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Page history last edited by ditkoofseppala 3 years, 6 months ago

Introduction to Seppalas


The Background



Somewhere, sometime in the dawn of human pre-history, an inquisitive cave-dweller, or perhaps a subarctic nomad, picked up an orphan wolf pup and took it home. Fed on leavings from the hunters' and fishers' bounty, the young wolf grew to adulthood thinking it was part of a human pack, and as an athletic adult proved its usefulness in the hunt. Who knows how many times this experience repeated itself before the adopted wolf became the human-raised dog, companion of the hunt and the campfire? Probably similar events happened in many different places, in different climates and cultures, as is so often the case with an idea whose time has come. It is certain that the tribes that roamed the Eurasian subarctic found dogs useful in a variety of ways, and it is equally certain that the only way they had to create a dog was from the raw material afforded by the wolf. For the wolf, life in the camps and caves represented easy living and a survival advantage, therefore another step in canid evolution.


By the time Europeans penetrated eastern Siberia in the 17th century, most of the many and varied tribes of that country had dogs. Some were used for hunting -- the laikas. Others were used to pull sleds -- the draught dogs. Probably some were pressed into service for either purpose. Still others herded reindeer. Early explorers described these tribal Siberian dogs as "wolfish" and rather variable from one region to the next. The one thing that is obvious is that prior to the "sovietisation" of eastern Siberia by the communist regime of the early 1900s, there was a thriving dog-breeding culture throughout the region and a working dog population that ran to many thousands of animals. The Nenets, the Yukaghir, the Kamchadal, the Koryak, the Evenks, the Yakuts, and the Chukchi are all mentioned as dog-breeders in the annals of late eighteenth-century explorers.


The Beginning



In 1913 a young Norwegian miner named Leonhard Seppala was given charge of a group of fifteen Siberian sleddogs, all puppies and females, that his employer in the Nome (Alaska) goldfields, Jafet Lindeberg, had collected in anticipation of the Roald Amundsen expedition to the North Pole. Admiral Peary claimed to have reached the Pole successfully before Amundsen even got started, the dogs stayed with Seppala, and the rest is history! Seppala became the world's most famous dog driver and his special strain of Siberian dogs was known and respected long after Sepp himself dropped out of the public eye. Although Sepp's dogs were strictly working dogs that were heavily used for freighting and passenger trips, he nevertheless succeeded in winning the All-Alaska Sweepstakes in three successive years with those same dogs. The First World War (and Seppala's domination of the Sweepstakes race) put an end to the AAS in 1917, but Seppala continued to work him dogs in and around the Nome gold fields. In 1925 Seppala and his dogs were crucial to the delivery of antiserum from Nenana to the stricken city of Nome, then in the grips of a midwinter diphtheria epidemic, an exploit that gained him fame across the continent.


South to New England



On the strength of the newspaper publicity following the Nome Serum Drive , Seppala sailed with his dogs to Seattle, Washington, and began a tour of the U.S.A. It ended in winter of 1927 at Poland Spring, Maine , where Seppala drove a challenge race against Arthur Walden , a former Klondike Gold Rush participant, dog driver and founder of the New England Sled Dog Club. Seppala won the race and a young woman participant who had driven a team of Walden's Chinooks, Mrs. Elizabeth M. Ricker, became Seppala's business and kennel partner. Seppala Kennels at Poland Spring lasted from 1927 through 1931, breeding Siberian sleddogs from Seppala's special bloodline and importing new stock from Siberia. In 1930 the Siberian Husky breed was recognised by the American Kennel Club and became a registered show dog breed, at least potentially. Dog drivers like Sepp and Liz Ricker largely ignored the A.K.C. and its dog shows; they were too busy training their teams.



Siberian Sleddogs in the mid-twentieth century



Seppala and Ricker introduced Seppala Siberians to New England and eastern Canada as working sleddogs, but gradually through the mid-twentieth century a change of emphasis took place. At first it was quite gradual, but in the 1950s it began to gather speed, becoming radical by the 1960s.


