Like most people, I enjoy hero stories, especially when an animal is involved. One of my favorite is the story of the Nome Serum Run in 1925. As the story goes, in 1925 there was a diphtheria epidemic in Nome Alaska, and there was no antitoxin. Five children had already died, and others were critically ill. A hospital in Fairbanks Alaska had antitoxin serum, but there was no way to get it to Nome. A forecasted blizzard prohibited air travel, making dog sleds the only solution. All total, 20 dog sled teams were enlisted to deliver the antitoxin under near impossible conditions. They delivered it in less than six days and saved the Nome-area residents. The lead dog, Balto, who delivered the serum on the last leg of the journey was identified as the hero. A statue was erected in Central Park to recognize his heroism. The Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska is held every year to commemorate this heroic journey.
Utterly inspiring, but sadly most of it is not true.
What is true is that was an epidemic in Nome and there was no way to get the antitoxin to Nome except by dog sled teams. Twenty teams participated, 75% were led by Inuits. Balto was one of two lead dogs on the last dog sled team that traveled 53 miles to deliver the antitoxin to the hospital. And the rest is myth.
But the good news is that there was a hero dog, and Balto was one of many courageous dogs, some of whom died on the trip. (There actually was another lead dog on Balto’s sled team, whose name was Fox.)
The hero dog was Togo, who led the dog sled team 264 miles through a blizzard. Disney produced a film in 2019 setting the story “straight,” as only Hollywood can do. So, here is the real story.
In the winter of 1925, a deadly outbreak of diphtheria in Nome, Alaska, threatened the lives of 10,000 area residents. Nome’s isolation created a nightmare scenario. Antitoxin was located in Fairbanks, but rail could only get it to Nenana, which was 674 miles away. A forecasted blizzard ruled out air travel and the local officials realized that dog sled teams were the only way to deliver the serum in time.
Leonhard Seppala, owner of Togo (and also Balto), at the time, was Alaska’s most venerated musher. His was one of 20 teams involved in the relay. In just five and a half days the dog sled teams delivered the lifesaving serum to Nome. While the lead dog for the 53-mile final leg, Balto, would become famous, locals knew that it was Seppala and his elderly Siberian Husky dog, Togo, who were the real saviors. They traveled an astounding 264 miles, mostly through blizzard conditions.
The Iditarod race follows parts of that route but was not created to commemorate that journey, which is actually called the “Nome Serum Run.” The Iditarod race was created to preserve the dog sled tradition.
Togo’s story is an underdog story. Togo was the runt of the litter in fragile health. A stubborn, pesky, mischievous troublemaker, Togo frustrated Seppala, who tried to give Togo away. But Togo broke through the window of his adopter and raced back. Togo continued to outsmart every enclosure that Seppala constructed and harassed Seppala’s dog training teams by running alongside them and trying to engage them. Totally frustrated, Seppala put a dog sled harness on Togo at 8 months and discovered that Togo was a natural sled dog. Togo ran 75 miles and became the lead sled dog on the first day. Seppala’s team, with Togo as the lead dog, won a number of races and Togo was regarded as the top sled dog of his day. But his heroic journey at the ancient age of 12, cemented his legend.
After this trip, Togo mostly retired from racing and became a stud dog. His breed, called Seppala Siberians, lives on to this day. The breed is known for its intelligence, strength, speed, and loyalty.
Eventually news of Togo’s contribution made it to the 48 states, and he has been recognized as the most heroic dog of all time. There is a statue of Togo erected in 2001 at Seward’s Park in NYC. And Disney made a lovely movie in 2019 about his story. It, of course, brought me to tears.
After all, who doesn’t love an underdog story?
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.