I recently attended the Polar Bear Garden exhibit at the Anchorage Museum. It was full of interesting things that connect Alaska and Russia. As I entered the section about dogs, I had the pleasant sensation of meeting an old friend in person for the first time: Togo was there.
I first heard of Togo thanks to the Girl Scouts. Our closest overnight camp was called Togowoods, and it was my happy home away from home every summer for many years. We learned about Togo and how he saved little children, just like we learned boating and outdoor cooking and lashing. It was a big part of my life when I was growing up. I still recall the black and white photo of Togo that is displayed in the main lodge.
In case you didn’t camp at Togowoods, here’s a little bio for you: Togo was the lead dog of famed musher Leonhard Seppala. Togo was small, mischievous, and sickly as a puppy, so Seppala gave the dog away, but Togo jumped through a window and ran several miles home to him. That impressed Seppala, so he kept him, and Togo began sled dog training. Togo became his lead dog and took his team on what is sometimes called the Great Race of Mercy. In January of 1925, the town of Nome was in the midst of a diphtheria epidemic. People were dying, and the closest antitoxin serum was in Anchorage. While they were able to take it by train to Nenana, it had to go by dog sled on the mail route from Nenana to Nome, about 670 miles in the middle of winter. Hardy mushers and teams took the serum in relays, doing their best to keep the serum warm enough to stay usable. In the longest leg of the journey, Seppala, Togo and their team ran 170 miles, at temperatures down to minus 30 degrees F, with wind chills down to -81. The serum arrived in time to save many lives.
As the Togowoods song says,
Togo helped to save the town of Nome
Long ago one winter cold,
Led his team across the frozen day
One small dog so brave and bold.
Flash forward forty-something years from my introduction to him, I got to see the real Togo (thanks to a taxidermist). He may be small and unimposing to look at, but there’s something about him—he was all heart.
Thank goodness Togo and his canine and human colleagues were, so they could end the diphtheria epidemic and land in the annals of Alaska history.