The Incredible Siberian Husky

The famous 1925 serum run to Nome in which diphtheria antitoxin was transported from Anchorage, Alaska, to Nenana, Alaska by train, and then to Nome by dog sled to combat an outbreak of the disease, was actually a relay. More than 20 mushers took part in the life saving effort, and news coverage of the event was worldwide.

The dog that emerged with the most publicity was Balto (named after the Sámi explorer, Samuel Balto), but initially, he suffered bad press as “just a freight dog.” Born in 1919, he was considered rather slow and very little suited for sled work. He was so underrated by his owner, Leonhard Seppala, that the dog was neutered by Seppala when he was only a few months old (which, incidentally, meant that the puppies Balto supposedly had in Universal Pictures sequels to Balto” could never have happened). 

Seppala, himself, chose a dog named, “Togo,” (named after the Japanese admiral Tōgō Heihachirō) to lead his dog team for the Serum Run. The team came from Nome towards the end of the run and picked up the serum from musher, Henry Ivanoff, which was later passed to Gunnar Kaasen who drove his team lead by Balto into Nome. When Gunnar Kasaan became lost on the ice of the Topkok River in fifty mile per hour winds, it was Balto who scented out the right trail and brought the team back safely. Left to Kasaan, the entire team would have plunged through the ice and likely died of hypothermia. On the morning of February 2, Kaasen halted his sled dog team in front of the Miners and Merchants Bank on Front Street in Nome. Dazed, exhausted, and essentially overwhelmed from the ordeal, he stumbled up to the front of the team where, according to witnesses,  he collapsed muttering (about Balto) “Damn fine dog.”

Balto was a Siberian Husky.

Balto on the right, Togo on the left. One way to tell the difference is that Togo had a distinctive chunk missing in his right ear

With 20/20 hindsight, it seems that Seppala may not have been the best judge of dogs. Many experts on the serum run believe that the real hero was Togo. He had the longest and most hazardous stretch of the run which he ran as a 12-year-old dog through 260 miles of a blowing Alaskan blizzard including a long stretch over the fracturing ice of Norton Sound. The round trip was 365 miles!

Seppala, however, had tried to give Togo away – twice. On one occasion, Togo  jumped through a kennel window and ran miles to get back to Seppala. At eight months of age, Togo freed himself to chase after Seppala’s dog sled team, chased them up a trail, and caught up to them easily. Finally, Seppala noticed. Balto received most of the fame from the Serum Run because he led the final 55 miles, but Togo is considered the true hero of the Mercy Run.

Togo, too, was a Siberian Husky.

Be sure, too,  to read about Fritz, another Siberian Husky.

We can probably fathom what a feat this was, but we may not understand today why it was so necessary.  A little perspective, then: In 1921, the United States recorded 206,000 cases of diphtheria that resulted in the deaths of 15,520 children. Four years later, diphtheria rates dropped because of the widespread use of vaccines – but there were no vaccines in Nome when the outbreak occurred. There were no roads going to Nome, and only three airplanes were to be found in all of Alaska. All had been dismantled for the winter. A train only went from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and to make things worse, the diphtheria outbreak occurred during one of the coldest winters in 20 years. Temperatures ranged from -30F to -50F,  and daylight visited for only a few hours each day.  The only way to get serum to the children was by dog team.


Some say that Seppala helped establish AKC recognition of the “Siberian Husky,”and about this, we can’t be certain. We are beyond positive, however, that the Siberian Husky is a remarkable breed. Today, the Siberian Husky Club of America, offers a Sled Dog Degree Program where Siberians can compete in sled dog races and earn titles.



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