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Togo – the husky sled hero who inspired a Hollywood movie

Today, husky sled racing around the world is a highly popular sport. Intense, exciting and requiring incredible teamwork and skill, it draws in a vast crowd.

But you don’t need to live in Alaska or Siberia to enjoy this fantastic sport. Here in the UK, the BSHRA (The British Siberian Husky Racing Association) exists for one reason only – to deliver the annual BSHRA British Husky Racing Championship. Formed by a determined group of Britain’s leading Sled Dog Drivers; it’s now enjoying its 24th season. There is no membership fee, just a commitment to keeping the UK’s racing scene thriving!

With all the thrill and excitement of today’s modern sport, it’s easy to forget the brutal and intense work these fantastic dogs once undertook, and the lives they changed. Here’s one particular champion with a story so epic it inspired a Disney film.

Togo and the 1925 Serum Run

Nome, Alaska, USA; In January 1925, child mortality was at an alarmingly high rate. Infected with diphtheria, each day, another son or daughter was struck down by the deadly respiratory disease. Nome’s solitary physician, Dr Curtis Welch, feared an epidemic was unfolding. He ordered a quarantine but knew in his heart that only an antitoxin serum could halt the rapidly-spreading disease.

The nearest batch of the life-saving medicine was more than 1,000 miles away in Anchorage, and Nome’s frozen harbour meant that sea transport was impossible. Moreover, the closest train station was 700 miles away, and the open-cockpit planes of the time couldn’t fly in Alaska’s brutal subzero bitterness. The best hope for the children of Nome was its dog teams.  

Sledge dogs regularly battled the snow to deliver the mail, and knowing this, the territory’s governor, Scott C. Bone, recruited the most skilled drivers and dog teams to attempt a frantic relay to transport the serum from Nenana to Nome through the most brutal of conditions.

On the night of January 27, 1925, the first team left from Nenana. Musher “Wild Bill” Shannon bound the precious parcel to his sledge and pushed on his nine malamute pack. 

With temperatures plunging to 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, by the time Shannon handed the serum to the second team, he was already showing signs of frostbite hypothermia, even though he had run by the side of his faithful dogs to keep his body temperature up.

Illuminated by the northern lights the country’s most renowned musher, Leonhard Seppala, took the next leg. He left Shaktoolik on January 31 on a substantial 91-mile run, the longest and most intense leg of the entire journey.

Seppala’s lead dog, 12-year-old Siberian Husky Togo – our hero – was by now an old dog and had run tens of thousands of miles in his life. But this would be his last, and most significant. Togo, born the runt of a litter, was from birth deemed too small, and far too naughty to join a sled team. He was so cheeky that Seppala gave him to a pet store to sell on. However, Togo had other ideas. Breaking out of the store, he made his way home to a surprised Seppala. Noting the dog’s loyalty, Seppala saw him in a renewed light – and the rest is history.

Togo and his 19 fellow dogs skidded and slipped across the sheer ice face underfoot – struggling for traction. Togo, with incredible instinct, strength and fearlessness led them with staunch determination.

Charlie Olson took the baton from here. Charlie, after 25 miles handed over the serum to Gunnar Kaasen for the second-to-last leg of the relay. Kaasen’s team went on the battle through severe blizzards, delivering the vital antidote to the desperate town.

The aftermath

The teams involved saved the lives of thousands, and the media frenzy alerted the rest of the world to the dangers of the deadly virus. Although more than 150 dogs and 20 drivers shared the poignant relay, with numerous dogs sacrificing their lives to the cause, it was Balto, who led the final miles that became a superstar. Togo, who had undertaken the most dangerous and arduous leg of the journey, sadly only received his recognition and celebration years later. Would he have ever imagined he’d be starring alongside Oscar-winning William Defoe, in his own Disney movie? Who knows? He died happily of old age, at the age of 16, in 1929.

So, from delivering life-saving serum’s, all the way to taking their mushers across the finish line of the race track, Huskies continue to thrive as a popular breed in a modern world. At Alpha, we’re proud to sponsor The British Siberian Husky Racing Association – keeping this incredible working dog thriving in what he does best – being a champion.