Gunnar Kaasen Biography

By: Lance Jensen

Hans Henrik Pedersen Kaasen was one of two brothers who owned separate farms in Burfjord, Norway. This area is known locally as Kaasen Valley. He married Anna Lovisa Olsdatter Hoki on August 1, 1875. They would have twelve children - 9 boys and 3 girls. One of them was Gunder Eisten (Gunnar) Kaasen, who was born on March 10, 1882.

Several of the Kaasen brothers would travel to the United States during the early 1900's. Six of them would go to Nome, Alaska: John Emil in 1901, Gunder Eisten in 1904, Peder Ingvald and Harald Ludwig in 1905, Olaf Hjalmar in 1906, and Sigurd Alfred in 1908. Several of the Seppala brothers would also go from Norway to Nome around the same time.
As was the case with Leonhard Seppala, Gunnar Kaasen also worked for the Pioneer Mining and Ditch Company in the Nome area. Part of his duties included driving teams of sled dogs. He also participated in the various Nome dog races. One of them was the Solomon Moose Burden Handicap Race, which was run on February 15, 1915. This was a one way race from Nome to Solomon, a distance of about 33 miles. There were 22 entries, which included a total of 273 dogs. Each driver was required to carry a female "burden" in their sled. Gunnar Kaasen's burden was a lady by the name of Miss Rowena Lewis. His team consisted of 9 dogs. Kaasen won this race and was awarded the grand prize, which was in the form of a trophy from the Tiffany Company in New York City. In addition, both Gunnar and Miss Lewis received a "loving cup" prize from the local Loyal Order of Moose organization, who was the sponsor of this race.
The next dog race Gunnar Kaasen participated in that year was the Solomon Derby, a 65 mile round trip race from Nome to Solomon and back. This race was run on February 26 and there were a total of 8 entries. From the February 27, 1915 edition of the Nome Nugget paper - "All of the entries made the round trip to Solomon and return with the exception of Gunner Kassen (sic), who had difficulties with his ponies and withdrew at Fort Davis on the outbound course."
Gunnar's brother, Olaf, and one of Leonhard Seppala's brothers, Sigurd, were staying at a cabin near the Pioneer Mining Company's Little Creek operation. At about 5:30 on the morning of October 5, 1915, one of them (the initial report indicated it was possibly Sigurd Seppala) lit a fire in the stove using a "distillate." The result was an explosion and fire which killed Sigurd Seppala. Olaf Kaasen was badly burned. He was taken to the Holy Cross Hospital in Nome. A coroners jury was formed and returned a verdict of accidental death in the case of Sigurd Seppala.
At first, there seemed to be some hope for Olaf Kaasen. Although the burns were serious, his condition was reported to have improved after a few days. One of these reports from the October 13, 1915 edition of the Nome Nugget paper said, "Olaf Kassen is reported to be getting along very nicely at present and in the opinion of Dr. Mustard, is well on the way to an early recovery from his terrible injuries." However, things took a turn for the worse, and Olaf Kaasen passed away at the hospital on Sunday morning, October 24.
The funeral service for Sigurd Seppala took place at the Congregational Church in Nome on the afternoon of October 7. Olaf Kaasen's funeral service was conducted by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the Sons of the North organization, and the Loyal Order of Moose during the afternoon of October 27.
In early 1917, one or more of the Kaasen and Seppala brothers were working a new mining claim in the Rock Creek area. On February 27, Gunnar Kaasen arrived in Nome to get some supplies for their mining operation, which showed great promise. A few days later a 6 horse team set out for Rock Creek from Nome to deliver a load of lumber and the other supplies to the firm of Kaasen, Seppala and Burg.
On October 12, 1921, Leonhard Seppala and his family left Nome aboard the Alaska Steamship Company liner, Victoria. Constance and Sigrid Seppala stayed in Seattle that winter while Leonhard went to Norway.
During the latter part of March, 1922, Seppala was back in Seattle after his visit to Norway. He sent a telegram to Victor Anderson, a manager of the Pioneer Mining Company in Nome, requesting that Anderson take Seppala's team of 22 dogs and proceed to Nenana immediately. Seppala would be leaving Seattle on March 25 and would be accompanied by Alaska Territory legislator and Nome attorney James Frawley and his wife. When both parties met in Nenana, they would travel by dog team to Nome. Senator Frawley was to be involved in the sale and transition of the Pioneer Mining and Ditch Company to the W. P. Hammon Company.
