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.”