After a call for help was put out by the medical team in the village, it was discovered that the nearest supply of serum was in a storehouse outside Anchorage. However, the village of Nome was approximately 150 miles (241 km) south of the Arctic Circle and no plane or ship could get the serum there. Trains could only bring it about 700 miles (1126 km) of Nome. To make matters worse, a ferocious blizzard was approaching.
The people then decided that the only way out was if the village's sled dogs could deliver the serum in time by relaying the 20-pound (9 kg) package of medicine across the treacherous frozen land.
How Togo helped save his town with an extraordinary journey
This is where Togo, the Siberian husky, entered the scene. Togo was already a popular name in Alaska and was highly regarded for his tenacity, vigor, perseverance, and intelligence. He had become a champion racer by 1925 and had established his name as a famous sled dog in the region. In fact, it is said that Togo was a living legend among Alaskan dog sledders and was often described as “a natural-born lead dog”.
To get the serum, a relay of 20 teams was then assembled. One of the teams belonged to Leonhard Seppala, Alaska’s most revered musher. Togo was owned by Seppala and the dog was tapped to anchor the serum relay team.
“He was the best dog [owner Leonhard Seppala] had at navigating sea ice, and would often run well ahead of the team on a long lead in order to pick out the safest and the easiest route across Norton Sound or other parts of the Bering Sea,” write Gay and Laney Salisbury in the book ‘The Cruelest Mile’, a 2003 history of the serum run. This is the talent that eventually came in handy for 12-year-old Togo on the historic run.
What happened next was incredible. The run (also called “the Great Race of Mercy”) was completed by the sled teams in just five and a half days and the lifesaving serum was delivered to Nome just in time. The journey was harsh and filled with unbelievably extreme weather conditions. There were about 100 dogs who carried the medicine from a train line near Fairbanks, along the Yukon River, over a frozen bay, and eventually along the Bering Sea coast. The temperatures in many places along the way were around minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit (- 45.5 °C)!
It was a phenomenal feat that ultimately saved the residents of the town.
While no single dog deserves all the credit for that historic feat that helped save Nome from the deadly outbreak, Togo does merit special mention. Seppala and Togo traversed an astounding 365 miles (587.4 km) across the Alaskan wilderness and their journey was fraught with temperatures estimated at −30 °F (−34 °C), along with white-out storms and gale-force winds causing a wind chill of −85 °F (−65 °C). Furthermore, their trip included a ride across the hazardous Norton Sound where Togo saved his team and master in an audacious swim through ice floes. Compared to an average of 31 miles (49.8 km) each for the other teams, Togo’s accomplishment was rather extraordinary.
Togo’s legend is finally getting the recognition it deserves
Interestingly, however, it was the lead dog of the 53-mile (85.2 km) final leg, Balto, who became famous for his role in the run and even got rewarded with a statue and an animated film to his name. In fact, Togo was initially presumed to be dead after the race had ended. He was only found more than a week after his teammates' return, and he had missed all the fuss over Balto crossing the finish line with the serum but remained unperturbed about it.
However, Seppala wasn’t impressed. “I hope I shall never be the man to take away credit from any dog or driver who participated in that run. We all did our best. But when the country was roused to enthusiasm over the serum run driver, I resented the statue to Balto, for if any dog deserved special mention it was Togo,” the owner was later quoted as saying.
Regardless of the needless controversy, Togo is indeed a true hero whose name shall be etched in history forever. He was the momentous serum run’s unsung champion and, over time, with the help of historians, Togo finally got the recognition he deserved. The super dog received his own statue in NYC’s Seward Park in 2001 and in 2019, his valiant story was retold in the captivating Disney film, 'Togo', which stars Willem Dafoe. Amazingly, Togo’s role in the film is played by his own descendant Diesel.
Thus, the life of the historically overlooked pup is finally getting the just attention today and hopefully, Togo’s selfless and courageous story shall continue inspiring humans everywhere for years to come.
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