It should be noted that the sales contract between these two companies was dated February 15, 1922. The transfer of the actual day to day operations would take place over several months. About half of this 70+ page contract includes several inventories of the real property owned by the Pioneer Mining Company. One of these inventories listed the names and locations of the 37 company owned dogs. The names of 12 dogs were listed as the "Seppala Team", located at Cape Horn. One of them was Togo. The "Stevenson Team" (referring to manager Louis Stevenson) was located at the Little Creek operation. This team consisted of 13 dogs, which included Balto and Fritz. At the time of Seppala's telegram, O. S. Weaver was on a pleasure trip and had several of the Seppala Team dogs with him. He was expected to return in a few days.
Victor Anderson was unable to make the trip to Nenana due to pressing issues at work. He put Gunnar Kaasen in charge of the trip. Kaasen left the Nome area on the afternoon of March 27 with 18 Siberians. The original plan had been changed. Instead of meeting Seppala and his party at Nenana, he was to meet them at Tanana Hot Springs. Upon arrival there, Gunnar Kaasen divided the dogs into two teams. He had either brought another sled with him, or had picked up one along the way, as the party of four set off for Nome using two teams and two sleds. The group arrived back at Nome on the afternoon of April 27 with the same 18 dogs.
In mid-June of 1922, the famous Norwegian explorer, Captain Roald Amundsen, arrived at Nome. His plan was to proceed to Pt. Barrow, Alaska where he would make a transpolar flight to Spitzbergen, Norway. A couple of weeks later Amundsen and his crew left Nome by ship with the plane and the rest of the equipment. Because of the ice, they only got as far as Wainwright, Alaska and set up camp there. The decision was made to call off the flight that year. Amundsen would try again the following year. At first, he was going to stay at his camp in Wainwright through the winter, but decided to return to Nome instead. He left the plane and some of the equipment at Wainwright.
Near the end of December, 1922, Victor Anderson was running a Hammon Company dog team between Nome and Little Creek when he severely injured his ankle and was admitted to the local hospital. After being there for about six weeks, he was released from the hospital, but it would be another month before he would be able to go back to work. During Anderson's absence, Gunnar Kaasen took over the job of driving the Hammon team.
The eight mile Yuba Loop Race was run on the afternoon of January 6, 1923. There were eight entries, which included Leonhard Seppala and Gunnar Kaasen. Seppala had 9 dogs on his team and was driving for the Hammon Company. Kaasen had 10 dogs on his team and was representing the Yuba Manufacturing Company. Seppala won this race and Kaasen came in third.
On April 13, 1923, Roald Amundsen, with Ralph Lomen as his passenger, left Nome with an 11 dog team to return to Wainwright. Gunnar Kaasen, with Private T. S. Pierce from the Army Signal Corps as his passenger, left Nome at the same time. Kaasen and Pierce would accompany Amundsen to Wainwright. Kaasen's team also consisted of 11 dogs, and they were from the "Marx" team. Leonhard Seppala, with a 17 dog team and his foreman E. J. Gorman as his passenger, left Nome for the Kougarok country to conduct an inspection tour of the company's mining interests. They expected to be gone for about a week. The three teams traveled together until they reached the area of the Nugget Roadhouse.
On April 16, Seppala, Gorman and Lomen left the Amundsen group to return to Nome. Ten days later the Amundsen and Kaasen teams reached Kotzebue. On May 9 they arrived at Maudheim, near Wainwright. Amundsen conducted a trial flight on May 11, which turned out to be a failure. The following day Gunnar Kaasen left Wainwright to deliver messages about Amundsen's situation. He arrived at Kotzebue on May 26. The messages would be sent out from nearby Noorvik.
