hazardous, most cruel–and most fascinating–known to the world of sport. My characters are fictional, but every racing incident is drawn from the colorful career of the champion driver of the All Alaska Sweepstakes–Allen Alexander Allan.”

Willoughby describes the scene at the start of the famed race; “In front of the judges stand racing drivers were already swinging their teams in–lines of superbly trained, lithe-limbed, thick-skinned dogs, groomed to hair and stripped to their twelve-ounce racing harness. At every new arrival, a cheer burst from the watching crowd, a cheer that was both for the dogs, and for their tense-faced driver standing behind the handlebars, furred, mukluked, with his starting number on a white square sewed to the front and to the back of his parka.

In the 1910 race John “Iron Man” Johnson drove a team for the Scottish nobleman, Fox Maule Ramsay, who had traveled to the Anadyr River area of Siberia and brought back to Nome around sixty of the “thick-coated, prick-eared, tough-footed, swift little foxy-looking dogs,” which became the distant forerunners of today’s Siberian husky.

Driving a team of these speedy little huskies, with his own blue-eyed Siberian leader Kolyma in front, Johnson set a record in the 1910 race of 74 hours, 14 minutes, and 37 seconds. It was a record which stood until 2008.

“King of the Alaskan Trail”

The great dog driver Leonhard Seppala ran his first All Alaska Sweepstakes race in 1914. A legend in his own time, Seppala lost the first race when he miscalculated the trail, nearly losing his team – and his life – over cliffs which rimmed the Bering Sea. Sliding on ice, barely twenty feet from disaster, his freighting leader Suggen, half Siberian and half malemute, clawed his way to safety with a young and inexperienced team scrambling behind him. Later Seppala said, “I don’t know what [Suggen] told them, but it worked.”

Leonhard Seppala’s contributions to the All Alaska Sweepstakes, to dog mushing, and to the development of the Siberian Husky cannot be overstated. In The World of Sled Dogs, author Lorna Coppinger wrote ten years after Seppala died in 1967, “No dog driver has the status, the renown, the respect of his colleagues as does Leonhard Seppala.”

In his autobiography, Seppala: ‘Alaskan Dog Driver,’ Leonhard Seppala writes of standing around the Board of Trade Saloon in Nome, “glancing at Scotty Allen, Fay Dalzene and Johhn Jonson, and I felt greatly honored if I could speak with them. I thought they were wonderful men and admired their achievements greatly. Little did I think that the day would come when I should be battling my way on the Sweepsyakes trail against them! When they came in, they would look frostbitten and worn out from the storms and cold they had encountered on the trail, I envied their experiences.” 

Seppala’s telling of his second Sweepstakes race is a riveting account, and among the most engaging sections are his encounters with champion dog driver Scotty Allan. Seppala plays a cat-and-mouse game with Scotty Allan, explaining that “Scotty was known for his cunning in dog races, and it was commonly believed that he won his races as much by talking the other fellow out of it as anything else.”

Seppala did his best to convince Allan that he was no challenge to his bid for the win, and let Allan tell him that he stood a good chance of coming in second. When he was sure Allan was out of sight Seppala urged a little more speed from his team. At the Boston checkpoint the two dog drivers exchanged pleasantries and Allan told Seppala he didn’t have to rush to get second place, and as Seppala pulled out he “got a glimpse of Scotty in the window checking up on the condition of my team.”

Seppala’s dogs were slow to get started, “dragging along and to all appearances were pretty tired and not able to go many miles more; but I was banking on the Siberian traits I knew so well.”

Seppala delighted in describing his victorious finish: “Tired as I was, it gave me a thrill which made me forget my fatigue to hear the cannon, and the whistles in Nome from the power plant and the fire stations shrieking their blare of welcome. Great numbers of people were strung along the trail to see the finish, and they shouted their encouragement and approval as I went by. Somehow, I was no longer tired, only glad it was over.”

Leonhard Seppala’s reputation as “King of the Alaskan Trail” was created by his three consecutive victories in the All Alaska Sweepstakes (1915-17) and his many wins in shorter races, but the intrepid musher would also play a pivotal role in the 1925 Serum Run to Nome, when an outbreak of diphtheria threatened the isolated town. His famous racing leader Togo led Seppala’s team through a blinding blizzard and across the treacherous frozen Norton Sound, saving precious hours in the heroic race against death.

An excerpt from The Great Dog Races of Nome–Held Under the Auspices of the Nome Kennel Club, Offical Souveiner History, by Ester Birdsall Darling, President, 1916: 

In this country where dogs have always been an indispensable factor in the work of discovery and settlement, it is hardly surprising that they should be, as well, an indispensable factor in the most popular and representative sport: and it was because of a desire to make this sport a recognized part of the life of the community that the Nome Kennel Club was organized in 1908 with Albert Fink as its first President.

From the very beginning there was much enthusiasm, and generous purses have been offered that have ranged from ten to three thousand dollars, according to the financial conditions prevailing, not only in Alaska, but generally-for many contributions come from liberal friends “Outside.”

It was early seen that not only would the races furnish much of the winter entertainment, but that there would also be a consistent effort on the part of the dog owners and dog drivers to improve the breed of sled dogs, which up to this time had been but little considered; an effort to instill into all dog users an intelligent understanding of the accepted fact that care and kindness to their dogs bring the quickest and surest returns from all standpoints. This has resulted in the development of such a high standard for dogs that not alone is their worth acknowledged throughout Alaska, but their supremacy is conceded the world over.

When Amundsen contemplated making a dash to the North Pole, it was to Nome that he wrote for dogs; and while he subsequently gave up the voyage, the dogs selected for him were afterwards used by Leonhard Seppala in a team which twice won the All Alaska Sweepstakes, and the Ruby Derby.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, too, turned to Nome for dogs when he went at the head of a Canadian Expedition to search for unknown lands and chart unknown waters in the ice floes of the Arctic; and the dogs which “Scotty” Allan bought for that intrepid explorer have been of untold assistance in his great achievements