10 Dogs Who Made History


Balto Delivers Life-Saving Medicine

Balto, Ben Alexander
Balto, dog hero of the frozen north, poses with Hollywood child star Ben Alexander some time after his epic journey. Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1925, children in Nome, Alaska were suffering with diphtheria, a bacterial illness that blocks patients' airways and makes it difficult for them to breathe or swallow. The disease is highly contagious and sometimes fatal. Without medication to combat it, diphtheria would have spread very quickly throughout the town.

The only serum in Alaska was at a hospital in Anchorage, almost 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) away. But how to get it to Nome? A train could go part of the distance but there wasn't any transportation for the remaining 674 miles (1,084 kilometers) in the dead of winter. Fortunately, teams of sled dogs came to the rescue.

The serum was carefully packaged and left Anchorage for Nenana, the town at the end of the train line. It arrived there the following night and the first musher and dog team sprang into action. After their run, they turned the medication over relay-style to the second team who carried on, battling arctic winds and sub-zero temperatures. Each leg was 24 to 52 miles (38 to 83 kilometers) long. For the last leg, a musher named Gunnar Kaasen and his sled dog team, led by a Siberian husky named Balto took over.

After they'd departed, a blizzard developed, generating wind gusts of over 50 mph (80 kph) and temperatures of minus 50 degrees F (minus 45 C). Kaasen could barely see to navigate and was beginning to despair. But Balto knew the way by instinct and led the team safely to Nome, covering 53 miles (85 kilometers) in 20 hours.

Although officials thought the entire trip would take 13 days, it was completed in seven, with the mushers and dogs doing their part of the journey in 127.5 hours. Kaasen, Balto and the rest of the exhausted team got a hero's welcome and the kids got their life-saving medication. Balto would later have his own Disney animated feature in 1995. And every March, teams of sled dogs participate in the Iditarod, which retraces the route taken from Anchorage to Nome [sources: Shamleh, South Florida Siberian Husky Rescue].