Togo and the Serum Run

What is one of the first, and overall most loyal pets humankind has ever domesticated? The answer would be dogs, and many stories show that but in this article I’d like to elaborate on a specific Alaskan-related story of the loyalty of dogs, by relaying the story of Togo and Leonhard Seppala, and their part in the serum run.

At the very beginning of the year 1925, a terrifying epidemic struck the small town of Nome that spread a disease called diphtheria, a highly contagious disease that affects the lungs, causing the infected airways to expand and block the victim from being able to breathe, which resulted in several deaths in Nome. Panic spread, because the town’s only hospital had only a small amount of a six-year-old antitoxin, which Dr. Curtis Welch wasn’t sure it’d work anyways, with Nome being isolated from the rest of the world due to winter, they had to quickly take action or face the consequences. When the Board of Health heard this in Juneau, they argued over how to transport the serum before Governor Bone decided upon it being taken by train to Nenana, a 674-mile endeavor that would be taken by two mushers; one that went 319 miles west to Nulato, and one that took 335 miles east from Nome to Nulato and went back. Then, late on January 26, a Dr. Beeson from Anchorage sent the serum to the train station, and the race would begin.

Surprisingly, for how good of a dog musher Leonhard Seppala was, he wasn’t an Alaska Native and wasn’t born anywhere near there; instead, he was born on September 14, 1877, in a village on Skjervøy island, which is around 240 miles north of Norway. He moved to Norway’s capital of Kristiania just before he turned 16, listening to tales of grandeur and new-found riches from friend Jafet Lindeberg, who convinced Leonhard to go to Alaska where he would acquire a job. So, that’s what he did, landing in Nome, Alaska on June 24, 1900, where he first worked as a prospector, next as a hard-working gravel shoveler, and after as a watchman when winter finally came around. Then, on a day in December, Leonhard finally got a taste of dog mushing when Jafet sent him and three others to scout out a potential gold strike, which was unsuccessful and almost left Leonhard in a blizzard. However, he was inspired by how hard they worked and how loyal they were, causing him to fall in love with dog mushing, and that’s what he did for the next few years; taking care of dog teams and hauling supplies.

On February 9, 1914, he won his first sled dog race, which kickstarted his career as a dog musher and prompted him to try out many other dog sled races from there on.

Togo was born to a Siberian Husky called Dolly in either 1913 or 1916, had no other littermates, and was overall a very weak newborn puppy; he had to be checked every few hours for the next several days to ensure that he could eat, although, by his eight weeks, Togo was a very confident and feisty dog, who did much of what he wanted. That was proved by the fact that he messed around with dog teams, waiting for them alongside trails just so he could nip at them, along with escaping from a potential owner by escaping through a window and chain, just to go back to Leonhard’s kennel. Togo wasn’t considered a good sled dog either; his legs were shorter and he was smaller than most, even at six months when he should’ve been training, never mind his attitude. He remained consistently independent, yet his rebellious nature would land him in a spot in Leonhard’s team when he had enough and decided to use Togo as a leading sled dog. Surprisingly, eight-month-old Togo did as well as any veteran sled dog, even traveling 75 miles during his first day on a harness, which led Leonhard to use Togo many times after.

When the word was passed that the serum reached Nenana, Leonhard prepared to be that sole musher that’d go from Nome to Nulato and back, bringing all the supplies that he could before he put then 12-year-old Togo in lead, and raced off. He stopped after 33 miles and rested in Solomon, and in the day after that, he took a trail along the northern shore of Norton Sound, onto it, and backed off before resting 45 miles away in Chinik. Then, towards Issac’s Point 53 miles away, they went across the ice again, despite the looming threats of ice breaking underneath and as a storm rolled in. Thankfully, they made it 20 miles to Ungalik and had only 23 miles on land to go until they stopped at Shaktoolik, but as they made the journey there, the storm began to close in.

Even more luckily, along the way there Leonhard was stopped by another musher, Henry Ivanoff, who had the serum; while Leonhard was preparing, the Board of Health back at Juneau decided to change the plan, and instead make it a relay, so that the serum could travel farther and farther without any stops in between. That way, Nome would receive the serum in the quickest time possible, and it was a stroke of luck the two mushers found each other, as Leonhard wouldn’t know about the plan otherwise. He went back across the ice as he faced the storm, Togo finding his way right up to the door of Issac’s Roadhouse, getting advice from an Eskimo to go across the coast, inland, and then at Chinik. There was already a musher waiting there to take the serum for the relay, and at the end of his journey there, Leonhard and his group of dogs had traveled 264 miles in total over four and a half days.

The remaining mushers took the serum and traveled to Nome on February 2, and Leonhard got to go home, giving his lead dog, Togo, a rest by no longer involving him in any long trips along with letting him go to Maine on February 6, 1927, where he lived the rest of his days. Leonhard died in 1967 at the age of 89, 42 years after the serum run.

Although another one of Leonhard’s dogs, Balto, is more renowned for being the dog to transport the serum across the end of the race, Togo had run many times farther, and I hope this article taught you something about the serum run and made you appreciate dogs a little more.