Gunnar Kaasen was in the Noorvik area as late as June 18. The reports from the time indicate that he probably went back to Amundsen's camp at Wainwright again with replies from his original messages in late May, and then returned to Noorvik with a second batch of messages. Part of one of the later Amundsen messages read, "Trial Flight held May 11, result very unsatisfactory. I am sorry but am forced to abandon proposed trip, have written particulars." Gunnar and his team arrived back at Nome on July 5. They had taken the schooner Sea Wolf from Kotzebue to Nome. Roald Amundsen and Pvt. Pierce didn't get back to Nome until the latter part of August, aboard the United States Cutter Bear.
The first Nome dog race of 1924 took place on February 17. It was the Loop the Loop Race - the course starting in the downtown area of Nome, running to the Hammon Gold Field Camp at Little Creek, and back. Gunnar Kaasen was one of the eleven entries and was driving a Hammon Company team. He finished in sixth place.
Gunnar Kaasen and Anna Sophia Danielson were married in Nome on the evening of October 6, 1924. About four months later Gunnar would be involved in the first serum run. Shortly after this event, one of the press reports made a statement about his lead dog, Balto. "Two years ago he led the dogs which carried Raold (sic) Amundsen north from Nome when the explorer planned an airplane flight over the North Pole." The claim that Balto was on the trip north in 1923 was made in connection with an interview of Gunnar Kaasen. The reference for this article is "Hardy Musher Describes Race in Howling Storm - by Gunnar Kasson (By Cable - Exclusive Dispatch) (Copyright 1925, New York World)". The article is dated February 3, 1925. It is known that Kaasen definitely made the trip to Wainwright with Amundsen, and that Leonhard Seppala did not.
After the filming of the Balto movie at Mt. Rainier National Park in late March of 1925, Gunnar Kaasen and his dog team went to Los Angeles, where they arrived by train on the morning of April 2. From the train station, Kaasen and Balto went to the Biltmore Hotel. Shortly after checking in, Miss Sadie Mossler, a feature story writer for the Los Angeles Record newspaper, interviewed Kaasen in his room. She wrote part of her story in such a way that it was Balto who was answering some of the questions. One of the responses reads, "You see Gunnar Kasson over there? He's been my master for five years. I'm six years old now, but Gunnar, there, he's driven me ever since the first time I was put in harness. I like Gunnar. We understand one another." There are other references by Kaasen which also indicate he had a long standing relationship with Balto, and used him on a frequent basis.
Starting almost immediately after the serum run, and during the following years, Leonhard Seppala made several statements about Balto. Most of them were not complimentary. The following quote is at the end of the book Seppala Alaskan Dog Driver (1930) by Elizabeth M. Ricker: "The chief thing which disturbed me was that Togo's records were given to Balto, a scrub dog who was pushed into the limelight and made immortal. It was almost more than I could bear when the "newspaper" dog Balto received a statue for his "glorious achievements,".....and with the claim that he had taken Amundsen to Point Barrow and part way to the Pole.....By giving him Togo's records he was established as "the greatest racing leader in Alaska," when he was never in a winning team."
Considering the Kaasen and Seppala accounts of this event, did Balto go on the trip with the Amundsen party in 1923? The answer to that question will probably never be known for sure. It depends on whose version of the story you believe. Something else for consideration is the possibility that Balto may have been one of the dogs who went with Kaasen to pick up the Seppala and Frawley group in 1922. Also, the quite likely possibility that Balto was on some of Kaasen's Nome race teams during the early 1920's.
Another event that has some relationship to Seppala's claim that Togo's records were given to Balto is the rescue trip of Bobby Brown in late March of 1917. That story is found in another article on this website. Esther Birdsall Darling, then president of the Nome Kennel Club, wrote a poem about this rescue mission within a week after it happened. The original poem clearly shows that she gave credit to the Siberian dog Russky, and rightfully so. But in the book mentioned above, as well as another Ricker book published in 1928, Togo's name appears in this poem. Who was responsible for changing the name and giving a Russky record to Togo? Was it Leonhard Seppala, Elizabeth Ricker, or a combination of both?
