The real story of Balto inspired the heart-warming animated film we all know and love. The movie, though, added quite a bit of a fantasy to an already epic tale. The cinematic version left out the years of tragedy that befell Balto after his triumph. American children's movies and television, like Air Bud and even Scooby-Doo, often feature the best heroic dog stories. But in the case of Balto, the truth deserves a telling as loudly as his fictional counterpart's wolf howl.
The Balto film caters to children, therefore emphasizing particular fictions - such as Balto's goose companion, female love interest, and evil dog adversary. The film does parallel the real story of Balto by including a diphtheria outbreak threatening a town in Alaska and the only salvation being an anti-toxin located 1,000 miles away. The people of Nome decided to use dog sleds to obtain the serum as quickly as possible, prompting Balto to help out as he does in the movie. Balto's journey didn't quite go down as the filmmakers suggest, however.
Fights with grizzly bears aside, whether the goal was to make the tale even more entertaining or captivate the imagination of children through a cute dog movie, changing the real events of the story meant the many other human and dog heroes who helped deliver the serum went unmentioned.
Balto remains a staple of every '90s kid's movie memories, but the true story of the hero dog is even more touching than the film.
In January 1925, several children in Nome, AK contracted the respiratory disease diphtheria. People feared the illness since the bacteria was highly contagious and deadly. Though the town's only doctor quarantined the children, he feared other residents might become infected since the disease spread quickly.
To make matters worse, the nearest supply of antitoxin serum resided in Anchorage, AK, over 1,000 miles away. Travel by airplane wasn't an option in subzero temperatures, and ice in the harbor counted out boats.
The people of Nome turned to an older method of travel, one used to deliver mail for years: the dog sled.
A dog sled team would need to journey for weeks to retrieve the serum. To combat exhaustion, the townspeople decided to set the operation up as a relay. One team picked up the serum from a checkpoint where the previous team could then rest. Over 20 mushers helped out on the project.
The first team, led by "Wild Bill" Shannon, picked up the 20-pound package containing the serum. He and his team traveled 52 miles through minus-60-degree weather, just fast enough that his dogs' lungs wouldn't develop frost.
Leonhard Seppala and lead dog Togo took over next, completing the longest chunk of the journey at 91 miles. Seppala decided to take a shortcut, traveling over slippery ice in minus-85-degree temperatures and winds that threatened to blow them off course. They made it safely to the next musher, though, who eventually handed the package off to Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog, Balto.
For an ordinary postal service, a trip like this could take up to 25 days, but thanks to the mushers, the serum made it to Nome in less than six.
Scheduled to be the second-to-last team to transport the serum, Kaasen, Balto, and the team's other 12 dogs found themselves in a powerful snowstorm shortly into their journey. The serum was almost lost after an 80 mph gust of wind flipped the sled and the package tumbled into a snowbank.
Balto had never led a team before and had to rely on scent rather than sight because of the heavy snow storms. After an issue with the planned final team, Kaasen's decided to finish the relay himself. In February 1925, Balto, Kaasen, and the rest of the group reached Nome after traveling 53 miles.
Although four dogs died during the operation, the doctor lifted the quarantine three weeks later thanks to the speedy serum delivery.
The media followed the relay, and Balto quickly became a national hero. But Balto's owner, Leonhard Seppala, felt the admiration was misplaced, considering over 150 other dogs also participated, including his dog Togo, who completed the longest part of the journey.
Despite this, Seppala allowed Gunnar Kaasen to take Balto and his team to Hollywood where producer Sol Lesser backed a 30-minute film called Balto's Race to Nome which featured the new canine star.