Animal Stories

What Balto and Togo took in their doggy strides

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Meet the husky who risked his life to save many others in what became known as the 1925 Serum Run. The hero dog’s name was Balto, a Siberian Husky who in the most atrocious Alaska can heap on man and beast carried life-saving medicine to halt a diphtheria outbreak.

Dog sledding competition.

It was February 2, 1925, and I am a Canadian and have done 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) runs in –30 Celsius (–22 Fahrenheit). Sure, it’s cold as fuck and frosts up the eyelashes so you can’t see for shit, and people call me crazy and they’re probably right about that.

Anyway, for this tale it was –46C (–50F), because it was way the hell north and at the edge of the Arctic Circle and the temperatures were at a 20-year record low. Add in brutal winds, deep snow, and non-existent visibility and you really just want to stay home and drink whiskey.


But children mostly Innuit were dying and the disease was spreading. The outbreak began in January, and the small town’s sole doctor sent a desperate telegram calling for aid. The nearest place that had serum that could halt the outbreak was located in Anchorage. However, the engine on the only aeroplane that could fly it to Nome was frozen solid.

Officials brainstormed and decided to send the serum north to the city of Nenana via train assisted in stages by relays of mushers driving sled dog teams who would take the life-saving panacea 674 frozen-as-fuck miles west to Nome.

One-hundred-fifty sled dogs participated in the relay. Some of them died so children could live. Of more than 20 mushers, most of them Native Alaskans, several suffered frostbite.

The trip was made in record-breaking five-and-a-half days. Norwegian musher Gunnar Kaasen and his Balto-led team made the final leg of the perilous journey. Kaasen was supposed to be the penultimate musher, but when he arrived at Point Safety at 2:00 a.m. he discovered his replacement was asleep. With his jaw set, he pressed on an additional 25 miles to Nome, arriving at 5:30 in the morning on February 2, 1925.


The serum was thawed and administered, and there were no further deaths. Kaasen and Balto became heroes. There is even a statue of Balto, who lived to be 14, in New York’s Central Park. Balto was indeed a good boy, but his public status was achieved via being the one to lead the final leg.

The best boy on the perilous journey was Togo. Balto travelled 55 miles, but Togo, also a Siberian Husky, led a team for almost five times that distance. He ran a whopping 260 miles, almost 40% of the entire relay. And getting on in years he was at the time 12 years old! Togo lived to be 16 and sired many puppies. One of his direct descendants, Diesel, starred as his multiple-great grandfather in a 2019 film titled Togo alongside bipedal actor Willem Dafoe. It’s an excellent movie. Have tissues ready.


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