CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — A recent first person portrayal of the story behind the Alaskan Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had something of interest for every child present and many of the adults including a close-up meeting with a few huskies.
Last week’s characterization of 20th century Alaskan musher Leonhard Seppala included a gruff, wizened first hand accounting of the famous 1925 Nome serum run, photographic slides taken of him in the Alaskan wilderness, and an opportunity to meet a team of Siberian huskies.
Seppala was portrayed by Vermont musher and huskie kennel owner Rob Farley. He and six dogs from his Waterbury, Vermont business October Siberians came to the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library as a way to bring the school districts’ mid-winter break to a close.
The presentation drew around 85 people; many of them elementary school age children.
Farley knows his audience. After scoping out the room and seeing all the children he retreated to a closet area to change into the period clothing and persona of Seppala, a backwoods musher from the Alaskan wilderness of 1925.
Speaking in the first person and slowly shedding his wilderness clothing along with his rustic demeanor, Farley as Seppala brought his audience along from his early years in Norway, through news of the Alaskan gold rush, to his trip to the U.S. and eventual arrival at a friend’s gold mine in Alaska.
“Mining gold was hard work, a lot of digging with shovels and moving the dirt with wheel barrows,” Farley said in character. “If you worked hard and proved your worth you could advance and mine the gold and even transport the gold.”
To drive home the point that he had handled millions of dollars in gold, Farley showed a black and white slide of a young Seppala seated behind a table filled with gold bars stacked before him while looking expressionless into the camera.
“That,” he said, “is what a million dollars in gold looks like.”
But as Farley/Seppala moved into the story of how Seppala began mushing Siberian huskies in Alaska and winning the All Alaska Sweep Stakes three years in a row, it became clear that Farley’s interest is with the dogs.
Prior to 1909 the malamute breed of huskies was commonly used to pull the sleds in Alaska. But a single musher followed up on stories he’d heard and traversed the Bearing Straight and to find what had been rumored to be a better breed.
Coming upon a village of indigenous people he purchased the best dogs he could find, brought them back to Alaska and proceeded to win the inaugural All Alaska Sweepstakes and take its $10,000 prize.
What were once disparagingly referred to as Siberian rat dogs, the Siberian huskies suddenly found fame and fortune.
When Nome was hit with an outbreak of diphtheria in 1925 and bad weather prevented the serum from getting to the city, local mushers agreed to set up dogsled relay teams to bring it in.
While making a 250 mile run Seppala and his team found themselves trapped on an ice flow with the serum in the sled. When the current brought the flow close to land Seppala tied a rope on to his lead dog Togo and sent him into the frigid water. When the rope came off Seppala thought he, his dogs, and the serum were done.
Togo, however, dove into the water, grabbed the rope in his jaws, paddled back to land, and rolled over and over with the rope until the ice flow came in.
However, when the next relay team got the serum from Seppala they went the final 54 miles to Nome and on to fame, fortune, and a Hollywood movie.
“I thought me and my team with Togo did a lot more work than Gunnar Kassen but it was all about him and his lead dog Balto,” Farley, still in character, said. “I thought we overcame a lot more danger.”
Balto got a statue in New York’s Central Park while Togo joined Seppala in retirement in Maine.
With the end of the presentation the audience joined Farley outside on the library’s snow-filled back lawn to meet six Siberian huskies from his kennel. The dogs were as eager to see the children as they were to see them.
The dogs are surprisingly docile. There was no barking, no yelps, or growls from any of them and no tears from the children. Hitched to a wire on the side of the truck the dogs moved in and out of the children’s legs easily. Within a few minutes the dogs were yawning and the kids had moved on to the empty sled, putting on the dog harnesses and pulling it in a big circle in the snow.
Farley said he and his wife have what real mushers call a small kennel, 24 dogs total; 16 working dogs, two retirees, a terrier, and five pups.
“We got into it when we bought our house,” he said while standing in full sunshine near his truck. “I knew I wanted a (Siberian) huskie and we got two, an older dog and a pup. Then we got two more just like the first. When I heard about a 60 mile (dogsled) race in New Hampshire I said why not try it and it’s all gone on from there.”
For more information on the October Siberians go to: www.octobersiberians.com.