Many dog breeds have a specimen with its own name that transcends history to become a legend. In this post we remember the heroic story of “Balto” a mixture of Siberian Husky with “wolf”, according to tradition. In reality it was about a “primitive” type of Husky – morphologically very different from how we know the breed today-, which has a commemorative statue in Central Park in New York to eternally remember its feat for the benefit of men.
This was Balto : The hero dog
It all began in January 1925, when doctors from Nome – a city in western Alaska – began to detect the symptoms of a deadly infection, diphtheria.
Anchorage, the nearest town, is located more than 500 km away, and was the place of storage of vital serum stores. Alaska’s harsh winters, where temperatures could drop to minus 50 degrees and snow and ice can be measured in meters, made travel impossible.
The planes could not fly and the only way through nature was a 650-mile freight route.
It was Iditarod Road, which connected Nome to Nenana Railway Station. By dog sled, the trip usually lasted about a month, too slow to deal with an epidemic that could kill thousands of people. A relay was the only hope.
Twenty people volunteered for what would become the “great race of mercy”. One of them, Leonhard Seppala, had one of the best dogs, huskies, imported directly from Siberia. Seppala chose his most experienced dog, Togo, aged 12, to lead them. Another volunteer, Gunnar Kaasen, trusted Balto, a 3-year-old dog.
The serum arrived in Nenana on January 27th and was taken on the first sled, then passed from one to another for legs of about 24 to 52 miles, until reaching the last team, led by Balto and Kaasen.
Despite his inexperience, Balto took up the challenge. Even when the winds lifted the sledge and all the dogs in the air, he stayed on course. Kaasen and Balto embarked at Nome just before dawn on February 2nd. It had taken an incredibly fast 127.5 hours, about six days, to deliver the precious cargo.
Everyone knew that many hearts, hands and paws had contributed to this rescue effort and that Togo had in fact taken the longest and most dangerous route. But Balto, the dog who led the final sprint, has become the symbol of everything: teamwork, courage, tenacity and hope when there seems to be no reason to do it.
Balto died in 1933, at the age of 14, but the dog and what he represents are still known today.
Thousands of children visit him in Central Park, New York, where there is a bronze statue, or at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where a special exhibition tells his story. Every March, teams of dog sleds come from all over the world to participate in the Iditarod, a race that follows the road of serum.
And after the movie Balto, in 1995, people all over the world fell in love with him again and many found a nice way to honor his memory by naming their puppy Balto.