Alaska was enduring one of the most brutal winters in its history.
On Alaska’s northwestern tip, the Eskimo people of Nome faced the winter of 1925 in complete isolation. During the winter months, thick snow and heavy storms cut off the town from the rest of U.S. mainland.
Over the course of a few stays, several children in Nome visited the town’s only doctor with cases of sore throats and fever. The children were promptly treated for tonsillitis. Their conditions only got worse. More children fell sick. The town doctor soon discovered that the children were not sick with tonsillitis, but diphtheria, a deadly and highly contagious bacteria. Diphtheria infections were incredibly rare, and with no antitoxins on hand to treat the infection, a diphtheria epidemic would eradicate the entire town by spring. Immediately, town officials declared a quarantine.
The nearest diphtheria antitoxin was housed in Anchorage, more than 650 miles away. Blizzard conditions made transporting the antitoxin by plane impossible. Railroad lines did not extend to Nome. Ocean waters were frozen solid, so Anchorage could not send the antitoxin by sea. With nearly all of their options exhausted, the people of Nome requested the antitoxin to be shipped as the Eskimo people had transported their goods for more than 3,000 years: a team of sled dogs.
The 650-mile journey would take more than 13 days. Under the harsh conditions, no single sled team would be able to run the entire route, so a relay of 20 mushers and 150 Siberian Huskies assembled to deliver the antitoxin.
The relay team successfully traversed almost 600 miles of territory. The final sled team began their route. Whiteout conditions blinded the musher, with storms so thick that the musher could barely see his hand in front of his face. The trail was completely blanketed in snow. Unable to see his route, the musher had no choice but to rely on his lead dog’s keen sense of smell.
The musher trusted his route with a bright but unproven lead dog. The lead dog’s instincts proved infallible. The dog hugged the trail impeccably, and in one instance, even halted the sled team as they rapidly approached a half-frozen lake, skirting definite disaster. At five-thirty in the morning, the lead dog finally ushered the team into Nome. This dog’s name was Balto.
As the sled team arrived, under the whip of -70F winds, the musher collapsed alongside his team. Medical staff rushed to the musher’s aid as he mumbled of Balto, “Damn fine dog.”
In the story of Balto, the musher was ultimately in charge of his team, while Balto guided the team to its destination. Balto enabled his musher’s success by keeping the team on the course and scouting ahead for danger.
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