Balto and Togo became famous lead sled dogs for their parts in the Alaskan “Race of Mercy” in 1925. This was the successful effort to deliver badly needed antitoxin serum to the people of Nome. The race involved a relay of sled dog teams traveling 674 miles in the dead of winter when an outbreak of diphtheria took hold in the small, isolated community.
Diphtheria is a highly contagious illness that often kills its victims. Like other doctors in remote areas, Nome’s doctor Curtis Welch always ordered back-up supplies of medicine to get through the winter months. However, he never received his order of the antitoxin against diphtheria. All he had left at the hospital was a small quantity of serum that was several years old.
Before air travel, Nome was essentially inaccessible during the winter months. The community prepared for this. The last ships made their deliveries in October. Anyone who wanted to leave the town did so at that time. The remaining people who stayed settled in to get through northern Alaska’s very bad winters. Blizzards sometimes raged for several days with winds blowing up to 70-80 miles per hour. Temperatures could hold at -50 degrees or lower. It was often unsafe to be out.
Illness in Nome
- Illness in Nome
- Illness in Nome
- The Importance of the Lead Dog
- Planning the Serum Run
- Preparations Begin
- Blizzard Worsens
- Final Leg of the Journey
- Arrival in Nome
- Good News Spread
- Lesser Dog?
- Albert Payson Terhune Gets the Story
- Tough Journey for All
- What Happened to Balto?
- Saved by Businessman
- Seppala, Too, Visited the United States
- Sled Dog Race in Maine
- Sad Parting
- Recognition Today
Illness in Nome
In late December 1924, word spread that Nome had an outbreak of diphtheria. State health officers conferred with Dr. Welch as to what could be done. The state officials located 300 units of the serum in Anchorage, but how to get it to Nome? Airplanes were still very primitive, and even the most experienced pilot would be daunted by flying during a Nome winter.
Most items requiring winter transport relied on sled dog teams. Musher Leonhard Seppala was the best sled dog driver in the territory, but the distance he would need to travel was very long.
The experts decided that the best plan would be to establish a relay of dog teams. Seppala would be assigned the longest and most difficult passage, but the relay system would provide the help he needed.
The serum was to travel from Anchorage inland to Nenana by railroad. From there, the first sled team would pick it up and begin the first leg of the 674-mile journey, a trip that normally would require a month during the winter months.
In January, the trails often had so much snow that they were unnavigable. The route involved crossing waterways where the powerful sea could crack or dislodge pieces of ice. If this happened, a sled team could find themselves floating on an ice floe. Temperatures could easily be -50 degrees, and when the wind blew, the wind chill factor was cutting. If the driver needed to remove his face mask or gloves for any reason, he risked almost immediate freezing.
The Importance of the Lead Dog
People unfamiliar with the work of a sled dog team could not fully comprehend the importance of the lead dog. These dogs need both intelligence and fortitude for leading a pack because many times the decision about what to do had to be theirs. Depending on the number of dogs in the team, the leader might be running 20-40 feet in advance of his master and the sled. Whatever challenge appears often needs to be addressed instantly.
During winter weather, there are many dangers on the trail. The team may encounter a “wall” of snow as they travel, and the lead dog needs to decide whether to go through or around it. Low temperatures, blizzard conditions, and ice that can break into separate floes along waterways are all hazards. Men’s faces and fingers can freeze due to the low temperatures, and if a dog’s feet get wet from melting snow, a good dog leader knows to stop. His master must dry their feet or frostbite will immediately set in.
Because the trails were unpredictable, there were frequent “dog pile-ups” that meant the sled driver needed to go into the pack and untangle all the team members.
Driving through a blizzard almost always reduces vision for the musher. In those moments, the sled driver most likely cannot see his leader; he may not even be able to see his “wheel” dogs—the ones that are placed just before the sled. On a very bad day, the driver may not be able to see his own hands.
In an emergency like the serum run, each man simply has to place all hope on their lead dog and the team. It was often said among Alaskans, “a man is only as good as his team.”
Togo was 12 years old at the time of the serum run. He was Leonhard Seppala’s lead dog for many years. Seppala considered him the best of any dog he had ever had.
Togo was born to Suggen, one of Seppala’s other lead dogs that had seen Seppala through many difficult trips. But at birth, Togo was an undersized handful who did not even seem to have the makings of a sled dog. Seppala gave the puppy to a friend to be a pet.
But when Togo wasted no time escaping from the friend’s home and finding his way back to the kennel, Seppala gave him another chance. Too young to harness, Togo sometimes ran along with Seppala’s team, but the dog was often was a lot of bother.
When Togo was only 8 months, he spent one morning annoying the team by biting their heels and tails. Seppala finally put him in a harness and started him in the wheel position (closest to the sled). Seppala soon saw Togo’s drive and ability and began moving him up the chain. By the end of that day, Togo helped pull for 75 miles and was now right near the front of the pack.
Soon he was Leonhard Seppala’s regular lead dog. Seppala and Togo were in their prime to win the All-Alaska Sweepstakes races in 1915, 1916, and 1917. But by the time of the serum run, Togo was getting older.
