It all started in January 1925, when doctors in Nome began to see symptoms of a deadly infection—diphtheria. Anchorage, more than 500 miles away, was the closet place with supplies of lifesaving serum. Alaska’s brutal winters, where temperatures could plunge to 50 below and snow and ice are measured in yards, made travel impossible. Planes could not fly, and the sole path through the wilderness was a 650-mile freight route. It was the Iditarod Trail (pronounced i-dit-a-rod), which connected Nome to the railroad station in Nenana. By dog sled, the trip usually took about a month, too slow to head off an epidemic that could kill thousands. A relay was the only hope.
Twenty mushers volunteered for what would become known as the “Great Race of Mercy.” One, Leonhard Seppala, had some of the best dogs around—huskies, imported directly from Siberia. Seppala chose his most experienced dog, 12-year-old Togo, as his leader. Another musher, Gunnar Kaasen, put his faith in a green youngster, 3-year-old Balto.
The serum arrived at Nenana on January 27 and was whisked onto the first sled, then passed from one to another for legs of about 24 to 52 miles, until it reached the last team, led by Balto and Kaasen.
Despite his inexperience, Balto lived up to the challenge. Even when winds lifted the sled and all the dogs high into the air, he stayed on course. He and Kaasen charged into Nome just before dawn on February 2. It had taken an unimaginably swift 127.5 hours, about five days, to deliver the precious cargo.
Everyone knew that many hearts, hands, and paws had contributed to this life-saving effort, and that Togo had actually taken the longest and most perilous route. But Balto, the dog who led the final sprint, became the symbol of it all—of teamwork, courage, tenacity, and of hope when there seems to be no reason for it.
Balto died in 1933, at 14, but the dog and what he stands for are remembered to this day.
Thousands of children visit him in New York City’s Central Park, where there is a bronze statue in his honor, or at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where a special exhibit tells his story. Every March, sled-dog teams come from all over the world to participate in the Iditarod, a race that follows the serum-run route.
And after the movie, people around the world fell in love with him again, and many found a sweet way to honor his memory by naming their puppies Balto.