The Siberian Husky arrived in North America in the fall of 1908 without fanfare. Most other dogs had taken the more conventional route to our shores across the Atlantic Ocean from countries where they had become well established breeds. This unknown breed of Northern dog, however, sneaked through a remote back door to America quietly and unobtrusively at a point where the peninsulas of Asia and America almost meet.
Imported to Nome, Alaska by the Russian fur trader William Goosak, the team of Siberians was to be entered in the 1909 All Alaska Sweepstakes race of 408 miles with its $10,000 first prize. No one was impressed with Goosak's little dogs, weighing only 40 to 52 pounds, much smaller compared to their longer legged, heavier competitors. The people of Nome referred to the imports as "Siberian Rats."
Siberian Huskies have taken top honors in many races in the ensuing years, but their first race run on American soil will always remain, by far, their most important. Goosak persuaded Louis Thurstrop, a Danish sailor, to drive his team. This team, even though the odds were 100 to 1 against it in the betting, made a tremendous showing and nearly won the race, placing third. Rumor ran rampant in Nome that gamblers had paid off the driver before he reached the finish in order to save them from ruin. It was said that had Thurstrop won, it would have broken the Bank of Nome.
On the strength of their showing of speed and, particularly, endurance under the most trying conditions, Fox Maule Ramsay, a young Scotsman then in Nome and a competitor himself in the 1909 race, went to Siberia in the summer of 1909. Travelling up the Anadyr River to the trading settlement of Markovo, Ramsay procured around 60 of the best specimens of the breed he could find. He entered three teams of Siberians in the 1910 All Alaska Sweepstakes race, one for each of his uncles and one he drove himself. The team entered in the name of Col. Charles Ramsay and driven by John "Iron Man" Johnson, a Swedish Finn, came in first with an elapsed time of 74 hours, 14 minutes, 37 seconds, the best ever time for the 408 mile race held annually through 1917. Fox Ramsay came in second. The third Siberian team, entered for Col. Stuart and driven by Charles Johnson, placed 4th. (The 75th anniversary All Alaska Sweepstakes race was held in 1983, following the same trail and rules as the original race. The winner was 5 time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson. His time was over 10 hours slower than Iron Man Johnson's 1910 winning time.)
The Siberians attained enormous popularity as racing dogs and the amusement prior to the 1910 race turned to admiration. Although Ramsay's dogs and their progeny went on to win many races through the years, it was Goosak's team of stoic little aliens who set the stage for the importation of the greatest of northern racing breeds, the Siberian dog, later to be known as the Siberian Husky.
In 1913, Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who was the first man to reach the South Pole, began planning an expedition to the North Pole for 1914. His friend, Jafet Lindberg, also a Norwegian, and co-owner of the largest mining company in Nome, offered to buy and train the dogs for Amundsen. From all over the Seward Peninsula, the best Siberians were selected and purchased. This group of sled dogs was turned over to Leonhard Seppala, an employee of Lindberg's and a fellow Norwegian, to be trained for the upcoming expedition. In 1914 Amundsen gave up his North Pole trek due to the start of World War I. Seppala, with the encouragement of the Pioneer Mining Company, continued to train the Siberians, entering them in the last four Sweepstakes races, winning the last three - 1915, 1916, and 1917. The United States entry in World War I ended the great race series.
In January 1925, Nome was gripped in a spreading diphtheria epidemic. The closest life-saving serum was over 600 miles away, so a dog team relay was formed to hasten its arrival. Seppala left Nome eastbound with 20 Siberians to meet the serum in Nulato, over 300 miles away on the Yukon River. Due to increased urgency for the medicine, the dog team relay continued west beyond Nulato and Seppala met a team carrying the serum package on the eastern shore of Norton Sound. In spite of already having run all day, and in the midst of a blizzard, Seppala turned his tired team around and, with his great leader Togo, made the perilous run back across the Sound to Golovin. A team led by Balto, and driven by Gunnar Kaasen, completed the last leg of the relay. A statue of Balto stands in New York's Central Park, honoring all of the sled dogs of the Serum Run.
As a result of his heroism in the Serum Run, Leonhard Seppala was invited to tour several cities in the lower 48 in the fall of 1926. Leaving Nome with over 40 Siberian Huskies, including Togo, Seppala traveled from west to east, stopping in Seattle, Kansas City, Dayton, Detroit, and Providence, before finally visiting New York City. There, at Madison Square Garden, Togo was presented a medal by the explorer Roald Amundsen, for his role in the serum relay. After his tour, in December 1926, Seppala went to New England and was hosted by Arthur Walden of Wonalancet, New Hampshire. Walden, a former Klondike gold seeker, had been winning many of the races in the up and growing New England/Eastern Canada sled dog races with his line of sled dogs based on Chinook, his large, yellow, mixed breed dog.