Despite the dog’s age, Seppala still put full faith in the dog and knew that Togo would be the dog to get the serum through the most difficult stretch of the trip.
Balto was also part of Seppala’s kennel. In his freight-hauling business, Seppala used several teams of dogs. Slow and steady was sometimes more important than running quickly.
When Seppala picked his team for the serum run, he did not pick Balto. He left him behind for the slower work team. One of his employees, Gunnar Kaasen, would be in charge of any regular work that came in.
Planning the Serum Run
When the routes were assigned for the serum run, Leonhard Seppala was given the longest most difficult route. He would be responsible for the leg of the route involving Norton Sound. It would be up to Seppala (and to Togo) to decide whether or not the team could risk cutting across the Sound. If they had to go around, it would add a day to their schedule.
Each driver was responsible for another difficult task–preventing the serum from freezing solid. At each way station, the driver carried the wrapped serum into the roadhouse to warm it up slightly before the next trip. But these roadhouses were simply huts with stoves. They were never very warm inside, but it was better than leaving the serum outside.
Seppala was to pick up the serum from a driver in Shaktoolik. As soon as the plans were set, he left. From there, Seppala would deliver it to a driver at Golovin, who was to carry it on the serum’s next-to-last leg.
In the meantime, the organizers were making some changes. They determined that the distances for teams should be shorter where possible. Extra teams were added. But Seppala and those drivers who had already left, didn’t know about the change in plans.
The other call, he and several others missed was one that told them to halt the race for a time. Blizzard conditions became so bad that the organizers decided that it was more important to stop for a time rather than risk losing the serum in a sled accident.
Seppala was almost at Shaktoolik expecting to pick up the serum. He passed a sled driver whose dogs were all tangled. Normally Seppala would have paused to help out, but this mission was too important. He and Togo kept going.
Suddenly, over the shrill whistling of the wind, he heard faint calls: “Seppala! Seppala! I have the serum!”
The other driver was among those added to reduce the distance for each team. Leonhard Seppala slowed Togo and got him to turn the team—a time-consuming task. They went back and retrieved the serum.
In the meantime, the weather was becoming worse. Organizers phoned the roadhouses where drivers were expected to stop. The message left for each team was to halt until the weather cleared.
But this was another message Seppala never received. He and Togo kept right on going.
When he arrived at Norton Sound, the team had to divert somewhat from the planned route. But Togo knew they could return to cross over the frozen bay. This saved at least a day’s time.
When they reached Golovin, Seppala delivered the serum to Charlie Olson. Olson originally was scheduled to take it on to Nome.
Final Leg of the Journey
What Seppala didn’t know was that in making the scheduling changes, his own dogs had been added. That team would be driven by Gunnar Kaasen, would be the team meeting Olson for the next leg of the trip.
From there, fate continued to intervene.
The blizzard became much worse. Though the organizers tried to notify the drivers to stop for a day or two to wait out the weather, most of the drivers never got the word. Kaasen was among them.
Kaasen was to have passed the serum off at the roadhouse at Bluff, but the weather was so bad that Balto and Kaasen missed the turn-off to the slated rest stop.
Though Balto had not been the lead dog when Kaasen started out, he was now at the the head of the team. In the poor visibility, Balto may have missed a turn, but he well knew how to return to Nome.
When the team pulled into Nome, Gunnar Kaasen could hardly have gone much farther. He was suffering from the severe cold and could barely walk. Kaasen climbed off the back slide runners and haltingly made his way forward to Balto. He collapsed with his arms encircling the dog.
Arrival in Nome
Dr. Welch and the citizens of Nome were overjoyed when the team arrived. They had not expected that anyone could get through until the weather broke.
But there had been no way to present the serum from freezing through during these last challenging days. Welch knew it had to be thawed slowly, so he took it to a very cool room in the hospital where the temperature was only about 46 degrees. There, the serum began a slow thaw. To his great relief, no beakers broke as the serum warmed. About 18 hours after the arrival of the serum, Dr. Welch was able to use the treatment on the sickest of patients.
Good News Spread
Whether it was newspaper reporters or the townspeople writing to friends, the credit given to Balto for delivering the serum grew. When the weather improved, film crews arrived to film Kaasen with the dog. The story took on a life of its own. The newspaper headlines were filled with stories of Balto’s achievement.
Later on, Balto would be the subject of numerous storybooks and films. Eventually, he had a statue in New York City’s Central Park.
Leonhard Seppala did not openly complain, but he knew that Togo had traveled twice the distance of the other dogs across a far more treacherous part of the journey. Togo saved almost a day on the relay run by bravely crossing the frozen bay where almost anything could have happened. Seppala felt strongly that the true hero had been overlooked.
Seppala was also bothered by the fact that he did not consider Balto lead dog material. The thought a “lesser dog” getting so much attention upset him.
But Seppala and Kaasen must never have discussed the serum run. Seppala might have felt better if they had.
