Every now and then an exceptional dog rises above expectations. Balto was such a dog, who despite difficult odds guided a life saving dog sled team into Nome, Alaska in 1925 after a diphtheria epidemic threatened to wipe out the entire town of 1,400 residents. What kind of dog was Balto, and how was he able to complete his journey?
Central Park in New York City is a long way from Alaska, but it’s where you can find a life size statue of Balto. His nose, paws and face are worn and shiny from children touching the statue, and it’s the most visited and admired statue in the park. He stands as a tribute to a heroic group of dogs and mushers who braved an Alaskan winter storm in a relay race against time.
There is some confusion as to Balto’s breed. Some say he was an Alaskan Malamute, others claim he was a Siberian Husky. However, he was owned by Leonhard Seppala who raised and raced Siberian Huskies and there’s no mention of him ever owning Alaskan Malamutes. Balto was born in the Chukchi Inuit tribe and came from their stock of Siberian dogs. Described as a jet black Siberian Husky with a white bib and white socks, he was born in 1919 and died in 1933.
Seppala didn’t believe Balto was good breeding stock or a good lead dog, so the dog was neutered when he was 6 months old and delegated to pulling heavy freight sleds for the Pioneer Gold Mining Company Seppala worked for. Looks can be deceiving, and this was definitely the case with Balto. Seppala knew dogs, but he misread Balto’s potential. Not a perfect specimen of a Siberian Husky, he was barrel chested with a boxy looking body that made his front legs look bowed, and he didn’t look like a racing dog. However, he turned out to be an able, strong and intelligent dog. He proved his worth by safely delivering the serum and saving the lives of the rest of the dog team and his musher, Gunnar Kaasen, who used Balto as his lead dog during the 1925 serum run to Nome.
Heading his dogs into a wicked, cold night with a -70 wind chill, Kaasen began his portion of the run which was to end at a town named Solomon. The howling blizzard was so fierce, he couldn’t see the dogs harnessed closest to his sled, and he was 2 miles past the town when he realized he had missed it. Kaasen pressed on to the next stop where a fresh team of dogs and musher would be waiting to take the hand off of the precious serum to its final destination. When he arrived, the musher was sleeping and the dogs weren’t ready to go, so Kaasen decided to continue on instead of losing time that Nome residents were running out of.
Dead tired and cold with frostbite on his hands, the musher and dogs pulled into Nome at 5:30 in the morning, five and a half days after the serum run began. The only words he was able to muster were about Balto, “Damn fine dog,” he said as he fell beside the dog at the front of the team. They had run 57 miles in bone chilling cold, barely able to see through blinding snow and completed a 674 mile rescue mission along the only route possible—the mail route. Because the weather was so bad, sled dogs were the town’s only hope.
Balto knew nothing of his important mission; he ran because that was his job. He was part of a team of dogs and one man who drove through the night, depending on each other in weather that wasn’t fit for man or beast. Balto proved that he had the fortitude, intelligence and courage to guide six other dogs and the sled.
A Siberian Husky can tolerate extreme cold (minus 50 to minus 75) as well as warmer weather because their double layered coat helps keep them warm and cool. They are an intelligent, tenacious, independent, strong and fast breed capable of picking safe paths over snowy trails and frozen streams. Balto was able to stay on the trail despite whiteout conditions because he knew the trail and he used his instincts. At one point, he stopped shy of a not completely frozen lake, saving the entire team and serum from disaster.
Balto was never used as a lead dog after the run. Even though he proved himself a strong, determined and capable lead dog, the attention he and Kaasen received from the press made the other mushers, including Seppala, jealous. A taxidermist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History stuffed and mounted Balto after his death where he is still today. His original lead is laid across his back.
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