In 1938 the founding of the Siberian Husky Club of America set the Siberian well and truly on the path to becoming no more than a beauty contestant, a "working breed" in name only. The dogs of Seppala's Siberian strain continued to be bred exclusively as working sleddogs all through the 1930s and the 1940s. People like Harry R. Wheeler, Dr. Charles Belford, Millie Turner and William L. Shearer III made these "Seppala Siberians" famous in sleddog races in New England and Quebec. Cold River Kennels, Foxstand Kennels and others kept the pure Seppala Strain going in New England through the mid-1950s. They survived World War Two (though many sleddog bloodlines did not) and continued to be bred as a pure strain within the Canadian Kennel Club's Siberian Husky stud book, guarded and prized by such Canadian breeders as J. D. McFaul, Keith Bryar, Allan Gagnon and J. Malcolm McDougall, until the late 1960s.


Brush with Extinction



Always closely held and highly valued, the Seppala Siberians were continuously vulnerable to assimilation into the much larger Siberian Husky population of show dogs and pets. Few breeders ever had the pure strain. McFaul, the main breeder, retired in 1963 without a successor kennel, and as the decade drew to a close interest in Seppalas waned. Dogsled racers sought faster, more specialised dogs for short, fast, level trails, while Siberian Husky breeders in Canada rushed to buy 75-pound black and white show dogs from the popular Monadnock and Innisfree bloodlines of the U. S. A. By 1970 it was clear that the renowned Seppala Siberians, descendants of Leonhard Seppala's dogs, were headed for extinction. The last McFaul dogs were getting old and there was no young stock to replace them.


Early Days of the Markovo Rescue



In 1968 a newbie Siberian Husky breeder who lived in southern Ontario, J. Jeffrey Bragg, drove several hundred miles north to the kennels of Elizabeth Ricker's daughter Bunty Goudreau, where he first saw the dog who would inspire the Markovo Rescue of the endangered Seppala strain. Ditko of Seppala was a small, friendly brownish-grey male with blue eyes, a standoff coat, and a friendly temperament. Though nobody realised it at the time, that was the real beginning of the rescue of Leonhard Seppala's dogs from extinction. In October 1969 Bragg was given the opportunity to purchase the ageing Ditko, then over ten years old, and he took it. Late spring of 1970 saw the acquisition of a leased McFaul bitch, Duska of Seppala, she was bred to Ditko in July of that year and in mid-September whelped the H-litter of Markovo. Shortly thereafter the kennel moved from Pefferlaw on the south shore of Lake Simcoe to Oxford Station in eastern Ontario.


Two additional Seppala bitches were purchased, Frostfire Anisette and Lyl of Sepsequel. Unfortunately the ageing Ditko of Seppala died of stomach cancer before any additional litters could be produced. Lyl was shipped to Missouri for breeding to an American stud of Bryar bloodlines, Mikiuk Tuktu Tornyak, to whom she produced the Markovo N-litter. There was a pause in the breeding then while two litters of puppies grew up. Then three test litters were bred from combinations of the two litters (the W-litter, X-litter and Z-litter). At this point Bragg was still breeding mainstream Siberian Huskies from a wide variety of bloodlines and remained to be convinced that the idea of salvaging Seppala strain was a viable proposition. Seeking a stud dog to replace the lost Ditko of Seppala, Bragg had discussed and examined a series of unsatisfactory dogs from Earl F. Norris before Norris finally proposed Shango of Seppala.


Saskatchewan Period of the Markovo Rescue -- "Now it's for blood!"



Things came to a head in summer of 1973 just after the acquisition of Shango of Seppala. Betsy LeSueur Bush, owner of a 7/8 Seppala male son of an Allan Gagnon sire, came to Oxford Station seeking Seppalas. Events moved rapidly, and by August Bragg was headed west to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (where Ms. Bush worked at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine), with a dog truck and fourteen Seppalas. As the prairie winter closed in on the tiny new Seppala kennel on the bald-headed prairie outside of Saskatoon, Betsy observed with grim satisfaction, "Now it's for blood!" That winter, Frostfire Anisette was shipped for breeding to Vanka of Seppala (3rd) and Lyl of Sepsequel, Helen of Markovo and Holly of Markovo were all mated to Shango of Seppala. The first Brush Farm with its unsheltered location proved all but uninhabitable, and next summer Markovo moved to a more protected location in the Dundurn Hills, where the remaining Markovo litters were born.