Albert Payson Terhune Gets the Story
Many months after the serum run, Gunnar Kaasen was asked to take Balto to New Jersey where the sculptor was to create the statue to Balto. While Balto was there, naturalist and writer Albert Payson Terhune asked to stop in. Terhune knew sled dogs and wanted to assess Balto’s physique and compare it what what he knew. While there, Terhune talked to Gunnar Kaasen who explained exactly how it happened that Balto led the pack.
When Kaasen was told he would run an added team, he did just what Seppala would have wanted. He selected Fox for the lead. But the weather was brutal and Fox became too tired to lead. Kaasen put in another dog, who also became worn out. Finally, he had little choice but to use Balto, who soon proved very capable.
Tough Journey for All
Twenty separate sled teams participated in the serum run. With weather that could hardly have been worse, the relay teams accomplished in 6 days what would have been a month-long trek.and in all, 150 dogs were lost to overwork or exposure. The authors
While most dogs went back to their normal sledding duties, 150 of the dogs were lost to over-exertion or severe exposure to the cold.
But for Balto and Togo, things did not go very well.
What Happened to Balto?
Since the public began to hear about Balto and his arrival in Nome, he and Gunnar Kaasen were soon invited to the United States to tell their story.
At that time, with no national newspapers, spotty radio coverage, and no wire services or internet, the method for sharing a big story was the lecture circuit. Doctors, scientists and explorers—anyone with a story to tell—traveled and made speeches. And if you had sled dogs to take with you, the crowds were guaranteed.
Kaasen traveled with Balto and six other members of the team. Their bookings were handled by a show promoter, and the experience proceeded well enough.
But as Gunnar Kaasen’s tour was coming to an end, something went wrong. The dogs—actually Leonhard Seppala’s dogs—did not return to Alaska with Kaasen. Whether Seppala intentionally sold the team or whether the promoter swindled Kaasen (and thus Seppala) out of the dogs, we will not know. Whatever happened, Balto and the rest of the team stayed behind to continue show life with the promoter.
For working dogs accustomed to unending snow, cold temperatures, the feel of teamwork with the wind in their faces, this must have been a miserable life.
Saved by Businessman
One businessman from Cleveland certainly thought the dogs were ill-served. After George Kimble saw the dogs in California, he contacted the Cleveland newspapers and announced a “Balto Fund.” He could not figure out a way to get the team back to Alaska, but he could free them from the sideshow.
After some haggling, Kimble owned the dogs. In 1927, the Cleveland townspeople—who raised the money–sponsored a big parade to welcome Balto’s team to Cleveland. The dogs were placed at the Cleveland Zoo where “they lived in comfort” and the public could visit them for the rest of their lives. (That’s certainly not what people of today would have recommended but the entire team was kept together. This may have helped.
The newspaper kept the public up-to-date on Balto’s health at the end of his life. Balto died on March 14, 1933 at the age of 14. After his death, his body was preserved by a taxidermist. It was placed in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History where he can still be seen today.
Seppala, Too, Visited the United States
After the serum run, Leonhard Seppala was also invited to the United States for speaking tours. He proved to be good at public speaking, and he enjoyed it. Though Togo’s age and the stress of the of the serum run was beginning to affect him, he was healthy enough to enjoy personal appearances with his master.
The two made their way slowly across the country to the Northeast. Part of the draw in New England might have been well-respected dog breeder Arthur T. Walden who established his Chinook kennels in New Hampshire.
Walden was delighted to have the famed Leonhard Seppala in the area. His Chinook team had been carefully thought through—strong, fast, and intelligent, but breeding out all wolf traits that most sled dogs carried.
Seppala and Togo were something new in the area. Seppala favored the smaller, powerfully-built Siberian huskies.
Sled Dog Race in Maine
Walden proposed a sled dog race to take place in Maine. Walden wanted to test his new breed, the Chinook, against Seppala’s dog choice the Siberian huskies. The Chinook team looked good, but the huskies, led by Togo, were fast.
Togo’s team won by several minutes; Seppala even had time to stop to help untangle one of the Chinook teams.
While in New Hampshire, Leonhard Seppala met the wife of the resort owner at Poland Spring. Elizabeth Ricker expressed interest in setting up a kennel breeding Siberian huskies. He hired Seppala to establish it for her.
Leonhard Seppala remained for a couple of years, Togo—now an indoor dog due to age—accompanied Seppala in his kennel work.
When Leonhard Seppala needed to return to Alaska, he knew Togo was too old for the trip. Though Togo would have a warm and loving home with Elizabeth Ricker, the parting between Seppala and his favorite dog of all time must have been difficult.
Today Balto is no longer the only dog recognized for his heroism. Togo now has a statue in New York City’s Seward Park, and his story has now been told in a Disney movie. In addition, each year a Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian award given to Iditarod musher judged to have taken the best care of their dogs
In the end, Leonhard Seppala had the perfect words: “Afterward, I thought of the ice and the darkness and the terrible wind and the irony that men could build planes and ships. But when Nome needed life in little packages of serum, it took dog teams to bring it through.”
For more stories of sled dogs, read Polaris, Peary Sledge Dog Descendant or Sled Dog Team Travels from Nome to Washington, D.C.