The Chukchi people and their dogs

Everyone knows that Siberian Huskies come from Siberia, however they weren’t found just running around in the wild. The Siberian is of a pure and very ancient lineage, dating back 4,000 years or more. The Siberian breed was developed by the Chukchi people of North Eastern Asia, an ancient Siberian hunting people, who used the dogs to assist them hunting and to pull loads long distances through the extremely cold and harsh environment of the Siberian Arctic.

The word Siberia is commonly associated with a very cold environment however the earliest Chukchi’s probably enjoyed a much milder climate than they do today. In those warmer times they may have relied on dogs to assist them hunting the plentiful reindeer. About 3,000 years ago the climate changed for the worse and the reindeer had to travel farther and farther to find food, the reindeer dependent Chukchis had to travel with them taking their entire households along. This added sled hauling to the list of the Siberian Huskies accomplishments.

Chukchis respected their Siberian Huskies greatly and only the very young, old and sick were allowed to ride in the sleds as passengers. The sleds were mostly used to haul goods whilst the people walked. On occasion the Chukchi women and children pulled the sleds along side the dogs.

Although the Chukchi people were illiterate they had a very complex culture, they developed a religion based on shamanistic healing and conceived of a heaven whose gates were guarded by a pair of Chukchi dogs. The Chukchis believed that anyone who mistreated a dog would not be allowed into heaven.

After a while the Chukchis learnt to domesticate reindeer, as a result the Siberian Huskies were taught to herd deer instead of killing them. Siberian Huskies were bred for multi-purpose work, such as hunting, herding and hauling light loads. Now that the Chukchis had domesticated their reindeer they were used to pull the heaviest loads, the Siberian Huskies were developed for their strength, endurance and agility rather than brute strength. Their development paid off because no other breed in the world can haul a light load as fast and far as the Siberian Husky – and on so little food.

Russia begins to purge the Chukchi people

In 1742 the Russians declared an all out war on the Chukchi people, after trying for 40+ years to get them to surrender their land, the Chukchi people were beaten by the Russians everytime but they refused to give up and would just pack up their things and move farther on.

During the height of the Stalinist era of the 1930’s the Communists put forth a major effort to destroy every vestige of ‘non-soviet’ culture, including the native dog breeds. They decided sled dogs were outdated creatures that should be replaced by up to date motorized vehicles, however when they got to Chukchi land with their motorized vehicles they all got stuck in the snow. At this point the communists were compelled to admit the dogs economic usefulness.

Instead of doing the sensible thing and leaving the Chukchis in peace to breed their dogs, the soviets decided to ‘reorganise’ the existing breeds into four artificial headings, sled dogs, reindeer hearers, big game hunters, and small game hunters. In 1947 the Soviet Congress decided there was no need for sled dogs or reindeer herders and reclassified the dogs into four new subdivisions. The dog now called the Siberian Husky was left out of all these classifications. The Soviets decided that the Siberian Husky was too small to pull anything, even though they had been pulling sleds over Siberia for the last few thousand years.

The Chukchis new that nothing could surpass their native dogs for long-distance sledding. When the Chukchis needed more power they simply added more dogs. Because of the Huskies excellent temperament as many as 18-20 dogs should be hitched to a single sled, and there was no fighting. This kind of cooperation was simply not possible with the other short-tempered Nordic breeds.

Siberians had other advantages, which made them unlike most of the other northern breeds. Because they had been raised in a family setting and not left to fend for themselves they could be trusted with children, they could run faster, longer and on less food than any other breed in the world. This is still true of the husky today.

Sadly, there may be no pure Siberian Huskies left in their birth land today. They disappeared during the Stalinist purges along with most of the Chukchi people. However some Huskies were exported to North America, the last arriving in 1929.

Leonhard Seppala, The Serum Run and the Iditarod

One of the greatest names in Siberian history is that of Norwegian Leonhard Seppala. Leonhard was born in the Arctic Circle and was no stranger to bitter weather, emigrating to America in 1914 he chose the cold of Alaska for his new home. He began working in the gold fields, driving freight dogs and soon sled racing.

In 1914 Seppala ran his team of dogs in the ‘All Alaska Sweepstakes Race’, he was badly defeated. He became lost in a whiteout blizzard and came within a 200 foot precipice, only the responsiveness of his native Siberian lead dog, ‘Suggen’, prevented complete tragedy. The following year Seppala went on to win the All Alaska Sweepstakes, three years in a row. Seppala proved the Huskies ability to race at all distances.

Leonhard Seppala’s greatest feat was in January 1925 and had nothing to do with racing. A raging diphtheria epidemic had taken over Nome, two eskimo children had already died and it was feared the native population who had little exposure to the disease could be wiped out entirely if held did not arrive immediately.

The city’s small serum supply had been used up, the nearest supply was nearly 1,000 miles away in Anchorage. The Alaskan railroad could take it as far as Nenana, but this was still 658 miles away. There were only three airplanes in all of Alaska and the three people who knew how to fly them were spending the winter elsewhere. Furthermore the planes were grounded by the 80mph winds and raging blizzards. They were worried that the planes could not stay in the air during the blizzards and that the serum would be lost.

The Siberian Huskies came to the rescue. Under the leadership of Leonhard Seppala, 20 divers and 100 dogs were recruited for the trip. The dogs ran 658 miles in five and a half days, on a mail trail that usually took 25 days, sometimes travelling through blizzards and snowdrifts that were waist high. It was snowing so hard the drivers could not see the dogs in front of them. At times the temperature plunged to 62 degrees below zero. Two dogs actually froze to death in their harness; their musher, Charlie Evans, took their place and along with the other dogs pulled the sled himself the remaining miles.

Leonhards drove 340 miles of the relay, his lead dog was Togo, the son of the resourceful Suggen. Togo was a little dog and not much to look at by todays standards but could lead a team like no other dog. Seppala estimated that Togo had run over 5,000 miles during his career. The Great Serum run was his last appearance. Aging and injured on the trip the old hero was retired afterward and later died in 1929 at the age of 14-15.

The final leg of the relay was run by Gunnar Kassan, driving Seppalas second string of dogs, using a dog named Balto as his lead dog. When Kassan became lost on the ice of the Topkok River, it was Balto who scented out the right trail (in 50mph winds) and brought the team in safely. If it had been left to Kassan the entire team would have plunged through the ice.

Kassan staggered into Nome at 5:30am on February 2, 1925. His dogs were cold and exhausted, their feet torn and bloody. The Serum was delivered. Out of this great race was born the modern sled race we call the Iditarod.

“Endurance, Fidelity, Intelligence”