Confused? FACTS About "Seppalas"

MOST NEWCOMERS to the world of sleddogs seem to be seriously confused about Seppalas, which are often talked about loosely in a way that implies that "everybody knows" what Seppalas are and what they are like. But, as one earnest novice wrote, "there are all kinds of opinions about Seppalas"! Another novice wrote, "The more I read about Seppalas, the more confusing it gets. Leonhard Seppala's dogs were the first Siberian Huskies, so aren't all Siberian Huskies really Seppalas? Aren't they all somewhat the same?"

There are various online sleddog and Siberian Husky forums these days (not to mention Facebook, Google and Yahoo groups and email lists) where, periodically, a thread will appear discussing "Seppalas" -- what they are, what they aren't, what are they like, do they even exist, who has them, etc. The trouble with using these places as sources of information for the novice is this: some of the people who inhabit them are "armchair mushers" who have never harnessed a dog, let alone travelled thousands on miles on sled runners; the novice has no way to tell the sheep from the goats. Vested interests abound. Novices seek out the clueless and find only confusion.


FACTS about Seppalas are hard to come by on public sleddog forums. Since education about the SSSD breed was the purpose of the former Seppala Siberian Sleddog Project website, which is no longer available. Here on the Seppala Kennels website we offer some of the history articles and educational material from the former Project website. But for the beginner, perhaps a summary will be useful. The historic FACTS about Seppalas are fairly easy to determine.

Over the years I have found that you cannot stop people from having "opinions," and usually the less the person knows, the more strongly-held those opinions are. All one can do, and all that is needed to be done, is to present the FACTS in sufficient detail. Once the facts are available, then one can sit back and let those with the "opinions" make fools of themselves. "The truth is great, and shall prevail."


Where did "Seppalas" originate?


Fact: Draught dogs were imported into Alaska and the continental USA from many locations in eastern Siberia during the period between 1908 and 1930. At that time they proved superior to the slow, heavy crossbreds that were in general use for sled hauling during the Yukon and Nome Gold Rush days.


Fact: From Siberia import stock, the Norwegian gold seeker, adventurer and dog driver Leonhard Seppala, beginning in 1915, established a lasting bloodline of Siberian sleddogs. In 1926 after the Nome Serum Run he took his dogs to the eastern USA on a publicity tour that finished in the State of Maine with a "challenge race" with local New England dog drivers, including Arthur T. Walden. Seppala's dogs won this race, creating an immediate mania for Siberian dogs in the eastern states of Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts.


Fact: Seppala established a kennel at Poland Spring, Maine, that lasted almost five years; during that period the Siberian Husky became an American Kennel Club registered breed, though Seppala was not directly involved in the registration initiative. The last group of Siberian dogs to leave Siberia befpre the Iron Curtain shutdown was collected by trader Olaf Swenson and went to the Leonhard Seppala/Elizabeth Ricker Poland Spring kennel in 1930. The Poland Spring kennel was a big one (as many as 160 dogs at one point) but very few of those dogs -- eight in all -- were ever A.K.C. registered.


What was the place of Seppalas in the early Siberian Husky breed?


Fact: The "Siberian Husky" breed was first registered by the American Kennel Club in the USA in 1930. The first two dozen dogs registered came from the Northern Light Kennels of Julien Hurley in Fairbanks, AK. That bloodline became virtually extinct in roughly a decade, while the "Chinook/Wonalancet/Alyeska" bloodline of Milton and Eva B. Seeley in New Hampshire (who stole Chinook Kennels from Arthur T. Walden, along with most of his Chinook dogs) became the major Siberian Husky bloodline in the USA. But there were also pure Seppalas in the AKC registry, bred by the Belfords, William L. Shearer III (Foxstand Kennels), and Millie Turner (Cold River Kennels).


Fact: Dogs from Seppala Kennels at Poland Spring (including three of the last Siberia imports) went to Alex and Charles Belford (Laconia, NH), Harry R. Wheeler (St. Jovite Station, QC), William L. Shearer III (Boston, MA) and other early breeders.


Fact: In 1931 key stock from the Leonhard Seppala team and kennel was transferred to Harry R. Wheeler, along with the "Seppala Kennels" name; Seppalas bred by Wheeler at Grey Rocks Inn in St. Jovite later became the foundation of the Canadian Kennel Club "Siberian Huskie" breed in Canada in the year 1939, rather against Wheeler's will. Wheeler cooperated with the Belfords and with Millie Turner (Cold River Kennels, Beverley Farms, MA), re-exporting Siberians to New England.


