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The Sledge to Salvation

Balto and Togo were lead sledge dogs who became famous after their contribution to the Alaskan ‘Race of Mercy’ in 1925. Togo was the lead sledge dog of musher Leonhard Seppala. Balto was the lead sledge dog of Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen. The serum run was successful in getting the residents of Nome, the much needed antitoxin serum. When a diphtheria outbreak broke out in the tiny, remote village, the race comprised a relay of sled dog teams traveling 674 kilometers in the dead of winter. Nome was virtually inaccessible during the winter until air transport. The best musher in the region to handle sled dogs was Leonhard Seppala, but the distance he would have to cover was considerable. The experts agreed that setting up a relay of dog teams would be the best course of action. The longest and trickiest passage would be given to Seppala, but the relay system would provide him with the assistance he required. Trains were to carry the serum inland from Anchorage to Nenana. The heroism of Leonhard Seppala has been immortalized through a movie and several statues, thus ensuring that the story has forever remained with people.

In January 1925, several cases of the deadly disease, diphtheria, had broken out in the coastal town of Nome. Several children in Nome contracted diphtheria, a highly contagious bacterial disease that attacks the respiratory system. Unfortunately, Nome’s only doctor, Mr. Curtis Welch had run out of serum which was necessary to cure the disease. A month prior to the outbreak, the provincial physician had asked for the serum to be sent to the town. But collecting it took time, and the governing politicians added to the delay by pondering whether it was worth the money. The harsh winter accompanied by a nasty storm prevented the use of other means of transportation to bring the serum. Instead, a relay of dog teams was to accept the mission. 

It normally took 30 days for a dog sled-team to travel between the towns Nome and Nenana. A relay involving 20 mushers and around 100 to 150 dogs was organized. It would be a trip of more than 1,000 kilometers through the interior of Alaska, in the merciless cold. The most difficult stretch was awarded to the  middle-aged man born in the Torne Valley called Leonhard Seppala. Leonhard Seppala lived there with his family, and his eight-year-old daughter Sigrid was now in mortal danger because the vaccine available in town had expired and probably wouldn’t be enough. The frozen town could only be saved if the new serum arrived in time.

Seppala and his most beloved dog, Togo were chosen to run the most unforgiving stretch. A 400 kilometre round trip, including among other things, the deadly Norton Strait in minus 30°C weather, through biting cold and hurricane-force winds. Always struggling against the clock. In perfect conditions, mushers had done the stretch from Nenana to Nome in nine days. Now they had to cut that time down by a third in the most relentless  weather imaginable, to get the serum there in time. 

Gunnar Kaasen with his lead dog, Balto arrived at his transfer point ahead of schedule. He was exhausted and the cold had penetrated his multiple fur parkas, but he found that the next scheduled driver was asleep. Kaasen decided to take on the final leg, another 25 miles, himself. And so it was that around 5:30 a.m. on February 2, Gunnar Kaasen arrived in Nome and completed the relay. The serum was quickly distributed and administered. Innumerable lives were saved. When the relay started, they all knew it was a matter of life and death, and the entire world followed the heroes in the Great Race of Mercy.

Predictably, Kaasen, having completed the final leg was treated like a conquering hero, his picture gracing newspapers across the country. After several years, Gunnar Kaasen and his dog Balto were invited to an event in the United States of America along with those associated with the success. Balto was honoured with a statue in Central Park, in New York, and Kaasen himself traveled around on an exhibition tour for several years. But to other mushers and the general public, there were other, unsung, heroes: they were called Leonhard and Togo and came from the north. They made an extraordinary and heroic effort under terribly harsh weather conditions. Altogether, the two of them and their team of dogs, traveled for more than 400 kilometers through Alaska, through blizzards and cold, to save the people of their hometown.

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