Thursday, February 3, 2011

Togo & Balto: An Interview with Laney Salisbury

Blizzard - from the Seppala line of Siberian huskies.
The media got it wrong.

In 1925, a Siberian husky named Togo led a team 135 miles through terrifying terrain, more than two and half times the distance covered by any other driver in the famous 647-mile Serum Run to Nome. “And this was done at top speed, in blizzard conditions over heaving ice,” writes Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury in “The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic.” “[Musher Leonhard Seppala] and the dogs had survived the ruthless challenge of Norton Sound and shaved at least a day off the critical time schedule.”

The media attributed Togo’s accomplishment to Balto, who covered the last 53 miles in a blizzard. Musher Gunnar Kaasen drove the team into the deserted streets of Nome, February 2 at 5 a.m. No one was expecting them in the storm. They later recreated the run for the cameras.

Balto became an instant celebrity.Newspapers ran front-page photos and Balto and Kaasen went on tour in the lower 48, where the city of Los Angeles awarded him a key to the city and New York City erected a sculpture in his likeness in Central Park.

“No one remembers the correction,” said Laney Salisbury in a telephone interview. “And we don’t like to take down heroes once they are made.”

Musher Leonhard Seppala owned both dogs. He hooked Togo, his number one dog and friend for seven years, into lead the night he left on the Serum Run. Together they covered a total of 261 miles round trip — sometimes in temperatures at 60 below zero. One day alone they covered 84 miles.

“[Seppala] was outraged that several newspapers had incorrectly attributed Togo’s trail achievements, and devastated when he learned that New York was about to put up a bronze effigy of the wrong dog,” write the Salisbury cousins.

Seppala, who considered Balto “second string” and not leadership material, left him behind the night of his run. Kaasen borrowed Seppala’s dogs to help in the relay race to Nome. Seppala advised his friend to use a dog named Fox as lead. Kaasen ignored the advice. He liked Balto.

“Seppala had once said that ‘in Alaska, our dogs mean considerably more to us than those ‘outside’ can appreciate, and a slight to them is as serious a matter to their drivers as if a human being’s achievements were overlooked,’” report the Salisbury cousins.

The slights didn’t stop in 1925. In 1995, Steven Spielberg’s animation unit at Universal released “Balto,” a film very loosely based on this famous Serum Run from Nenena to Nome. Washburn librarians report that it is the most checked out video from Washburn Public Library. Our family has checked it out several times.

The list of inaccuracies is so long that I forgive the talking goose and polar bear cubs. In the film, Balto is a stray (he belonged to the Seppala kennel); he is half wolf and half dog (myth); he battles the evil canine pack-leader Steele (rugged terrain, inexperience and a blizzard isn’t enough?).
Togo is never mentioned.

Seppala wrote extensively about Togo in his memoirs, said Laney Salisbury. “Togo was a family member.”

Togo was a sickly runt pup, who turned into a canine delinquent. Seppala gave him away as a house pet. Togo escaped and landed back at Seppala’s kennel. Seppala let him stay. Togo pestered Seppala, chewing through lines, jumping fences, and nipping at the other dogs.

Until Seppala slipped a harness over Togo’s neck and put him in the line. “[Togo] kept his tugline taut and his attention focused on the trial,” write the Salisbury cousins. “Seppala was astounded. He finally understood what Tog had been wanting all those months: to be a member of the team.”

“The Cruelest Miles” reports that by the end of that day, the eight-month-old pup shared the lead with a veteran named Russky and had traveled seventy-five miles on his first day in the harness. Togo was no delinquent, he was an “infant prodigy,” Seppala said. “I had found a natural-born leader, something I had tried for years to breed.”

In 1925, Togo had been Seppala’s leader for at least seven years and had traveled every terrain. He had won the All Alaska Sweepstakes race, navigated sea ice and had a proven sixth sense for danger.

While Seppala resented the media for overlooking Togo, he wasn’t going to deny fame to Balto,  Laney Salisbury said. Seppala corrected the slight in his own way. He took his dogs, including Togo, on tour in the Lower 48 and then started breeding kennel for Siberian huskies. “Togo’s spirit lives on in the Siberian,” Laney Salisbury said.

Togo’s spirit lived in one of our first sled dogs named Blizzard, though I didn’t understand it at the time. His certificate said he was part of the Seppala line and I had been told it had something to do with that historic Serum Run to Nome. But until I read “The Cruelest Miles” last week I didn’t understand the full story.

But it comes as no surprise. Blizzard was the gentlest, hardest working dog I’ve had the pleasure of riding behind in the last 10 years. He once pulled for miles before we realized his harness had rubbed away his thick fur and into his skin, causing him to bleed. He never complained and he never stopped pulling.

I wish Togo his own movie and place in popular lore. But like Seppala, I don’t begrudge Balto — “a symbol of the talent in all of us,” Laney Salisbury said. Kaasen obviously recognized something Seppala had not. And 53 miles through a snowstorm in unfamiliar terrain is a feat worth celebrating, no matter.

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