Seppala entered his Siberians in a race at Poland Spring, Maine in January 1927. In a repeat of the breed's introduction in Nome, the New Englanders looked upon the Siberians with pity. Once again, they were dwarfed by the huge New England dogs, and it came as a surprise to all except Seppala when the Siberians easily won their first race outside Alaska, beating Walden's team by over seven minutes over the 25 mile course.
Two weeks later, Seppala won the more prestigious New England Point To Point 3 day race near Laconia. It was apparent that the Siberians were superior to the local racing dogs, and many mushers were anxious to acquire them. Seppala, in partnership with Elizabeth Ricker, a New England musher and afficionado of the Siberian, established a kennel at Poland Spring, Maine. Seppala came from Alaska each fall to New England and raced the Siberians, amassing more wins and records across the area than any other musher. His last year of racing in the lower 48, 1932, included the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York, where sled dog racing was staged as a demonstration sport.
The Seppala/Ricker kennel closed in 1931 after many mushers had acquired Siberians from it, and Seppala returned to Alaska for good in 1932, leaving his remaining Siberians with Harry Wheeler, owner of the Gray Rocks Inn in St. Jovite, Quebec. Wheeler established his famous kennel, with the suffix "of Seppala," and provided many more fine Siberians to mushers and kennels during the 1930's. Wheeler himself continued to race the Siberians and win several big races, including Laconia and Québec City. All the registered dogs of today can trace their ancestry to the dogs from the Seppala-Ricker kennel or Harry Wheeler's kennel.
The dogs that Goosak brought to Nome in 1908 varied considerably in phenotype. Some were long and leggy, others shorter coupled and heavier boned, some marked symmetrically, some not. Indigenous Siberian breeders used performance as the only criterion-aesthetics did not enter the picture. Seppala, although obviously concerned with function, had already begun breeding with an eye to greater uniformity. The breed was officially recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1930, and the first standard was published in the AKC Gazette in April 1932. The degree to which the basic tenets of the original 1930 Standard have survived five revisions indicates the kind of in-depth study that went into its composition.
Of the many early foundation kennels in New England, Eva "Short" Seeley's Chinook Kennel and Lorna Demidoff's Monadnock Kennel were the most successful in demonstrating the concept of a dual purpose Siberian, one who could win in the show ring as well as on the trail. Too often today, one hears the argument of show dogs versus sled dogs and forgets that not only did Chinook and Monadnock produce the foundation stock for almost every show kennel in the country after World War II, but they also fielded some of the top racing teams of their day and the teams they drove contained many bench show champions, many of them outstanding leaders. (Most Siberian sled dogs were used by the Army during World War II for arctic search and rescue. After a half decade hiatus for the War and the end of the depression, the breed became ever more popular and the interest in sled dog racing spread.)
There was no one actually breeding pure Siberians in Alaska in 1946 when Natalie Jubin arrived with two AKC registered Siberians bred by Eva "Short" Seeley of Chinook Kennels in New Hampshire. One of these, Chinook's Alladin of Alyeska, became the foundation stud of today's oldest Siberian kennel--Alaskan Kennels, owned by Earl and Natalie Norris. An Alladin grandson, Ch. Bonzo of Anadyr, CD, became the first Siberian Husky to win Best In Show at an AKC all breed show (1955). Bonzo was the Norris's main leader from 1954 to 1960. Another Alladin grandson, Ch. Tyndrum's Olso, CD led Kit MacInnes to both the Women's Alaskan and the Women's North American championships, and a 2nd at the open Rondy. Both dogs are prominently featured in Alaska and in sled dog books for their racing and leadership qualities more than their other achievements.
This dual purpose concept was successfully continued into the 1960s and 1970s by Charlie and Carolyn Posey's Yeso Pac Kennel. Earl and Natalie continue to field an all-Siberian team for the Iditarod, as they have done in almost every Iditarod Trail sled dog race since its inception in 1973. Earl himself raced in 1985 and 1986 and Martin Buser ran Anadyr dogs in 1980 and 1981.
Excerpts: The Siberian Husky, ISHC, Brief History of the Siberian Husky in Alaska, Natalie and Earl Norris, and The Complete Siberian Husky, Lorna Demidoff and Michael Jennings, Revised 1998 by Robert H. Thomas