Balto: The Iditarod’s Unexpected Hero

Most people know that the Iditarod is a grueling distance race of over 1,000 miles that takes place on the Iditarod trail in Alaska and tests the endurance of both dog and man. Not everyone, however, knows about the dangerous and dramatic journey that the race commemorates, and how an unlikely hero emerged during it and helped save an entire city. That hero was Balto, lead sled dog of Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen’s team, and this is his story.

The statue of Balto erected in New York City's Central Park.

On January 20, 1925, an urgent radio signal went out from isolated, icebound Nome, AK. “Nome calling…Nome calling…We have an outbreak of diphtheria…No serum…Urgently need help…Nome calling…Nome calling…” A local doctor had diagnosed cases of diphtheria, an extremely contagious disease of the throat and lungs. The only hope to save the village was a batch of serum that was nearly 700 miles away in Anchorage. Winter in Alaska can be incredibly dangerous, and a snow storm was already brewing; with the threat of an imminent blizzard, the best bet for getting the life-saving serum to Nome in time was by plane. However, the only pilot in the territory capable of navigating the treacherous and unpredictable weather was on a flight to the lower part of the continent and unavailable. Something had to be done, and fast; diphtheria epidemics had already ravaged other parts of Alaska, and without the serum, Nome would be the next casualty, with hundreds of lives at stake.

Without a pilot available to fly the serum from Anchorage to Nome, it was determined that a Pony Express-style relay of 20 dog teams would traverse the Iditarod trail, braving the sub-zero temperatures and blizzard conditions to transport the life-saving serum. The serum was transported by train on the newly constructed Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Nenana, arriving on January 27, where the first musher and team were waiting to take it westward down the Tanana River to the Yukon. In the Yukon, and every village thereafter, the best musher and team in town stepped up to take on the next leg of the journey.

The monument to Leonhard Seppala in Junosuando, Sweden. Photo by Håkan Fors.One of the most dangerous legs fell to musher Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo, and somewhat by accident. On January 31, during a raging storm, musher Henry Ivanoff had travelled half a mile down his leg of the trail when his dogs darted off after a reindeer; while untangling his dogs, he spotted Seppala, who, due to a breakdown in communications, was en route from Nome to pick up the serum and bring it back. Ivanoff passed the serum off to Seppala, who began what would be a 91-mile leg. As Seppala forged ahead, the storm grew worse, and he had to decide whether to risk a shortcut across the dangerous ice of the Norton Sound, or to take a lengthier route around it. Confident in his and Togo’s abilities, Seppala chose the Norton Sound route, successfully crossing the cracking ice floes and making it to the safety of land. A mere three hours later, the ice broke in Norton Sound, making it impassible.

The other critical portion of the journey fell to Gunnar Kaasen and the heroic Balto, who covered the last two legs of the trip. Kaasen was an experienced musher, but Balto, who was actually one of Seppala’s dogs, was generally not thought of as a particularly good leader; had Kaasen known just how bad the storm was about to get, he might have chosen his team differently. Contrary to expectations, Balto fearlessly pushed ahead into the gale-force winds of the roaring blizzard. Visibility was near zero; the blizzard was causing white-out conditions and this leg of the journey was done in almost complete darkness. Kaasen was dependent on Balto to lead the way and keep him and the other dogs safe. Balto proved his worth and mettle when he not only was able to keep the team safely on the trail, but stop them in time before they plunged into certain death in the icy Topkok river.

Balto with musher Gunnar Kaasen, who traveled the last leg of the Nome serum run. Photo by Brown Brothers, circa 1925.No one had expected that Kaasen and Balto would make it through the storm; when they arrived at their checkpoint, the musher scheduled to take the last leg was actually sound asleep! The dogs still had energy left, so Kaasen forged ahead on the last 21 miles to Nome. At one point, the winds were so bad that they actually lifted sled AND dogs off the ground and the serum fell into the snow. Kaasen thought all was lost, but thankfully was able to find the buried serum. He, Balto, and the team arrived in Nome just before dawn on February 2, 1925. The serum was dispensed and the town was saved. Balto and Kaasen were heroes.

They enjoyed instant celebrity, with a statue of Balto being erected in New York’s Central Park, and Balto himself attending its unveiling. Sadly, Balto’s star soon began to fade, as his owner, Leonhard Seppala, was not impressed by Balto’s leadership and heroics and worked hard on promoting himself and his other dogs. Before long, Balto was all but forgotten. Since he had been neutered, he could not be retired to stud, and was instead sold with the rest of his famed team and then relegated to touring the vaudeville circuit with Kaasen, the musher who braved the Iditarod trail with him. After two years in vaudeville, Balto and his team were sold again, this time to a “dime” museum in Los Angeles where they were mistreated and became ill.

During a trip to L.A., Cleveland businessman George Kimble discovered the plight of the dogs and was appalled. He struck a deal with the dogs’ owner; he would raise and deliver $2,000 in two weeks to purchase the dogs. To raise the money to save the dogs, Kimble established the Balto Fund; radio broadcasts nationwide asked for donations to save the heroes, and the response was more than Kimble could have ever hoped for. Within 10 days, the goal had been exceeded and Balto and his team were on their way to Cleveland.

On March 27, 1927, Balto and his six teammates arrived in Cleveland to a hero’s welcome, complete with a parade through the Public Square. They were given a home at the Brookside Zoo (now the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo) and were able to live out the rest of their lives in comfort and dignity. According to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, over 15,000 people visited the dogs on their first day at the zoo. Balto died at the age of 14 on March 14, 1933. His body was preserved and mounted and is now housed at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where his heroics can be respected by each new generation.

To learn more about Balto and the great serum race, visit the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Balto Exhibit page, as well as the Iditarod’s History page. For more on the Iditarod itself, visit www.iditarod.com. For more on sled dogs, check out our previous post, “Sled Dogs: A Study in Endurance, Fidelity, and Intelligence.”

Photo captions and credits (top to bottom):

Statue of Balto by Frederick Roth in Central Park (New York City, New York), via Wikimedia Commons.

The monument to Leonhard Seppala in Junosuando, Sweden. Photo by Håkan Fors, via Wikimedia Commons.

Balto with musher Gunnar Kaasen, who traveled the last leg of the Nome serum run. Photo by Brown Brothers, circa 1925, via Wikimedia Commons.

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