Yes, it’s happened before in history when the wrong information is set down for all time. Then, when some go back to correct the record, well-armed with the facts, it’s often too late. Why? First impressions are usually lasting impressions. Once fixed in the hearts and minds of a generation, the next generation pays the price for misinformation, and then continues to message this misinformation on to the next generation. And so it goes. And so it happened to the legendary dog driver, Leonhard Seppala, and his beloved lead dog, Togo, after their historic Serum Run in 1925, when isolated Nome was struck with a diphtheria outbreak. History got the account of this miraculous sojourn across Alaska’s wild, wrong. Despite a factual record of the events during those five and a half days subsequently revealed, where twenty mushers and one hundred and fifty sled dogs took part—the 1995 film, BALTO, gave acclaim to the wrong dog and the wrong dog driver!
Do the math. Seventy years after the Serum Run to save Nome, with seventy years to get the research right, the filmmakers went with the wrong dog and the wrong dog driver! The filmmakers either didn’t do their research or found it easy to settle on the “newspaper dog, Balto,” since this was reported first. First impressions are usually lasting impressions. One could argue that BALTO is just a movie and no harm no foul. Try telling that to all the generations of respected mushers in Alaska and the lower ’48, who run their beloved huskies in the spirit and name of the historic Chukchi dog—the Siberian husky. Dog drivers know their history and their hearts are likely broken, right along with Leonhard Seppala and Togo. This blog post is not about seeking acclaim for “Sepp” or Togo. This is not about discrediting Gunnar Kaasen or Balto. This is about getting the history right!
“The Great Race of Mercy,” as it was reported in the news of the day, set out to save Nome and its surrounding population of 10,000 from a midwinter diphtheria epidemic. Antitoxin had to arrive as soon as possible. Air was ruled out. Dogsled was the only way. Leonhard Seppala’s name came up first, and then the names of native Alaskan mail carriers; all expert. The serum would arrive by train out of Anchorage, to Nenana, then pass through the hands of twenty mushers and their teams, totaling one hundred and fifty dogs. “Mushers (were) told to wait at an assigned roadhouse for their turn to relay.” Telegraph and radio communication at the roadhouses were the reason for these appointed stops. The only problem with this plan was Leonhard Seppala and his team, with Togo in lead, had already left Nome, January 27th, for Nulato; unaware of the plan.
When Sepp heard Henry Ivanoff’s cry from the trail outside Shaktolik, January 31st —“The Serum! The Serum! I have it here!”— did Sepp realize the mistake. He and Togo and the rest of his sled dogs had come one hundred and seventy miles across the dangerous Norton Sound, where Togo led them in a straight line despite ice floes in the dead of night. With no rest, Sepp and Togo turned around with the serum and crossed the treacherous path to Isaac’s Point. After six hours of rest, they pressed on through a raging storm, climbing 5,000 feet up Little Mckinley Mountain, across the ice along the shoreline to Golovan. After travelling this eighty-four mile leg of the journey in -40 temperatures with a -85 wind chill, Sepp handed the serum over to Charlie Olson in Bluff, February 1st.
Togo was twelve years old and this would be his last race; going lame afterwards. He gave his heart and soul to his beloved master and ran until he could no more. Such is the spirit of the Siberian husky.
In all, Sepp and Togo, and their sled dog team, covered one third of the Serum Run, travelling two hundred and sixty one miles. No other dog driver or team covered as much territory, with their total miles being between twenty-five and fifty-three. This is why it broke Sepp’s heart that Togo did not receive the credit due, for the most dangerous and deadly portion of the Serum Run. Balto had been one of Sepp’s dogs, left behind, and he was the lead dog for Gunnar Kaasen; borrowed from the Seppala Kennels, if you will. Yes, Balto brought the serum through the storm, travelling fifty-three miles in the process. Yes, this husky should have historic credit for the serum arriving in Nome; but perhaps not credit for being the hero of “The Great Race of Mercy.”
Sepp passed the serum over to Charlie Olson in Bluff, Feb 1st at 3 pm.. Olson passed the serum to Kaesan, who was to pass the serum to Ed Rohn at Point Safety, where Rohn would take the serum the twenty-five miles to Nome. Here, the story is cloudy. For reasons not entirely documented, Kaesan did not wait for Rohn but went the last leg into the vicious storm, with Balto in the lead. Was Rohn asleep? Did Kaesan decide Rohn didn’t have time to get his team together? Was Kaesan impatient, or did Kaesan want to be the one to deliver the serum to Nome? No matter the reason Kaesan made his decision, and arrived on Front Street in Nome, Feb 2nd, first. Balto received the credit, as lead dog. Balto was an amazing husky and did an amazing job, but Balto did not run the length of difficult terrain, in the horrendous conditions, or cover as much danger and ice during the Serum Run, as Togo had.
Later that year in December, when a statue was dedicated to Balto in Central Park, New York City, Sepp was heartbroken. “It was almost more than I could bear when the ‘newspaper dog’ Balto received a statue for his ‘glorious achievements.’”
I think we can all understand why. It is just as well Sepp didn’t live to see more praise heaped onto Balto, with the 1995 animated film, BALTO, and accounts of Balto’s heroism in children’s books; not to mention still another statue erected for Balto near the starting line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, outside Anchorage. His heart would break all over again, for his beloved Togo. No mention had been made of Togo; none. When history gets it wrong, hearts can be broken; never to mend.
*Balto died in 1933. He is mounted and stuffed, and on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
*Togo died in 1929, at sixteen. He is mounted and stuffed, and on display at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters, Wasilla, Alaska.
*Sepp died in 1967, at ninety. His ashes are scattered along the Iditarod Trail; which honors the historic 1925 Serum Run every year with the running of the prestigious Iditarod.
*In memorial, I must mention the valiant Alaskan dog drivers who succumbed to frostbite during the 1925 Serum Run, as well as a number of their valiant huskies who succumbed to exposure in the impossible elements.
The Serum Run Mushers of 1925
|Musher||Leg of Serum Run||Miles|
|“Wild Bill” Shannon||Nenana to Tolovana||52|
|Edgar Kalland||to Manley Hot Springs||31|
|Dan Green||to Fish Lake||28|
|Johnny Folger||to Tanana||26|
|Sam Joseph||to Kallands||34|
|Titus Nickoli||to Nine Mile Cabin||24|
|Dave Corning||to Kokrines||30|
|Harry Pitka||to Ruby||30|
|Billy McCarty||to Whiskey Creek||28|
|Edgar Nollner||to Galena||24|
|George Nollner||to Bishop Mountain||18|
|Charlie Evans||to Nulato||30|
|Tommy Patson||to Kaltag||36|
|Jack Screw||to Old Woman||40|
|Victor Anagick||to Unalakleet||34|
|Myles Gonangnan||to Shaktoolik||40|
|Henry Ivanoff||to meeting with Seppala||–|
|Leonhard Seppala*||to Golovin||91|
|Charlie Olson||to Bluff||25|
|Gunnar Kaasen||to Nome||53|
* Seppala set out from Nome, met Ivanoff outside of Shaktoolik, turned around, and carried the serum onward to Golovin, 91 miles away. With Togo, he traveled a total of 260 miles.
WHEN HISTORY GETS IT WRONG … HEARTS CAN BE BROKEN
The photo shown with this blog, is that of Leonhard Seppala and his beloved, Togo; showing their last moments together … their farewell.