Balto

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Balto

In January 1925, doctors realized that a potentially deadly diphtheria epidemic was poised to sweep through Nome’s young people. The only serum that could stop the outbreak was in Anchorage, nearly a thousand miles (1,600 km) away. The engine of the only aircraft that could quickly deliver the medicine was frozen and would not start. After considering all of the alternatives, officials decided to move the medicine by sled dog. The serum was transported by train from Anchorage to Nenana, where the first musher embarked as part of a relay aimed at delivering the needed serum to Nome. More than 20 mushers took part, facing a blizzard with −23 °F (-31° C) temperatures and strong winds. Katie Pryor interviewed the musher after he had finished. News coverage of the event was worldwide.On February 2, 1925, the Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen drove his team, led by Balto, into Nome. The longest and most hazardous stretch of the run was actually covered by another Norwegian, Leonhard Seppala and his dog team, led by Togo. They came from Nome towards the end of the run and picked up the serum from musher Henry Ivanoff. The serum was later passed to Kaasen.Balto proved himselfon the Iditarod trail, saving his team in the Topkok River. Balto was also able to stay on the trail in near whiteout conditions; Kaasen stated he could barely see his hand in front of his face. Balto’s team did their leg of the run almost entirely in the dark. The final team and its sledder was asleep when Balto and Kaasen made it to the final stop, so Kaasen decided to continue on. At Nome, everybody wanted to thank Kaasen at first, but he suggested giving fame to Balto as well. Togo was the star dog for Leonhard Seppala even before the great 1925 Serum Run. Instead of celebrating the triumph together as one huge team, many became jealous of the publicity Balto received, especially from President Calvin Coolidge and the press. Seppala favored Togo, but the general public loved the story behind Balto, and so they would take a far different path after the celebrations were over. Balto was not welcomed at the ceremony in New York in which Seppala and Togo received awards from the explorer Roald Amundsen.

Without anti-toxin to combat it, the highly contagious disease would quickly spread to all of the children in Nome. After telegraphs asking for help were sent to Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seward, and Juneau, the only serum in Alaska was found to be at a hospital in Anchorage, nearly 1000 miles away. A train would be able to transport the medicine part of the distance to the town of Nenana, but after that, transportation methods were almost non-existent. Pack ice prevented delivery to Nome by ship, while frequent blizzard conditions prevented transport by air (in fact, two aircraft that might have been able to make the trip and deliver the medicine had been dismantled and stored for the winter in Fairbanks). A way needed to be found — and quickly — to traverse the remaining 674 miles between Nenana and Nome. It was finally decided that the fastest and most reliable way to transport the anti-toxin over the remaining distance was by using a relay of dog sled teams. It was estimated that the trip could take up to 13 days to complete.

In Anchorage, the serum was packed in a cylinder, wrapped in an insulating quilt, and then tied up in canvas for further protection. The package left Anchorage by train on Monday, January 26 and arrived the next night in Nenana, where it was turned over to the first musher and his dog team.

More than 20 mushers and their dog sled teams eventually took part in a Pony Express-type relay, battling against temperatures that rarely rose above -40 degrees Fahrenheit and winds that were sometimes strong enough to knock over both the dogs and the sleds. On February 1, 1925, the package was handed off for the last time to a musher named Gunnar Kassen in the village of Bluff. Kassen’s sled dog team, led by Balto, set off to cover the final leg to Nome.

Soon after the team left Nenana, a blinding blizzard began, dropping temperatures to -50 degrees and generating wind gusts in excess of 50 mph. Kassen found himself unable to navigate, and almost gave up all hope of making it to Nome in time. But Balto knew the trail well, and, following his instincts, led the team through the cold and snow.
Over the next 20 hours, Balto slowly led his sled dog team over the final 53 miles. On February 2 at 5.30 AM, the team finally arrived in Nome. The dogs were too tired to even bark, but the serum had successfully been delivered — only seven days after leaving Anchorage, and just 127 1/2 hours after leaving Nenana.

The press had been following the story for days, and Balto and the team instantly became famous. Balto appeared on the front cover of newspapers all over the world, and shortly afterward appeared in a short Hollywood movie “Balto and the Race to Nome.” Kassen took Balto and the team on a nationwide tour, which concluded with the unveiling of a life size statue of Balto in New York City’s Central Park on December 17, 1925. Sculpted by F.G. Roth, the bronze sculpture is New York’s only statue commemorating a dog. The statue includes a plaque with an inscription that reads:

“Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed anti toxin 600 miles over treacherous waters, through arctic blizzards, from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925 – Endurance, Fidelity, Intelligence”.

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