It begins abruptly with one dog, then another, and another, until the entire kennel is engulfed in one long, almost lyrical howl.
"It's a symphony," said Mrs. Milton "Short" Seeley, with obvious delight, as she recalled how a violinist friend en route to Tanglewood once remarked that the howling was as musically correct as anything he would expect to find at his destination. "They're talking to each other," she added, "and yes, I do think the animals can speak."
As suddenly as the howling starts, it stops, but Short Seeley, armed with renewed ardor inspired by the chanting, continues with her description of life at Chinook Kennels in Wonalancet, New Hampshire, and her half-century-long love affair with sled dogs. "They howl differently when they're hungry than when they're frightened or when one of them is hurt. And when new pups are born, it's absolutely uncanny. It's a song of life."
Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes are now popular breeds and common household pets, yet not so long ago, when Mrs. Seeley first became involved, they were called simply "wolf dogs of the north" and considered as wild and as desirable as their Arctic home. "That all changed with chinook," she said, repeating the tale of the Husky mix who became "the most famous dog in America." His owner, Arthur Walden, the original founder of Chinook Kennels, gained notoriety for himself and his lead dog by taking first place in the first international sled dog race ever held in the United States in Berlin, New Hampshire, in 1922.
Mrs. Seeley was instantly intrigued, and two years later, when she and her husband Milton, a chemist at Oregon State University, were married, they honeymooned in Wonalancet.
Soon after, they returned for good. First, to help Walden prepare for the first Admiral Byrd expedition to the South Pole, and later, after Walden's own departure to Antarctica, to take over the kennels themselves.
Anyone familiar with those dogs usually referred to as the northern breeds - Huskies, Malamutes, and Samoyeds - are well aware of Chinook Kennels and the Seeleys' contribution to sled dogs, their recognition and acceptance, and to sled dog racing as a sport. That's why the New England Sled Dog Association is honoring Mrs. Seeley this year at its race held on Lake Chocorua, originally scheduled for December 31 to January 1, but postponed to March 4 and 5, because of lack of snow.
The Seeleys established the breed Alaskan Malamute with the American Kennel Club, began the first American Malamute organization and revived the Siberian Husky Club of America. Mrs. Seeley demonstrated her own dedication to the project at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics when she became the only woman to compete in the sled dog racing event. "I drove a team of Malamutes," she said. "I know I wouldn't win because they're not as strong or as fast as Huskies, but I wanted to show how manageable they could be." It's no coincidence that the Alaskan Malamute won AKC recognition only three years later.
The sled dog exhibition, however, was no lark. An avid competitor for over a decade and founder of the entire sport of junior sled dog racing, she is one of only two women elected to the Dog Mushers Hall of Fame in Alaska.
Mrs. Seeley's enthusiasm has hardly lessened with age. With a spriteness that defies her 86 years and a spirit that doubles her diminutive size, she discussed the "close to 2,500 dogs that have passed through these gates," the hundreds of Champions, and her own very hectic schedule.
Last year, the book she wrote with Maxwell Riddle, "The Complete Alaskan Malamute," was named Best Breed Book of the year by the Dog Writers Association of America. At present, she's working on a children's book, her second, on Chinook and his family that will also be translated into braille. That is, if she has time between judging dog shows and spearheading legislative efforts and educational campaigns for better dog care.
The honorary member of every club and sought after speaker at numerous engagements, she receives newsletters and correspondence from almost every Husky and Malamute club in the world. "I'm an honorary member of the Finnish Society of Siberian Husky," she laughed, pointing to its annual publication, "but it's written in Finnish and I can't read what they've said about me."
Lately, Mrs. Seeley has been forced to cancel her cross country trips, but she still attends and participates in dog shows in the Northeast as well as maintaining the Kennels, a full time job, but one, she admits, that is a lot easier now than when they were training dogs for the Army and Air Force. In all, Chinook Kennels furnished dogs for six expeditions: a second Byrd trip, two U.S. Army Antarctic explorations, a U.S. Air Force weather mission, and the Army's North European campaign during World War II.
In 1955, President Eisenhower personally assigned her the task of assembling and training sled dogs for Operation Deepfreeze, the 60-day international geophysical expedition again led by Rear Admiral Richard Byrd.
"Each trip needed about 200 dogs," she explained. "This place was a regular village. We had tents up and down the hillside and makeshift housing for the trainers and the men who had to get used to feeding and caring for the dogs before they left on the expeditions."
The dogs were true soldiers, she notes, as did a crowd of 1000 who gathered at the Wonalancet site in 1939 with Admiral Byrd to present the Seeleys with a bronze plaque commemorating the "noble dogs whose lives were lost" in the pursuit of science.
Mrs. Seeley's contribution was likewise cited six years ago at a testimonial held in her honor in Philadelphia, and her list of accomplishments was permanently placed in the Congressional Record by New Hampshire Senator Norris Cotton.
A breeder, handler, and judge, she has seen all sides of the dog world, and can carefully detail each of her dogs bloodlines and heritage. Except for one, and he wasn't a dog at all, but he was one of her greatest triumphs - her wolf, Wagush. When she and her husband bought the four-month-old pup from a well-known Ontario trapper, Mrs. Seeley had never before heard of a person taming a wild animal.
"I was fascinated by him," she said, "and every day I'd talk to him, just to get him used to me. This went on for months until one day, when there was no one around, I went into his pen and just sat. Eventually, he came over and touched my sneaker. By the time the others arrived, he had his head in my lap. Milton was right, and he said I couldn't go into the pen alone again, but knowing me, he added, 'We'll go in together.'"
Wagush soon became a friendly pet and companion and a favorite among the visitors to the Kennels. He contracted distemper, though, during an epidemic that broke out during one of the army expedition training periods. "We didn't know as much about distemper then as we do now, and he died before the serum arrived. He was a great animal," she sighed, with a mixture of fondness and sadness that understated and, at the same time, summed up her love for all wildlife.
Chinook Kennels is situated on the Chinook Trail, Rte. 113A, five miles from Tamworth Village, and is open to the public in the summer and fall for a small fee. Located on the grounds in addition to the numerous dog houses, pens and runways, is the Sled Dog Museum, containing all the early artifacts of the sport, and the Byrd Plaque.
Mrs. Seeley lives in a log house in the center just a short distance away from the pens. "We did what we set out to do," concluded Mrs. Seeley, who has managed the organization alone since her husband died in 1945. "Millton and I wanted everyone to know that these so-called wolf dogs were not only sled dogs but show dogs and house pets, too. Now Huskies and Malamutes are some of the most popular breeds in the country."
A howl of approval rang in the background.
NOTE:This plaque in Wonalancet provides a little update to the Chinook Kennels.