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Canine who helped inspire Iditarod is back in Alaska
by Peter Porco
Anchorage Daily News

February 16, 2005

Anchorage, Alaska - He was a nothing dog. Maybe less than nothing, stuffed and mounted without a name and a history. A handsome white Siberian husky reduced to a curio in a roadside theme park in upstate New York.

When auctioned off last fall with other amusement-park items, he was called "Alaskan Husky Dog Mount in Glass Case."

But one person knew his name and his story, a heroic tale from across the decades.

The stuffed dog languishing in New York was Fritz, a key member of Leonhard Seppala's team that relayed serum for a diphtheria-ravaged Nome in 1925, the "great race for mercy" that inspired creation of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Fritz also was an important early sire for the Siberian husky line registered by the American Kennel Club.

Natalie Norris of Willow, member of a pioneer mushing family that helped launch the Fur Rendezvous sled dog races, brought Fritz back into the sunlight last month. Fritz, who left Alaska a champion racer in 1926, is back in Nome.

"No one knew about Fritz," said Laura Samuelson, director of Nome's Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum, where the mount now stands.

In the years since the serum relay by 20 dog teams, Fritz all but vanished down a hole. Fritz was born in Nome in 1915 to two dogs imported from Asia and bred by Seppala, a Norwegian immigrant and skilled musher.

Fritz was a vitally important sled dog, a co-leader of Seppala's team. But he had a publicity problem.

The rush to get the serum across more than 650 miles of weather-beaten wilderness to critically ill children in Nome captured audiences worldwide for nearly two weeks.

The serum arrived Feb. 2, 1925, brought by the last-leg team, driven by Gunnar Kaasen and led by Balto. Balto became the household name. The statue erected in New York City's Central Park to commemorate the run is of Balto.

Seppala had mushed about twice the overall distance for the serum as Kaasen, but that apparently counted for little.

Also, Seppala's favorite dog at the time - Fritz's co-leader on scores of cross-country treks and races - was Togo, Fritz's older half-brother. Seppala's autobiography lauds Togo and ignores Fritz.

So how did Fritz become mounted and wind up in Frontier Town on Route 9 in North Hudson, N.Y., and how did Natalie Norris get him back to Alaska?

Seppala liked to race, and Fritz was one of his top competitors. As a 2-year-old, the dog helped to bring a team driven by Seppala's boss into second place - behind Seppala - in the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, the long-distance race of the time.

In 1926, with fame clinging to the huskies from the serum run, Seppala took 40 Siberians to the Lower 48 to tour the big cities, show off the dogs and race in New England and Canada.

Fritz did well - Seppala won key races - but the dog was getting old. Seppala and Peg Ricker, who together formed a breeding kennel for Siberians in Maine, sold Fritz to a doctor, Beverly Sproul.

Sproul retired Fritz in 1929 and began touring him at sportsmen's shows in New England.

In December 1932, Sproul carted Fritz and other dogs to Gimbel's in New York City for a Christmas show. And there, at 17, Fritz died. The New York Times published a small obituary.

Sproul had the dog mounted and continued to display him, now in the glass case.

Natalie Norris, raised in Lake Placid in New York's Adirondack Mountains and a lover of sled dogs, was a youngster in the 1930s when she found herself more than once standing before the mounted Fritz.

"All through my teens, Fritz was on display every once in a while," she said.

In the 1980s, Norris was in Lake Placid on a visit to her family.

"Somebody mentioned this dog was on display at Frontier Town, and I went to look," she said. "I expected it to be Fritz. There aren't too many mounts of Siberian huskies."

In 1998, the amusement park 50 miles southeast of Lake Placid closed. Fritz was auctioned last October to an antique dealer, and Norris bought the mount for "more than several thousand dollars," she said.

Norris phoned and told Samuelson, the Nome museum director, the story and said she wanted the museum to have the mount.

"I didn't tell anybody. I just couldn't believe it," Samuelson said.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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