After Kaasen's nationwide tour, he and his wife returned to Nome in February of 1926. Not long afterwards he was working at a mining claim at Long Beach, which was near Bluff. Gunnar served on a grand jury in Nome in March of 1927. On April 3, 1927, the Nome Kennel Club held a Ladies Race, which would run from Barracks Square to Fort Davis and back. Anna Kaasen was one of the nineteen entries. She finished in third place.
The Kaasens continued to live and work in the Nome area for years to come. Gunnar would eventually retire from what was then the U. S. Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. Anna had also worked there for many years as a cook.
On October 17, 1950, Gunnar and Anna Kaasen purchased a two story home with a large lot in Everett, WA for the sum of "Ten Dollars and other valuable considerations." Gunnar continued to work at the USSR&MC in Nome for a few more years on a part time basis, primarily during the summer months. He was a "straw boss" who was assigned to the pipe division.
Jack Strege is one of at least four Kaasen relatives who live in the Everett, WA area. Gunnar and Anna were their great uncle and aunt, on Anna's side of the family. Anna had a couple of siblings and other relatives who had lived in the Everett area for many years.
In 1953, Mr. Strege traveled to Nome and worked for Gunnar at the mining company during the summer months. Strege described Gunnar Kaasen as "strong-willed and bullheaded", yet he was also "a quiet man" who was devoted to his family. "He was a big, tough, guy; barrel-chested with big shoulders and arms. Someone who didn't put up with any nonsense." Strege went on to say that Gunnar was normally very tight lipped about his role in the serum run and about Balto. After this event, there was some tension between Gunnar Kaasen and Leonhard Seppala, and it was mostly over Balto and Togo and their roles in the serum run. On a couple of occasions when Seppala tried to engage Kaasen in a conversation about this subject, Gunnar would tell Seppala to "Get away from me little man." Seppala referred to Balto as a "bone head dog." Gunnar said Balto was the smartest dog that ever lived.
According to Janice Weiland, a Kaasen grandniece, the Walt Disney Company contacted Gunnar Kaasen in Everett during the mid-1950's. They were interested in filming a short reenactment of the Balto/serum run movie that had been shot at Mt. Rainier in 1925. Gunnar was a consultant and participant in this project, which was also filmed at Mt. Rainier National Park. The original Mickey Mouse Club TV show had a short action adventure series called Animal Autobiography. In the early 1980's, Mrs. Weiland obtained a copy of the written script for this episode, but said the Disney Company would not send her a copy of the film. She has since misplaced the script. This particular episode is believed to be the one titled Alaskan Sled Dog, and it aired for the first time on November 2, 1956.
While working in Nome in 1953 Jack Strege met a young lady by the name of Bunny Fagerstrom. Bunny was born and raised in Nome, Alaska. She graduated from high school there in 1951. A couple of years later she moved to the Puget Sound area of Washington State where she attended nursing school. Bunny's parents were good friends of Gunnar and Anna Kaasen when they all lived in Nome. Bunny continued to have a close relationship with the Kaasens after they moved to Everett.
Photo taken at the Kaasen home in Everett, WA ca. 1955.  From viewers L - R are Bunny Fagerstrom, Gunnar Kaasen, and Ruth Fagerstrom (Bunny's younger sister).  The identity of the boy in front of Gunnar is unknown.  Courtesy of Bunny Fagerstrom Huffer

Gunnar Kaasen was bedridden at home near the end of his life.  He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.  When Bunny Fagerstrom visited Gunnar, she would sit next to his bed.  They would hold hands while Bunny either read to him or they just talked.  Gunnar became a Christian and looked forward to the visits from a local pastor.  He passed away at home on the morning of November 27, 1960.

On the morning of November 19, 1963 a neighbor found Anna Kaasen laying in the snow in the yard of the Kaasen home. She had died of natural causes.  Anna was buried next to her husband at the Cypress Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Everett.

©2014 Lance Jensen

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