The True Story of Balto

Written by:
Joseph Villarrubia

In 1925 Nome, Alaska, suffered a diphtheria outbreak. In a matter of weeks, the deadly bacteria killed two children and infected many others. The strain that hit Nome and neighboring towns was highly infectious and the population had no defense. It was expected to kill 100% of its victims.

The town called for aid. In response, the Department of Health sent the serum, but the most powerful northern gale in decades prevented air, rail, and sea delivery. Instead, they sent it via a dog sled relay from Nenana to Nome, a 674-mile trek across a landscape that was forbidding before the storm.

They did it in six days.

Balto is often praised as the hero of this story. After all, he is also the hero of Disney’s epic movie about one dog team that ran out to Nenana and back carrying the ampules of serum. But if Balto had really run from Nome to Nenana and back (over 1300mi) in a storm that, at its worst, contributed gale force winds of about 65mph and wind chill of about -85F, he would have died.

Over a hundred dogs participated in that relay along with at least a half dozen mushers. A Norwegian named Leonhard Seppala covered the most distance, including the most dangerous stretch, the Norton Sound (twice). His dog was Togo, an experienced lead dog who led his team “in an almost straight line through the dark” across the dangerous Sound.

In all, Togo covered about 350 miles, including one section where he had to climb 5,000 feet to traverse Little McKinley Mountain. The storm was at its worst and never let up during his whole run. Gunnar Kaasen and Balto were heroes to be sure, but they had the easiest stretch and only carried the serum for about 40mi.

Balto is remembered as a hero because he was present to enjoy the relief of a population saved from certain death. But the other dogs and their brave mushers, some of whom lost life and limb to the cold, deserve their fair share of credit. Seppala, Togo, and their team just happen to deserve more.

Story Points


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