Fact: The Eva B. Seeley Chinook/Wonalancet/Alyeska bloodline of Siberian Huskies was built on a foundation mating that was somewhat questionable from the outset. There are no photographs of "Duke" the Seeley foundation sire; his actual breed has been called into question by people who were around in the 1930s including the late Dr. Charles Belford. The Seeleys did their best to breed to Wheeler-bred Seppala dogs owned by others in New England; Wheeler, for his part, refused to have anything to do with the Seeleys and would not breed to Seeley stock.


Fact: A pure strain stemming from the Leonhard Seppala dogs bred in Alaska, plus the new 1930 Siberia imports, came from the kennels of Wheeler, Belfords, Shearer, and later on (post-1950) J. D. McFaul (Maniwaki, QC). These dogs were referred to in the press as "Seppala Siberians" as early as 1940. The McFaul kennel, which bought the last of the Harry Wheeler dogs as well as the "Seppala Kennels" name used by Wheeler, was the main source of "Seppalas" through the mid-1960s. Shearer's Foxstand Kennels was a parallel source; McFaul and Shearer sold stock to one another and cooperated. Keith Bryar in New Hampshire also bought breeding stock from McFaul and Shearer.


Fact: Meanwhile the development of the AKC Siberian Husky continued with the Seeley bloodline forming a major constituent of that breed, even though pure Seppalas continued to be bred within the same stud book. The formation of the Siberian Husky Club of America in 1938 put the breed firmly on the path to becoming a showdog. Show bloodlines and "racing" bloodlines were mixed fairly indiscriminately by many breeders, a situation that persists today. But the Siberian Husky breed could never have existed without Seppala strain -- even the showdog bloodlines usually will be found to contain sixty to seventy percent Seppala ancestry if the pedigree is traced back far enough.


What happened in the 1960s to make Seppalas so scarce?


Fact: The entire "Seppala strain" nearly suffered extinction when McFaul retired in 1963, following the retirement of Shearer in 1956 and Wheeler in 1950. Leonhard Seppala had returned to Alaska early in the 1930s and thereafter had little more to do with the sleddog strain that he had built up from 1915 to 1930. During the 1960s interest waned in Seppalas as racers turned to the Alaskan Husky; showdog breeders largely ceased to show working Siberians, preferring the well-publicised and flashily-marked Monadnock bloodline developed by Lorna B. Demidoff. By the late 1960s the only remaining major Seppala breeders were Keith Bryar (Laconia, NH) and J. M. McDougall (Ste. Agathe des Monts, QC), neither of whom did enough breeding or sold enough stock to ensure survival of Seppala strain.


Fact: Seppala strain was rescued from oblivion and impending extinction during the period 1970-1975 mainly by the breeding of Markovo Kennels (first in Oxford Station, ON, and later in Saskatoon, SK). Several surviving McFaul dogs were obtained and bred from, along with Bryar and McDougall stock, to enact what later became known as the "Markovo rescue," with an assist from Gary Egelston's Seppineau Kennels in Missouri. (The owner and operator of Markovo Kennels was in fact the author of this page.)


Fact: Much of the history of Seppalas, then, took place in Canada -- the Wheeler kennel, the McFaul kennel, the Markovo rescue. In the USA there was no serious effort to perpetuate the Seppala bloodline, not even by Earl F. Norris (Alaskan/Anadyr Kennels) who bought the last of McFaul's dogs when he retired. The pure Seppala lineage died out in the USA. By the mid-1970s the only Seppalas in the USA were those that had been sold to US buyers by Markovo Kennels.


Fact: From the beginnings circa 1915 until the end of the Markovo rescue in 1975, Seppala strain had been a closely-held affair maintained by a handful of serious breeders who had no use for show stock or for the bloodlines descended from the Seeley kennels. Although they were registered A.K.C. and C.K.C. Siberian Huskies, Seppalas had been bred almost as a breed within a breed.


What happened after the Markovo rescue?


Fact: In the post-Markovo era (beginning in 1976), Seppalas became popular in the western USA for mid-distance racing. Douglas W. Willett (Sepp-Alta and Alta Kennels) was the central figure in the development of "racing Seppalas" but Willett, although he consistently bred a number of pure Seppala litters from the 1980s through to the early 1990s, was never truly committed to the preservation of the pure bloodline. Willett's objective was only to have the "best" mid-distance Siberian Husky racing team; to that end he experimented continually and bred a large number of litters of mixed Seppala and mainstream Siberian Husky lineage. There was also experimentation with outcrossing to other breeds, such as the Karelian Bear Dog and the West Siberian Laika.


Fact: In 1990 J. Jeffrey Bragg obtained pure Seppala stock from four different breeders in the USA and resumed breeding pure Markovo-Seppalas (at that time in Catalunya in the north of Spain. In 1992 after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, pure-strain draught dogs straight from Siberia briefly became available in Europe through the Czech agent of Russian explorer Sergei A. Solovyev. I obtained one excellent male from that source, called Shakal iz Solovyev.


