Togo, the lead dog for champion musher Leonhard Seppala, was the true hero of the original Race for Mercy.
In March of 1998, I stretched slightly from my usual beat as outdoors writer/editor at the San Francisco Chronicle to do an “elective,” a feature story on Alaska’s illustrious Iditarod (a long race between sled dog teams). As I poked about this topic, I dug up a fresh and interesting angle: the sled dog Balto – long famed as the hero of the original, 674-mile-long rescue mission on which the race was based – happened to be a mere also-ran, a dog who led only the trip’s final, short leg. Because the dog who truly carried this vital mission upon his back (and nose) was Togo, a veteran lead dog for Leonhard Seppala.
In 1995, a Spielberg film, “Balto,” reinforced this grand misconception, while simultaneously dunking the entire legend in a vat of pure hokum. But now, Disney will attempt to set Hollywood’s version straight, with a new, $40-million-dollar film “Togo,” starring Willem Dafoe.
My original Chronicle story follows below. After it came out, several children’s books that celebrated Togo’s exploits were published.
A Dog Beat Dog World
Legend has it a husky named Balto saved the day in Alaskan history. Legend has it wrong.
Sixty dog teams are now plunging across the icy wilds of Alaska, yanking sleds toward Nome in the Iditarod race. This annual event commemorates the “Great Race of Mercy” of 1925 – when the last chance to stem a diphtheria outbreak and save children’s lives required the delivery of vials of serum through an epic relay by dog sled teams.
A popular icon of the Iditarod is a statue of a husky named Balto, which city officials put in New York’s Central Park to celebrate the spirit of sled dogs. Supposedly, Balto was a great lead dog and champion racer whose heroic efforts permitted the antitoxin’s delivery to Nome. Steven Spielberg further inflated this husky’s legend by releasing an animated film about Balto in 1995.
There’s just one problem with that story: They got the wrong dog.
“Balto was a second-string lead dog, left by his musher to be used as a relief animal on the way back,” says Helen Hamilton, a Mill Valley trainer of Siberian huskies. “The last driver in the relay, Gunnar Kaasen, needed a lead dog for his leg, the final 50 miles to Nome, so he grabbed Balto.”
The fact that Kaasen and Balto were the ones to actually deliver the serum was an accident of history, Hamilton says. “But the press, at the time, gave all kudos to them.”
Of the 20 mushers who rushed the serum from Nenana to Nome, 674 miles away, the man who drove the furthest in perilous conditions was Alaska’s great sled dog racer Leonhard Seppala. And the dog who led Seppala’s team on a loop of 260 miles – including a long stretch on the fracturing sea ice of Norton Sound – was the same dog with an impressive record of race victories over the previous decade: a small, feisty Siberian husky named Togo.
Seppala and Togo, however, performed their heroics in the deep winter wilderness, where they lacked witnesses. Seppala was no glory-seeker, but all the acclaim misplaced on Kaasen and Balto stung him worse than a January frost.
According to “Iditarod – the Great Race to Nome,” a book by Bill Sherwonit, Seppala initially grew steamed when Kaasen won a $1,000 award, and then a film role by a motion picture company. “Seppala was further disgruntled when the media chose Balto as the serum run’s canine hero,” Sherwonit writes.
He was again insulted when the press attributed Togo’s winning race record to Balto. “But the final, crushing blow came when Balto, instead of Togo, was immortalized in a cast-bronze statue,” Sherwonit says.
This bowdlerized history is particularly ironic, given that the true story of Seppala and Togo would have made a more interesting yarn than the maudlin epic hung around Balto’s neck.
Seppala, reared in a Norwegian fishing village north of the Arctic Circle, fled to Nome in 1900 to escape grief after his sweetheart died unexpectedly. In Nome, he plunged into the arcane world of dog mushers, who used the old Eskimo art in a new way, ferrying freight and mail around the snowbound territory.
Seppala came to specialize in Siberian huskies. Smaller than typical Alaskan dogs, these were spirited pullers with tough feet and a reputation for endurance. With teams of Siberians, Seppala astonished the mushing world by winning the All Alaska Sweepstakes race three years in a row, from 1915 through 1917.
About that time, a scrawny, mischievous pup named Togo was causing trouble for Seppala. Doubting his potential, Seppala gave Togo away twice. But like a canine Houdini, Togo escaped twice and ran back to Seppala’s kennels. Finally, at just 8 months of age, Togo freed himself once more to chase Seppala and his dog sled team up a trail, catching them easily.
Seppala had to bring the young dog along. Stashed in harness so the musher could keep an eye on him, Togo, by the end of his first day, earned a post pulling beside the lead dog – a position he held for 75 miles.
By the time of the 1925 Serum Drive, Togo was 12 and had been Seppala’s top dog for years. Although still small for a Siberian husky (48 pounds), the dog was a strong and sagacious leader.
