They say dogs are man’s best friends and on some occasions, they are our saviours, too. In a small Alaskan town, there once occurred an outbreak of “the black dêath” among the region’s children.
To save the Inuit kids from the potentially fatal epidemic, local authorities devised a plan where more than two dozen relay teams were set up along the trail to the town.
The diphtheria epidemic swept across Nome in the northwest part of the Alaskan Territory in 1925. Physicians began to witness the symptoms among some of the townspeople which provided ample grounds for concern. To make matters worse, the treatment could often be found almost exclusively in urban centers. In the case of Nome, the only cure was located over 500 miles away in Anchorage.
Through the most brutal winter conditions for decades, 20 teams of sled dogs were chosen to transport the vital anti-toxin over 674 miles (1,085km) of ice and snow in just six days. Of the dogs that took part in the Nome Serum Run, the most celebrated were two Siberian huskies named Balto and Togo.
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.
Together with his leader, Leonhard Seppala, Togo 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 was scheduled to hand the serum off to a final team headed by Ed Rohn. But miscommunication between Rohn and the rest of the operation prompted Balto to take the serum the rest of the way to Nome where he and Kassen received a heroes’ welcome.
However, the temperatures and the strong hurricane-like winds did take their toll: a number of dogs diêd 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 as slow-working “scrub dog” and as such would typically go overlooked when mushers positioned dogs to lead a team. In fact, he was just a last-minute replacement for another more qualified specimen.
Balto received medals and recognition and became a household name in almost no time, honoring him with a statue bearing his likeness by the city of New York in Manhattan’s Central Park a year after his return which still stands today.