The Chukchi people of Siberia were the first to develop this amazing breed: small dogs with amazing stamina. Their economy and religious life were based on these dogs. The huskies were a measure of wealth and position. The dogs were so important to them that the Chukchi believed two huskies guarded the gates of heaven. In the 19th Century, Czarist troops tried to destroy the Chukchi people but they were able to outrun the Russian reindeers with their dogs and saved their nation.
In North America, sled dogs became of great importance during the gold rush. They were also valuable in the mail delivery system. Sled dogs did everything from carrying laundry, pulling boats and even rolling baseball fields.
The All Alaska Sweepstakes was a race first introduced in 1908. Sled dogs were raced from Nome to Candle and back. A Russian fur trader, William Goosak, was eager to win some money in the All Alaska Sweepstakes of 1909. That year, he travelled to the Anadyr river of Siberia and acquired some Siberian huskies. He travelled across the Bearing Strait to Alaska hoping to win the race. Everyone laughed at his dogs. They came to be called Siberian rats! The huskies were much smaller than the Alaskan Malamutes that made up the other teams. No one believed they had any chance of winning…or even finishing the race. The odds against his team were 100 to 1. Goosak’s team actually came in third place! Everyone was surprised at the endurance of these small dogs. A rumour states that the race was actually fixed. Goosak’s musher, Thorstrup, actually slowed down in the last bit of the race to make sure he didn’t take first place. Winning the race would have broken the bank of Nome. Meanwhile, other sled dogs were also making history. In 1909, Robert Peary and his lead dog POLARIS were the first to ever make it to the North Pole.
In 1910, John Ramsey travelled to the Markovo Fair to buy 70 Siberian huskies. He had been inspired by Goosak’s team and entered his dogs in the All Alaska Sweepstakes. His dogs took 1st, 2nd and 4th place! The reputation of the Siberian was made. The first placed team was led by a man named Iron Man Johnson and his lead dog KOLYMA. They travelled the distance in just 74 hours, 14 minutes and 37 seconds. No one has ever been able to beat this time. A race was run to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Sweepstakes in 1983. The winning team, regardless of better nutrition and more sophisticated equipment, came in 10 hours slower than Johnson’s team.
Leonhard Seppala bought Ramsey’s dogs. He continued to enter the Sweepstakes and the huskies continued to win, taking first place in 1915, 1916 and 1917. World War I marked the end of the Sweepstakes.
It is in 1925 though that the huskies really made history. A Diptheria epidemic threatened Nome. The people of Nome were saved by the huskies. Several dog teams took part in what has now become the famous Serum Run. Through blizzards, they travelled 674 miles in just 5 days. The mail teams usually took 25 days to run the same distance. The last leg of the race was led by Gunnar Kaasen and his dog BALTO. A statue of Balto in New York’s Central Park honours all dogs that took part in the run. Seppala however believed that his great leader TOGO was the real hero of the race. Togo’s team actually ran one-third of the distance of the Serum Run. He became permanently lame after the race. He had run over 5000 miles in his career. In 1926, Togo received a medal for his work at Madison Square Garden.
Seppala was invited to tour several cities as a result of his heroism in the Serum Run. He took his dogs across the country to New England. There, he raced against Walden’s large dogs of the Chinook kennels. They were a mixture of Greenland and Canadian Eskimo and Mastiff. Again, everyone mocked the small huskies which of course won all the races. At the age of 11, CHINOOK, the original sire of the kennel, was actually the lead dog for Admiral Richard E. Byrd on his first trip to Antarctica. Interestingly, Chinook was actually the great grandson of Polaris. The Chinook kennels continued to train dogs for the 2nd and 3rd expeditions to the South Pole as well as for Search and Rescue teams in World War II.
Seppala, partnering with Elizabeth Ricker, established his kennel in Maine. His last race was in Lake Placid at the winter olympics of 1932 where sled racing was a demonstration sport. Harry Wheeler bought Seppala’s dogs and brought them to St. Jovite, Quebec. The ancestry of all of today’s registered huskies can be traced to the Seppala-Ricker or Harry Wheeler Kennels.