April 13, 2007
Volume 35
Issue 15
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Wednesday, May 27, 2020



Togo, Seppala and Balto: Incredible true story of Arctic heroes almost forgotten
Togo, Seppala and Balto: Incredible true story of Arctic heroes almost forgotten
by Barbara Allen - SGN Contributing Writer The City of Nome is two degrees south of the Arctic Circle. In 1925, there was one doctor and a clinic with four nurses to serve the entire area, population around 10,000, including Inuits, Athabascans and European descended Caucasians. From November to July, the port was icebound. The only way to bring in mail or supplies was by the most ancient method, sled dog teams.

Originally misdiagnosed as tonsillitis, a diphtheria outbreak threatened to kill half the population. Dr. Welch had no viable vaccine. Although he'd ordered a supply previously, the serum hadn't arrived. Children were dying, one after another of deadly, highly contagious diphtheria.

The nearest ice-free port was Seward, from which things could be taken by railroad to Nenana. From the railhead at Nenana it normally took 25 days to get shipments to Nome.

A dogsled relay to get desperately needed vaccine to Nome was conceived. The original plan evolved into a relay for life including ten mushers and teams.

First choice for the job was Leonhard Seppala, of Norwegian descent, who had won the All Alaska dog racing sweepstakes three times in a row and had become legendary for his athletic capacity and rapport with his dogs, Siberian Huskies, small sprinters with tough feet which could go enormous distances at speed. He was known to have previously made the run from Nulato to Nome in only 4 days. Seppala agreed, knowing he and his dogs might not survive the relay due to some of the most extreme weather conditions on the planet, and that if he didn't try, thousands might die in the outbreak.

Although some Alaskans advocated flying the vaccine in, using De Havillands, when a test run was tried, the pilot required so much clothing in the open cockpit that the plane could not readily take off, and crash landed several times. Further, water cooled engines at extreme sub freezing temperatures would freeze over. The only two experienced pilots who knew the area were in the lower 48 states .Using an inexperienced pilot was unwise, although proposed, and if the plane crashed, the vaccine would be lost.

A first batch of serum was shipped, to be followed by a second batch&it was imperative to get the first batch to Nome quickly to prevent fatalities.

Alaska Governor Scott Bone gave final authorization to the dog relay, ordering Edward Wetzler, the U.S. Postal inspector to arrange relays using the best drivers available, traveling night and day until they each handed the vaccine off to the next driver.

"Wild Bill" Shannon received the 20 lb. serum package at the train station in Nenana on Jan. 27, 9 p.m. AKST. He left immediately with a team of 9 inexperienced dogs in -50F temperatures.

It got colder. Although jogging alongside the sled to keep warm, Shannon developed hypothermia. By the time he reached Minto at 3 a.m., parts of his face were black with frostbite. He warmed the serum by the fire and rested for 4 hours, but left three dogs behind, proceeding with only 6. The three had given their all, and died before Shannon could return for them, along with one more.

Half-Athabaskan Edgar Kallands received the vaccine from Shannon at 11 a.m., warmed the serum in the roadhouse before heading into the forest. The owner of the Manley Springs Road House poured not water over Kalland's hands to get them off the sled's handlebar when he arrived at 4 p.m.

From Manly Hot Springs the vaccine was passed through mostly Athabaskan drivers hands before George Nollner delivered it to Charlie Evans on Bishop Mountain on January 30th at 3 a.m.

Evans had to rely on his lead dogs while passing through ice fog where the Koyukuk River water had broken through, surging over the ice&but in his headlong race to save lives, did not protect the groins of his two short haired mixed breed lead dogs with rabbit pelts. Both dogs collapsed with frostbite. Evans likely led the team the rest or the way to Nulato himself, arriving at 10 a.m. Both lead dogs died.

Tommy Patsy departed within 30 minutes, proceeding onward to Inuit Victor Anagick and his lead dog Jackscrew who took the vaccine, relaying it to fellow Inuit Myles Gonangman.

Gonangman saw a storm brewing, decided not to shortcut across dangerous Sound ice, but departed at 5:30 a.m., crossing the hills through eddies of drifting, swirling snow which passed under the dogs and between their legs, making it appear that they were fording a river of icy fog in whiteout conditions. Gale force winds led to a wind chill factor of -70F.

Gonangman got to Shaktoolik ahead of Seppala, who was racing in his direction from Nome at 3 p.m.

Knowing that Seppala would be covering the longest and worst part of the race for life, Henry Ivanoff was waiting as a contingency plan, and immediately took the serum hand-off, heading out but running into a reindeer just outside Shaktoolik. As Seppala raced past, Ivanoff shouted to him: "The vaccine, the vaccine, I have it here" and Seppala proceeded with the serum.

Learning that the epidemic was getting worse, Seppala braved the storm over Norton Sound and headed out across the exposed treacherous ice with wind chill of -85F, and high winds.