In late January, Nome’s Dr. Curtis Welch began diagnosing cases of dreaded diphtheria. The bacterial infection, which attacks the respiratory tract, can be fatal in as little as three days. An outbreak could wreak havoc among Nome’s 1,700 residents, especially the children. Treatment with immunizing antitoxin was still experimental, but gaining a fresh, large supply of the serum seemed the only hope for containing the disease.
Welch’s plea was radioed to Anchorage. No airplanes in those days could fly in the icy Alaskan winter, so Alaska’s governor directed that the serum be shipped by train 250 miles north to the last rail head, at Nenana. There, a musher named Wild Bill Shannon snatched the serum, wrapped it in furs and took off on his sled behind a team of Malamutes down the frozen Tanana River. The temperature was 50 degrees below zero.
In the meantime, Nome’s best musher, Leonhard Seppala, drove eastward to meet the serum behind a string of 20 of his Siberian huskies, Togo in the lead. Balto and a few other dogs were left behind at an outpost called Bluff to provide Seppala with fresh pullers on his return trip. Then Togo led the remaining dogs onto the treacherous ice of Norton Sound, driving for Unalakleet.
By telephone and radio, authorities continued to beef up the relief effort. They turned the Serum Drive into a relay. Eventually, 20 top teams would be involved, including Eskimo and Athabascan Indian mushers as well as U.S. mail carriers.
After Seppala had covered more than 150 miles, 43 of them on jagged sea ice, he met the serum coming the other way, picked it up and spun around. By then, harsh winds of a coastal blizzard were pushing sea water onto the Norton Sound ice, which began breaking into floes. But there was no question about it: The fastest route to Nome lay straight back the way they had come.
Sometimes Seppala could barely see Togo picking a path through the stinging white mists, but he had to trust the dog’s judgment. In places, the route they had used previously had vanished, and they glided within mere feet of frigid waves. If ice broke under them, the dogs, the musher and serum would all be lost. But Seppala’s gamble was that his fast and steady team, following Togo, could make it. They made 43 miles after picking up the serum, reached land, rested, then moved onward once more.
By the time they reached Bluff and the relief dogs, Seppala and Togo had covered an astonishing 260 miles. The second-longest stretch in the rescue effort was the final, 55-mile run from Bluff to Nome by Kaasen, with the borrowed Balto leading. Even that part was no easy slog – an 80-mph blizzard was blowing. Only Balto’s keen nose, lowered to the snow, enabled Kaasen to stay on track. The precious serum was dropped off at Dr. Welch’s doorstep in Nome at 5:30 a.m., just five days and seven hours after it had left Nenana.
A race against death had been won; the tiny coastal town and its children were now safe.
Years later, after adding to his string of race victories from Alaska to New England, and firmly building the lineage of Siberian huskies in America, Seppala retired to Seattle.
A California husky fancier, Phyllis Brayton, who had heard the tale of the great serum drive from her father when she was a girl, made the pilgrimage to visit Seppala there.
“It was very pleasant,” Brayton recalls, “Seppala was quiet and unassuming. I didn’t ask him about the Balto controversy, and he didn’t bring it up. But I understand him being miffed about it because Togo was the real hero of the serum run. That little dog gave his all. It wore Togo out, he was unable to race much after that.”
When Seppala died in 1967, at the age of 90, his ashes were scattered along the Iditarod trail. Togo’s most athletic endeavors ended after the serum drive, but he lived for several more years and was used by Seppala to sire multiple litters before dying in honorable old age.
Togo’s legacy, meanwhile, continues to spread. Compared to Balto, his fame may be slight, but his progeny are legion.
Many modern trainers of Siberian huskies, including Hamilton and Brayton, trace the lineage of their dogs back to Togo. However, they don’t know any owners who boast of tracing a line to Balto.
“I guess we just don’t attach that much importance to Balto,” Brayton says. “Not that he wasn’t important,” she adds hastily. “Balto did make a contribution.”
The 26th running of the Iditarod in 1998
The race, typically won in 10-12 days, stretches Anchorage to Nome – 321 about 1,100 miles – along one of two alternate courses. The route this year branches north to Ruby, then follows the path of the original serum race.
THE “GREAT RACE OF MERCY”
The relay to deliver diphtheria serum to Nome – precursor of the annual Iditarod race – began January 27th, 1925, and took five days and seven hours to cover 674 miles.
1925: BALTO ACCLAIMED, TOGO FORGOTTEN – the short version
Leonhard Seppala headed east from Nome, Togo leading the way. Meanwhile, the first musher picked up the serum at Nenana – where it arrived from Anchorage by train – and headed west. After 150 miles, Seppala met the 17th musher in the relay, Harry Ivanoff, grabbed the serum and retraced his path back to Golovin. Togo’s contribution: 260 miles.
Musher Charlie Olson met Seppala in Golovin and relayed the serum another 25 miles to Bluff. At Bluff, Gunnar Kaason’s team, led by Balto, picked up the serum and ran it 53 miles to Nome.