Fact: In 1993 I returned to Canada with two dozen Markovo-Seppalas and my Siberia import male. I immediately sought Canadian Kennel Club registration for all of them. CKC, after a delay of almost two years, refused to register the Siberia import dog. They refused to take seriously the dangerously narrow breed foundation, the many genetic bottlenecks the breed had suffered, or the argument for genetic health through restoration of genetic diversity. The Siberian Husky Club of Canada was likewise of no help; they only said, "do we really need new genes?" and refused to give breed club support to calls for the registration of Siberia import stock.


When did the "Seppala Siberian Sleddog" come into existence?


Fact: Correspondence with Agriculture Canada was then initiated to see what could be done to ensure Seppala survival and genetic health. A brief was submitted to the Animal Registration Officer, and on 31 July 1997 the "Seppala Siberian Sleddog" was federally chartered as an "evolving breed" in Canada under the Animal Pedigree Act, and the Working Canine Association of Canada (W.C.A.C.) was chartered at that time as the sole recognised pedigree record keeping organisation for the SSSD.


Fact: Five years later, in 2002, Doug Willett grew tired of paying AKC registration fees and meeting AKC registration deadlines. He penned an appeal to Seppala breeders to "lay down the AKC cross" and announced a "Seppala Symposium" in Seeley Lake, ID, to take place in August of that year, in order to "discuss the possibility of a separate registry."


Fact: At that Symposium, which I attended, DW revealed to the forty people gathered there that he had already cut a deal with a commercial registry in Walker, Louisiana, the "Continental Kennel Club," for a "Seppala Siberian Sleddog" registry to be run by ConKC. He also presented his new organisation, the "International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club," an activity-club licensed by ConKC. Over two hundred dogs had already been registered by that point, including a couple dozen Seppala/Alaskan Husky crosses. Very few of the dogs registered at that time were pure-strain Seppalas by the traditional criteria of ancestry (i.e., descent exclusively from Leonhard Seppala stock via Wheeler, Belford, Shearer, McFaul and their pure successor bloodlines). Most of the purebred Siberians registered were various "percentages" of Seppala and mainstream-AH mixed lineage. All of this was done privately, by Willett and two or three others, with very little wider consultation of stakeholders, and no effort at all made to include or to consult the existing SSSD Project, the WCAC or to consider the presence of the Seppala Siberian Sleddog evolving breed that had already been in existence for five years in Canada. The ConKC "Seppala" registry was presented by Willett and Bob Davis (his protegé of the moment) as a like-it-or-lump-it done deal -- no discussion possible.


Fact: The Seeley Lake meeting ended in discord and confusion. The CEO and COO of ConKC were invited to Seppala Kennels in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, the following winter, hosted for three days by us in an effort to introduce them to the legitimate SSSD Project. Thereafter I spent over a year of intensive effort to arrive at some kind of compromise with ConKC and their renegade "breed club" that would recognise the pre-existing Seppala Siberian Sleddog breed in Canada and allow us all to move forward, without compromising the integrity of the breed. ISSSC Director John Coyne (Chukchi Kennels, Tilquhilly Castle, Banchory, Scotland), ConKC CEO Michael Roy and I corresponded voluminously throughout that period, attempting to reach a solution that would allow all Seppala stakeholders to participate and to protect their own interests. Those efforts failed because Doug Willett would have no compromise of any kind. Every time we thought we had a solution, DW threatened to pull out of the ConKC registry along with "fifteen other breeders." DW repeatedly insulted the Project, denigrated Markovo-Seppalas, and ridiculed the new Siberia import stock, which ISSSC refused to accept as part of the breed (even though it had been so from the outset in Canada, following the precedent of both Leonhard Seppala and Harry Wheeler, both of whom had actively sought and used Siberia import stock).


Why is there such confusion today about Seppalas?


Fact: Since that time ISSSC and its breeders have claimed that their mixed bag of Seppalas, Alaskans, and mainstream Seeley-derived Siberians are the real Seppalas. Their "definition" of what they mean by that has changed at every turn. The most recent twist was just before Christmas 2007 when DW explained on a Scottish sleddog forum that his percentage system was "simply a gimmick" and declared, "They are 'Seppalas', not because they pass some percentage test, but because they run fast, pull hard, endure for hundreds of miles, have sound bodies and pleasant personalities." (One cannot help but observe that there must be quite a few thousands of dogs that are "Seppalas" by those standards, including the entire field of Alaskans entered in the Yukon Quest, Iditarod, and other distance races.)


