A Devotion to a Heritage Breed

A Devotion to a Heritage Breed

by Susan Spisak

For Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes, dog sledding is more than a winter sport. “It’s part of our family culture,” said Hayes, who shares a large, blended family with wife, Tammie. A former US Marine Corps Infantryman, life runs at full speed for this ordained minister, author, and teacher at Wisdom Middle/High School in St. Agatha. “Yes, that’s what happens when you have a day job and are taking on the responsibility of trying to preserve a heritage breed.”

He’s referring to the CKC registered Seppala Siberian Huskies that are bred, raised, and trained at their family-owned and operated Poland Spring Seppala Kennels in Ft. Kent near the Canadian border. His dogs are direct descendants of the famous Norwegian-American breeder, Leonhard Seppala. (Hayes’ full kennel name is Mush Maine - Poland Spring Seppala Kennels and is a respectful nod to Seppala’s original Poland Spring, Maine facility.)

Seppala led his Siberian Husky relay team in the 1925 “Great Race of Mercy,” transporting diphtheria antitoxin to save the children of Nome, Alaska. Considered heroes, they were celebrated throughout the states. Seppala then partnered with New England musher, Elizabeth Ricker, and they opened a kennel devoted to breeding Siberian Huskies in Poland Spring

A few years later, Seppala closed the Maine kennel and returned to Alaska, but delegated his dogs to friend, Harry Wheeler. According to the AKC, the Siberian Husky Club of America believes all the breed’s registered dogs of today can trace their ancestry to those from the Seppala-Ricker or Harry Wheeler’s kennels.

kennels. While Hayes has been involved with sled dogs for over two decades, he didn’t grow up with an interest in mushing, rather he grew into it. As a sixth generation Tennessean, he moved north about 25 years ago. Before he packed up, he met an old-time Mainer who advised him, “‘If you’re going to move there, you need to find something to get you through long winters or they’ll drive you crazy.’” Since Hayes is interested in canids (carnivorous animals that include wolves, jackals, foxes, coyotes, and domestic dogs), arriving at mushing was easy.

“It didn’t take me long to figure out sled dogs and snow, lots of snow [here in Maine would fit the bill]. He’d also seen Iron Will, a 90’s adventure movie about a sled dog race. First came research, then came the dogs. “I rescued Siberian Huskies. I was mushing for two years before I ever met another musher.”

Their children have taken to mushing as well. Caleb, 17, and Christian, 14, attend Belfast High and head to the kennel on weekends. They’ve raced competitively at the prestigious Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race in Ft. Kent. In 2022, they’re stepping it up – Caleb is competing in an overnight 100- mile race while Christian is running the 100-Mile Wilderness Race in Greenville.

Twelve-year-old Elizabeth and 9-year-old Sophia just ran their first race. And Hayes’ 21-year-old son Asa, serving in the US Marine Corps in Afghanistan, told his dad, “‘I can’t wait to get back to Maine and the sled dogs.’”





For this former Maine Forest Ranger, it’s not just the races, it’s about enjoying the trails and being in the great outdoors with the Seppalas. They’re hard-wired to run, excited, barking, and begging to go. “The moment you pull the quick release, your team takes off and everything goes silent except for the patter of feet on the snow. It’s a relationship between you, the dogs, and nature.”

between you, the dogs, and nature.” As a board member with the International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club, Hayes’ most important mission is to protect this breed. He’s also adamant that it’s essential to continually promote the preservation of wild spaces.

True North Legends of Dogs and Men The story of Togo is one that is near and dear to Hayes. Togo was the 12-year-old Husky who led the toughest and longest portion (261 miles) of the 1925 diphtheria antitoxin run with Seppala. Disney honored him in the movie Togo in 2019 while Hayes wrote the children’s book The True Tails of Togo the Sled Dog! (Initial accolades went to Balto, the sled dog who simply finished the last 31 miles of the trek.)

Togo remained with his beloved master, living in Poland Spring until he passed at 16 in 1929. Seppala treasured the special dog: “I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty, and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.” (Credit nps/.)

Knowing the history of Togo and the fact that he died there, Cyndi Robbins, owner of the Poland Spring Resort and vice president of the Poland Spring Preservation Society, contacted Hayes with hopes for a collaboration. She wants a life-sized statue of the heroic dog built with his support on the grounds of the historic Maine State Building in Poland Spring.

Laura Brown, Director of Operations at Poland Spring Preservation Society agreed this will be a treat for tourists when completed – they plan to erect the statue at the end of the Togo Storybook Trail. She added that visitors have more to see inside, “There’s a Togo display in the Maine State Building Museum which features photos of Leonhard and Togo, as well as Elizabeth Ricker and Togo at Poland Spring.”

Hayes wanted to participate in the project to not only raise funds for the $25k statue but to enlighten others on the unsung hero as well – but in his own way. He decided to embark on an expedition akin to Togo’s legendary run – he knew it would be his tribute to Seppala, Togo, and his own dogs as well. Wanting to document the adventure, he turned to Jeremy T. Grant, Searsport videographer/ filmmaker, who jumped on board. Grant described the outing as fun but admitted a great deal of hard work and grit went into pulling it off. He credited Hayes’ determination and self-sufficiency.

The pair, who were virtual strangers initially, left from Ft. Kent together, but often split apart because Hayes and his team of Huskies traversed remote areas throughout the weeklong, 280+ mile Northwoods journey that ended in Greenville. They worked cohesively, spent nights together in camps or under the stars, and charted the next day’s route, often with local’s assistance.

Grant followed Hayes and his dogs via pickup, snowmobile, or on snowshoes. The filmmaker used everything and anything at his disposal – traditional cameras, GoPros, drones. And he relied on Hayes to film since he wasn’t always in proximity to him on trails. “Jonathan was a rock star,” he said, citing that Hayes learned camera skills quickly, making him better than many professionals. “I have so much respect for him,” he said, adding that Hayes was able to film even in knee high slush, mushing along.

“It was an honor to do the documentary,” Hayes said of the finished product, True North Legends of Dogs and Men. Grant was thrilled to work on the film, adding Hayes is “an awesome dude,” and that they’re brothers for life. Hayes feels the same, he even gifted Grant a blue-eyed Seppala pup from his kennel on New Year’s Eve as a “thank you.” The Grant family named her Aurora Eve. (Grant grew up in Aurora in Hancock County, Eve is self-explanatory.)

Grant explained that the documentary isn’t available to the public yet as it’s been submitted to about 60 film festivals. If/when it’s picked up, depending upon the size of the festival, they may allow online previews. Grant admitted it’d be great to be on a streaming platform such as Netflix as well but feels it’s unlikely. (Watch the powerful trailer here: youtube.com/ watch?v=GHOGIoONCSI.)

Grant, now a proud owner of a Seppala Siberian Husky, knows it’s important to have the Togo statue built to keep the unique, hardworking breed alive. “It’s such a big thing.”


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