In 1975 Bragg and Bush came to the end of their rope financially. Ten litters of young Seppalas had been produced by Markovo Kennels and it was time to secure the safety of the bloodline by spreading the stock around geographically. A Markovo dispersal sale took place over the summer, and 35 dogs were successfully placed with new owners. Three substantial breeding groups went to Bruce Morrow in Parksville, British Columbia, to Curt Stuckey in Lakewood, Colorado, and to Barbara Bailey in Gonor, Manitoba. A number of other buyers took breeding pairs of Seppalas. Seppala strain should have been well-placed for future survival and growth.


The Post-Markovo Period



The promise held out by the new young stock bred by Markovo Kennels, Seppineau Kennels, and Monte Alban Kennels was unfortunately not fulfilled nearly so well as it could have been in the decade immediately following the Markovo dispersal sale. Of three breeding groups established at the time of the sale, two came to nothing. None of the Monte Alban breeding survived as a pure-strain bloodline. And worst of all, the Markovo stock did not produce as numerous and diverse a population as it could and should have done. Breeding by mid-distance racer Doug Willett concentrated on one mating that gave immediate results on the race trail, and other lines were not given the attention they deserved. During the period from 1975 to 1995 Seppala strain gradually became "painted into a corner" with regard to breeding options, and more and more forced inbreeding began to take place.


The Seppala Siberian Sleddog Project



The Markovo Kennels partners Bragg and Boucher re-entered the field of active Seppala breeding in 1990 shortly after their purchase of a small farm in the north of Spain. In 1993 they returned to Canada to establish the fourth Seppala Kennels in Grizzly Valley, Yukon Territory, bringing with them two dozen Seppalas. Among them was a sleddog imported from Siberia named Shakal iz Solovyev. When the Canadian Kennel Club refused registration to the new Siberia import despite his FCI Export Pedigree, the decision was made to withdraw from the C.K.C. and to seek independent breed status for the Seppala Siberian Sleddog. An intense period of correspondence and negotiation with Agriculture Canada ensued. In 1997 the Working Canine Association of Canada was federally chartered under the Animal Pedigree Act and the Seppala Siberian Sleddog was officially recognised in Canada as an evolving breed under the terms of the Act. In 2005 the International Seppala Association was incorporated in the Yukon Territory as a pedigree record-keeping association for SSSDs in countries outside of Canada.

The evolving breed and its founding Project were ignored by the public for the first five years of their existence. A website was first placed online in 1998. It was not until 2002 that the Seppala breed initiative attracted much attention, and then it was of the wrong kind -- in that year the commercial Continental Kennel Club in Walker, LA, licensed its first "breed club," the so-called International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club, using photographs and text stolen from the Project website, and registered 200 Racing Siberian Huskies of mixed lineage as Seppalas. All this occurred without the knowledge of the SSSD Project and without any prior consultation.


In 2005 and 2006 the Project imported additional stock of predominantly Solovyev bloodlines from the Cal Segu Kennels of Spanish breeder and Pirena racer Ramón Rojas. Ditko, Dushka, Cocù and Collen de Cal Segù were all half or three-quarters Solovyev lineage, the balance of their pedigree lines stemming from Project Markovo-Seppalas. With this new stock the Project was able to continue its breeding programme with markedly lower coefficients of inbreeding and a broader breeding base for increased genetic health.

Today the Seppala Siberian Sleddog Project is steadfastly committed to the development of Seppalas as a breed in their own right. Principals of population genetics rule the long-term breeding programme of the Project. The goal and ideal is the restoration of the original Siberian sleddog to whatever extent that may be possible today, using the McFaul/Shearer bloodline broadened and restored to genetic health by the addition of new Siberia import bloodlines. The Project ideal is a versatile sleddog rather than a specialist racing dog. Assortative mating is emphasised, inbreeding is deprecated and will be kept as low as feasible, while many different sleddog traits are considered rather than speed and endurance only. We hope eventually to restore something of the original genetic diversity of the original tribal dogs of eastern Siberia.


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