Balto, mythical Eskimo dog: what is his story?


Balto is a crossbreed Siberian Husky, which hit the headlines when in 1925 diphtheria mainly kills Alaskan children. Symbolizing intelligence, loyalty, courage and endurance, Balto who, braving the elements, led with his fellows – including the valiant dog Togo – a real race against death in order to deliver the life-saving antitoxin safely. He later became the iconic character in an animated film produced in 1995 and directed by Simon Wells. But let’s come back in more detail to the life of this sled dog whose commemorative statue is erected in Central Park (New York, United States).

Balto, a half wolf, half Siberian Husky

Balto marked the history of the United States and his life is known today to many of us thanks to the film ” Balto, wolfdog, snow hero “. It is not a tale among many others, but indeed a true story.

Born in 1919, at the extreme tip of Alaska, and more precisely in No me, he grew up in a farm run by a dog sled driver and mushing specialist – Leonhard Sheppala (1877-1967), born to an immigrant family from Norway. It is named Balto in homage to Samuel Balto, Norwegian explorer who participated in the gold rush.

This male, half wolf, half Siberian Husky dog ​​does not really have a standard physique. It is considered too large and it has neither the finesse nor the lightness that one expects from a Husky according to the codes agreed at the beginning of the 20th century. He is therefore castrated from the age of 6 months.

At that time, Leonhard Sheppala carried out the transport of goods in order to restock the mining company for which he worked. He uses his sled dogs. But he also trains them so that they are ready to take part in most races and competitions, including one of the most popular – All Alaska Sweepstake – starts in Nome and ends in Candle, which represents a distance of over 650 km, Candle being located on the Seward peninsula.

Bringing back the diphtheria vaccine: a race against time

Life thus unfolds until 1925 when a dramatic event of magnitude comes to disrupt the city of Nome. While freezing cold prevails, a fatal bacterial disease decimates the population and more specifically the children. it’s about the diphtheria which attacks the respiratory tract of patients, then the heart and finally the peripheral nervous system. There is only one solution to save the population: get the diphtheria antitoxin, namely diphtheria vaccine.

But in Alaska, the cities are very far from each other. It is therefore necessary to travel nearly 870 km to reach Anchorage where it is possible to obtain the doses so precious, capable of save children’s lives. However, a windstorm is raging and temperatures are in the order of -40 ° C. It is therefore unthinkable to make the trip by plane because it would be too risky for the crew.

It was then that a small group ofabout thirty mushers (guides) decides to leave with several couplings, representative a hundred dogs, in order to ensure a relay and to bring back as quickly as possible the precious remedy against diphtheria intended for the children of Nome. Among these dogs is Balto, led by guide Gunner Kassen. But it is Togo the lead dog, a Siberian Husky of iron will and great courage lent to Kassen by Sheppala’s wife.

Togo, aged 12, was exceptional. He braved all difficulties during the expedition and covered 264 miles (almost 425 km) in the lead after which he was replaced by the heavier but younger Balto. It is this one who nevertheless marked the memories and was considered as the dog who allowed the trip to be made in record time, a incredible feat. Nobody expected it because Balto, was not very used to leading a sled, especially in extreme conditions due to the climatic events of the moment, but also because of the reliefs which made the progression particularly difficult. In addition, resulting from crossbreeding, he did not have the line of the Siberian Husky.

Balto therefore became the real hero of this story when crossing the finish line, but we must not forget Togo which is, alas, remained in the shadows of his fellows, as he traveled the longest portion of this extreme expedition and was exposed to the most dangerous sectors.

An annual race in tribute

The surprising story of this half wolf, half husky has remained etched in many memories. Now every year in March through a polar race which connects Nome to Anchorage, we are celebrating this episode that marked Alaska. It is more precisely the Iditarod race in which the best teams of sled dogs participate in the world. This race of 1,750 km takes place in extreme conditions. It does not only honor Balto, but also all the men and dogs who helped save children against diphtheria, because some who took part in this exceptional expedition lost their lives.

Balto died in Cleveland (Ohio, United States) on March 14, 1933, at the age of 14. We can see his statue in Central Park. As for Togo, he died in 1929 at the age of 16 in Poland (Maine, United States) after a retirement which lasted only 2 years. His value was finally recognized since in 2011 he was appointed most heroic dog in history by Times Magazine and a film in his memory directed by Ericson Core was released in 2019. Its title is four letters: Togo.

Photo credit: Brown Brothers