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The Real Story of Balto, Hero Dog of Alaska

Animals in History | November 2, 2018

The animated film, Balto, tells the true story of a heroic sled dog.

Thanks in part to the 1995 animated movie, Balto, we are now familiar with this hero sled dog of Alaska who, in 1923, saved the people of Nome, Alaska, from a deadly outbreak of diphtheria. The real story of Balto is just as exciting. Here we have a smart and determined dog, faithful and loyal to his musher, who braved harsh conditions to do the impossible. In his honor, there is now, in addition to the popular cartoon movie, a statue of the heroic dog in New York’s Central Park and an annual dog sled race that has grown to be the most popular event of its kind. Here is the real story of Balto, the hero dog of Alaska. 

Balto was a Siberian Husky, the same breed as this beautiful dog.

Balto Was A Siberian Husky

Originally from Northeast Asia, most prominently Siberia, the Siberian husky is a medium-sized working dog that is ideally suited for cold temperatures. The dogs have a thick, double-coat that insulates them from extreme temperatures. By the start of the twentieth century, many Siberian Huskies were brought into the Alaskan territory – Alaska did not officially become a state until 1959. The Siberian huskies were excellent sled dogs because they were more athletic and lighter than the Alaskan malamutes that were traditionally used to pull sleds. 

Sled Dog Races Were Popular Before Balto’s Time

In the early 1900s, sled dog racing was a popular sport in Alaska. The All-Alaska Sweepstakes Dog Sled Race was an annual event held from 1908 to 1917. Mushers and their dogs followed a 400-mile route from Nome to Candle and back again. The mushers had to finish the race with all the dogs they started with, alive or dead. This encouraged the mushers to take good care of their animals during the race since a dead dog cannot pull the sled and carrying its body back to the finish line added extra weight. In most cases, the mushers took better care of their dogs than they did themselves. 

Balto’s Future Owner Participated in the All-Alaska Sweepstakes

Leonhard Seppala, who would become Balto’s owner in the 1920s, was an avid dog sled racer who participated in numerous dog sled events. An experienced musher, he knew how to train his animals and how to get his team of dogs to work well together.

Balto was Born in 1923

Balto was born in Nome, Alaska, in 1923. He was named after Samuel Balto, a Norwegian explorer who relocated to Alaska in 1898 when he was hired to introduce reindeer as a livestock animal in Alaska. He took part in the Klondike Gold Rush and staked three gold claims near Nome. He was a popular character in the town of Nome and passed away just before the birth of the dog that would become his namesake.

A Diphtheria Epidemic Struck in 1925

In 1925, an outbreak of diphtheria hit the town of Nome. The illness, which often inflicts young children, is a dangerous bacterial disease that can cause heart damage, paralysis, and death. When the epidemic struck, there were no diphtheria vaccines in the town. Telegraphed messages were urgently sent out in an attempt to find the much-needed medicine. The closest batch of vaccines was in Anchorage, about 537 miles away. The wicked winter winds and below zero temperatures meant that boats and planes could not leave for Anchorage. People in Anchorage offered to transport the injections to the town of Nenana, but that was still 483 miles from Nome. 

Balto shown with his musher, Gunner Kaassen.

Nome’s Mushers Devised a Relay System

The only option left to the people of Nome was to transport the medicine over land via dog sled. Twenty of the town’s best mushers quickly met and designed a relay system with dog sled teams taking turns covering the distance. Balto, now a two year old husky, was assigned to the team commanded by musher, Gunner Kaasen. The route was treacherous and the conditions were brutal. Temperatures plummeted to -40 degrees Fahrenheit and the strong, icy winds made it feel much colder. 

Balto and his team arriving in Nome.

Balto Stepped Up to Guide His Team

In sled dog racing, like any sport, the team consists of players who are trained at various positions. Balto was not trained to be a guide dog, but during his team’s leg of the journey, the team’s guide dog had trouble orienting himself in the winter storm. Balto stepped up to lead the team. To Kaasen’s surprise, the untrained dog led the team like a pro. He not only got the team back on track, but he enabled them to finish their leg…the last, longest and most important leg of the trip…in much less time than Kaasen anticipated. In just five and half days, Balto and his team pulled into Nome with the life-saving medicine, saving many of the children of the town. 

On July 14, 1925, Balto and Gunner Kaassen pose for memorial for Central Park, New York with sculptor Frederick G.R. Roth. (GettyImages)

Balto Became a Zoo Exhibit

The hero dog was sold to the Cleveland Zoo where visitors could come to see the brave and heroic husky. Balto died on March 14, 1933, at the age of 14. His body was stuffed and mounted and is still on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. A statue of the famous dog was erected in New York’s Central Park. 

A scene from the start of the 2018 Iditarod Race.

The Iditarod Dog Sled Race Commemorated Balto’s Journey

In the early 1970s, race organizers started the Iditarod Dog Sled Race that is now held every March. The race takes mushers and their teams of dogs on a 500-mile route from Anchorage to Nome, the same route that Balto took to deliver medicine to the town’s sickened children. The race takes between 8 and 15 days to complete and the event attracts worldwide attention. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.