His 12 year old lead dog Togo led the way in a straight line through the dark night, across Norton Sound deadly ice, where the team became stranded on an ice floe that broke off while they were on it! Fortunately, the floe began to drift back to the solid sheet of ice crossing the bay. Seppala had Togo leap across the 5 foot gap, in harness, to pull the floe closer to shore&.but the harness snapped and fell into the icy water. Togo leapt into the water, took the traces into his mouth, clamping his jaw on them, got back onto the solid ice, pulled the floes together, and kept them together until it was safe for the rest of the team to jump! They arrived at the Isaac's Point roadhouse at 8 p.m. In one day they'd traveled 84 miles, averaging 8 mph under extreme conditions. The team rested, resuming the relay at 2 a.m. in the teeth of a terrible storm, with winds above 65 mph. They returned to shore at Little McKinley Mountain, climbed 5,000 ft., descended to the next roadhouse in Golovin where Seppala passed the serum to Charlie Olsen on Feb. 1 at 3 p.m., as diphtheria continued to spread in Nome.

With 80mph winds and a powerful blizzard raging, Dr. Welch ordered a stop to the relay, fearing the serum would be lost otherwise. The message was received at Soloman and Point Safety just before the lines went dead.

Olson proceeded, was blown off the trail, suffered severe frostbite to his hands while putting blankets on his dogs with a wind chill of -70F. He arrived at Bluff on Feb. 1 in poor condition. Gunnar Kaasen waited until 10 p.m. for the storm to let up, but it got worse. Drifts would block the trail before long. Kaasen headed out into a headwind, traveling through the night, drifts, river overflow and worse. Balto led the team through such poor visibility that Kaasen couldn't always see his dogs in front of him. His sled was flipped by the powerful winds, and he almost lost the serum container which fell off becoming buried in the snow. Kaasen was frostbitten when he used his bare hands to feel for the cylinder, which he managed to recover.

He reached Point Safety ahead of schedule on Feb. 2 at 3 a.m. Ed Rohn thought Kaasen had stopped in Solomon to rest, and was asleep. The weather was improving while the epidemic worsened. Rather than take precious time to get Rohn's team ready to hit the trail, Kaasen went on to Nome reaching the Front Street Office of Dr. Welch at 5:30 p.m.

Not a single container of vaccine was compromised. The anti-toxin was thawed and ready for use by noon!

Immediately after the relay, 84 year old (in human terms) Togo broke loose with another Husky to chase reindeer, eventually returning to his kennel in Little Creek on his own, still the mischievous puppy.

As soon as it was known that the vaccine had arrived with Balto the lead dog on the last part of the run, news radioed out to the world about heroic Balto. Bronze statues were cast of him, which to this day can be found in New York's Central Park, Anchorage, and even in the lobby of the Denali Princess hotel. The inscription on the Central Park statue: "Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice across treacherous waters through arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the Winter of 1925. Endurance, Fidelity, Intelligence."

Seppala was heartbroken to his dying day that Togo seemed lost to history&and then, poetic karma developed& Balto was sold to a sideshow along with some of the other dogs, lived under miserable conditions, until ransomed by residents of Cleveland Ohio where he finished his life in the Cleveland zoo. He'd become the most famous dog of his era, along with Rin Tin Tin.

Seppala took Togo and his team on a grand tour of the continental United States, from Seattle to California, then across the Midwest to New England, drawing huge crowds. They were a featured attraction at Madison Square Garden for ten days. Togo received a gold medal from Roald Amundsen.

Seppalas team competed in New England dog sled races, easily winning over local dogs. He sold most of these dogs, including Togo, to a Siberian Husky kennel in Poland Spring, Maine&.where Togo was delighted to spend his twilight years "romancing" Sib females. Most Siberian Huskies in America trace their ancestry to him. Seppala visited Togo until the dog, no longer enjoying life at age of 16, or 112 in human years, was euthanized. After his passing, Seppala had Togo preserved and mounted. Togo resides in a glass case at the Iditarod Museum in Wasilla, Alaska. Seppala lived to his 90's in Seattle Washington where he passed on, over the "Rainbow Bridge" to be with his beloved dogs forever.

No one knows of any dogs that trace their lineage to Balto.

Both dogs were heroes&the heftier, slower, powerful freight dog Balto, and the swift, smart Togo, B. October 1913, D. December 5, 1929, was in human years 84 years old when he participated in the serum relay, covering the greatest distance over the worst terrain and the foulest weather, and who was 16, or in human terms 112, when he passed on.

Footnote to history: When Seppala first got Togo as a skinny mischievous puppy, he tried to sell him twice because he doubted he'd amount to much, but there were no takers. Togo worked his way into Sepp's heart by being an escape artist, who at 8 months of age freed himself, chasing after Seppala's dog sled team, catching up easily. Seppala had to bring him along to keep an eye on him. Before the day was over, Togo proved himself and earned a place hooked next to the lead dog, a position he held for 75 miles, soon becoming Seppala's lead dog.

Kaasen didn't have much faith in Balto either, until the serum run, when the dog showed his heroic nature and intelligence.

And that, dog lovers, history and sports fans, is a brief and breathless summary of the story behind the story. It's likely that most Siberian Huskies seen today descend from Togo, particularly the most intelligent with mischief in their eyes, the desire to run full out for as long as possible, as far as possible, and a love of human beings.

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