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Leonhard Seppala: Alaska's Norwegian hero

Here's a look at Leonhard Seppala's life, and how he came to be such an important part of history.

Leonhard Seppala was a champion musher, a skilled athlete and one of the most iconic figures in Alaska's history. When his city, Nome, Alaska, was struck with a disastrous epidemic during the worst possible time of year, Seppala's dog team struck off into the harsh winter to retrieve the much-needed cure. He was, without question, an Alaskan hero - and he was born in Norway. Here's a look at Leonhard Seppala's life, and how he came to be such an important part of history:

Early years

Seppala was born in Lygenfjørd, Norway, on Sep. 14, 1877. He was raised amid harsh winter conditions - his town was located far, far north of the arctic circle. In addition to the weather conditions in which he was grew up, Seppala became a hard worker early on. His father was a blacksmith and a fisherman. Before he was old enough to learn his father's trades, Seppala worked on the family farm. Once he turned 12 years old, he began sailing out to fish with his father. Seppala's physical strength and endurance served him well, and he was able to earn a fair bit of money at his father's side.

The gold rush

In his 20s, Seppala was working as a blacksmith in his hometown. A friend of his, who had traveled to Alaska in pursuit of gold, came back to Norway after having struck rich. Seppala, amazed by the wealth his friend had found on the other side of the world, decided to try his own hand at the gold trade. He packed up and traveled to Nome.

He wasn't immediately successful. After moving, it took some time for the local prospecting company to even select him for a trip. When they finally did, the trip was something of a bust - there wasn't much gold to be found, and Seppala began regretting his decision to travel to Alaska. Luckily, however, he decided to stick it out a little longer rather than travel back to Norway.

Dog sledding

Seppala's choice to remain in Alaska turned out to be a pivotal moment in time: Shortly afterward, dog sledding started emerging as a sport. Dog sleds were already part of Alaska's industrial culture - they were used mainly to transport items back and forth from gold sites - but during this time, people started to recognize the activity's recreational potential. Seppala, who had worked with dog teams while prospecting for gold, was a fine fit for a musher. He was strong, but light and agile, so the dogs could reach top speed under his command.

His prospecting supervisor gave Seppala the task of raising a pack of sled dogs to compete in the All-Alaska sweepstakes races. The first year Seppala's team competed, they failed to finish the race. The second year, however, Seppala and his team won first place, marking the beginning of Seppala's reign as an Alaskan dog-sledding champion. Seppala and his team won race after race, securing legendary status incredibly quickly.

Diphtheria strikes

The winter of 1925 was treacherous. During the colder months, travel between Alaskan cities was nearly non-existent. Normally, this wasn't that much of a problem, but this year it seemed to leave Nome doomed. When the city experienced a massive diphtheria outbreak, it quickly ran out of its stores of antitoxin. Children were coming down with the deadly disease at alarming rates, and there was no way to help them get better.

Nome desperately needed antitoxin, and there were stores to spare in Anchorage. Citizens in both towns teamed up to form a plan - a series of mushers would deliver the antitoxin, relay-style, to the struggling town. Seppala provided multiple teams of well-trained sled dogs, and he and a number of other drivers set out to collect the antitoxin. Although Seppala did perform a leg of the relay, it was another driver, Gunnar Kaasen, who completed the final part of the journey and delivered the antitoxin to Nome. The team Kaasen led was made up of dogs Seppala bred and raised himself, but Seppala kept his best dogs for his own team.

Aftermath of the relay

Though Seppala was pleased that the antitoxin made its way to Nome, he was bitter about the media attention Kaasen and his dog team received. They had only run a small part of the journey, and the lead dog, Balto, was, in Seppala's eyes, not remotely worth the attention he was receiving. Seppala believed his lead dog, Togo, deserved the praise and recognition. Balto, he argued, was just a freight dog and had only pulled the sled for a small leg of the journey. Though Balto became the star of the Anchorage-Nome run, Seppala always maintained that Togo had been the journey's real hero.

Seppala went on to become a world-renowned sled-dog breeder, and his work was so prolific that today, there is an elite breed of sled dogs known as "Seppala siberian sled dogs."

Interested in catching a glimpse of Seppala's legacy? Check out the dog-sledding excursion on Hurtigruten's Norwegian cruise.

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