Fact: A small faction continues to breed part-Seppala Siberian Huskies within the American Kennel Club registry; they, too, call their dogs "Seppalas" although really they are only mixed-lineage racing Siberian Huskies, there no longer being any pure McFaul/Shearer strain dogs bred in the USA. A few breeders, too, attempt to dual-register their dogs as AKC Siberian Huskies and ConKC Seppala Siberian Sleddogs, creating the interesting situation in which one dog must represent two distinct breeds and conform to two widely divergent breed standards.


Fact: Up until 2008 the SSSD Project in Canada continued to breed working sleddogs from pure-strain descendants of Leonhard Seppala's dogs and Siberia import stock, just as it did before ISSSC came along. We at Seppala Kennels, along with others, continue to use the Seppala Siberian Sleddog breed name that was illegitimately taken over by ISSSC. And people continue to call Project SSSDs "Seppalas," too.


Fact: Most people have only seen false "Seppalas." Not too long ago the ISSSC claimed a population of some seven hundred dogs within the ConKC Seppala registry; nearly all of those dogs would be found in the USA, where there are very few Project dogs. Since people use the same word to describe three separate and distinct canine populations (the numerous ConKC/ISSSC dogs, the less numerous AKC part-Seppala-strain remnants, and the Seppala Siberian Sleddog Project stock), there is a good deal of confusion in the public mind. I believe that only the dogs bred under the ancestry rules of the SSSD Project can properly claim to represent the legitimate and authentic Seppala Siberian Sleddog breed, the inheritors of the Leonhard Seppala/Harry Wheeler/Bill Shearer/Donnie McFaul tradition.


So there are some of the known FACTS about Seppalas. All the "opinions" on Sled Dog Central Talk will not change those facts. All the more so since most of the people expressing them have never owned a single pure-strain Seppala, nor ever will. Most of the instant expertise offered on the forums has the suspicious odour of circular reasoning. Everyone accepts that "if it looks like a Seppala, acts like a Seppala, and runs like a Seppala, then it IS a Seppala." And how do they know what a Seppala looks, acts and runs like? You guessed it -- by the dogs in their own backyard. I have had people present me with "Seppala" pedigrees in which I could not find a single known Seppala kennel name within five generations. Yet owners convince themselves that such dogs are Seppalas, by circular reasoning: "My dogs are Seppalas -- I KNOW this -- by them I know what Seppala-ness is. Therefore according to my knowledge of Seppalas, I find my dogs to be unexceptionably Seppala."

J. D. McFaul bred his last Seppalas in 1963. I owned, drove, knew and bred several McFaul dogs, most notably Ditko of Seppala, Shango of Seppala and Duska of Seppala, plus several other lesser lights. I bred ten litters from McFaul, McDougall, and Bryar stock in 1970-1975, and a number of other pure-strain Markovo Seppala litters since then. I don't need to reason in a circle or to make assumptions; I've seen the elephant. So I'll confess that it disturbs me a little when people claim to know all about Seppalas and what they are, on the basis of dogs that may be only 50% or 75% Seppala ancestry, or may even have only two or three Markovo ancestors back in the eighth generation of their pedigrees.

All of the confusion since 2002 has resulted in a situation in which Seppala percentages are inflated, falsified, and guessed at; in which no more Markovo-Seppala litters are bred except by those who acquired SSSD Project stock from Seppala Kennels, because the Markovo line was denigrated and bad-mouthed by Willett and his hangers-on in the "Seppala wars" of 2003, and because no one knows any longer how to distinguish a pure-strain Markovo-Seppala dog from all the phony "100%" Seppalas in the ISSSC Con-registry.

Since the closing of the SSSD Project and of WCAC, there is no longer a credible registry for Seppala Siberian Sleddogs. Perhaps there could not be such a thing, since every single individual sleddog breeder, knowledgeable or not, believes that he and he alone is sole guardian of the secret of "what is a Seppala." At a time at which Seppala Kennels still has fifty Project Seppalas in residence, including sixteen Markovo-Seppalas with exclusively McFaul/Shearer ancestry, it seems strange to say this: but I believe that the true Seppala strain (that is, the strain with NO SEELEY ANCESTRY) will not survive the next fifteen years in any significant numbers. Here and there, a litter is still being bred, but only at a rate of two or three litters each year. That is not enough to counter natural attrition. Dogs that need to be bred for Seppala survival are not being bred. We can no longer afford to carry that burden at Seppala Kennels; it is all we can do to feed and care for the remaining fifty dogs, the youngest of which will be five years old in early winter of 2012. Seppalas are back where they were in 1969 when I first met Ditko of Seppala. This time I expect extinction and assimilation will claim them.

Take a look at the photos in the two Markovo sections of this website, to see authentic Seppalas as they were in the early 1970s. Then take a look at the photos of Tonya, Kolyma, Lizaveta, Orlov, Ivan, Gorki and the rest to see Seppalas now, still as they were then. And remember well what you see, because soon they will be just a memory.