The story of Balto and Togo is a little ridiculous on its face: Alaska, the dead of winter, an outbreak of “the black death” among the region’s children, and only one way to get the antitoxin serum to the kids — sled dogs. But those are the facts, with one last whopper still: Balto, the Husky who became world-famous for saving all the Inuit children of Nome, was considered a weak link among the superteam of mushers sent through the snow to retrieve the medicine.
In January 1925, a diphtheria epidemic swept across Nome, a small town in the northwest part of the Alaskan Territory. The weather was so harsh that the era’s open-cockpit planes were grounded by its storms. So local authorities devised a plan. More than two dozen relay teams were set up along the trail to Nome.
Togo ended up taking the most hazardous leg of the trail, a 91-mile stretch from Shaktoolik to Golovin in which the windchill dropped to minus 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Togo and his leader, Leonhard Seppala, braved the harshest snowstorm of the relay, with visibility barely a couple of feet ahead of the sled.
The penultimate team in the relay paired Gunnar Kaasen with Balto, who were scheduled to hand the serum off to a final team headed by Ed Rohn. But miscommunication between Rohn and the rest of the operation (the exact cause of the missed connection has never been settled) prompted Balto to take the serum the rest of the way to Nome, where on February 2 he and Kassen received a heroes’ welcome.
Together, the teams covered 674 miles in just a little over five days. At the time, this feat was a world record. However, the temperatures and the strong hurricane-like winds did take their toll: a number of dogs died during the trip.
From this point, Balto and Togo’s stories diverge. Balto was the instant celebrity. The fact it was he who crossed the finish line at Nome and not any of the other dogs made him the obvious symbol for the entire team’s heroism. There was also Balto’s status as an overachiever and literal underdog. Many of the other Huskies, including Togo, had already gained regionwide notoriety for their prowess as race dogs. Balto was viewed as something a “scrub” and a last-minute replacement for another more qualified specimen.
After the triumph, jealousy broke out among the team leaders. While Balto received medals and recognition from Calvin Coolidge and statues erected in his honor, Seppala and the other leaders organized their own ceremonies, making a point to exclude Balto and Kaasen. In truth, that winter in Alaska saw the emergence of many heroes, dog and human alike.
Though it would take nearly fifty years to reconcile the chasm that opened between the Balto and Tago camps, albeit symbolically. In 1973, The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began an annual tradition that continues today. There’s something satisfying about seeing the essential nobility of our canine-heroes finally triumph over the petty, fame-hungry squabbled of their leaders. The race serves to remind us for a couple days in the bleak winter of 1925, Alaska truly was a dog’s world.