The greatest dog history forgot

Monday, December 8, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:04 a.m. CST, Monday, December 8, 2008

Do great dogs make history or does history make great dogs? Doubtless packs of pedagogues and pedants have had heated discussions about this question, but I today pick a bone with the dichotomy that query presents. One of the greatest dogs that ever roamed this earth has been all but forgotten by history, and Togo was his name(-o).

I first learned about Togo at the Explorers Club in New York. Founded in 1904, that elite society is one that only the most intrepid and curious can join. It is an adventurer's powerhouse formed to promote the exploration of land, sea, air and space, and the club occasionally puts on events where the public can mingle with current equivalents of Edmund Hillary, Phileas Fogg and Steve Irwin (were the latter to be reborn with a herpetology Ph.D. and deep appreciation of fine wines).

Change in 2009: What do you want to see?

With the new year ahead, change is likely to be on our minds. Some of us think about changes promised by newly elected officials. Some of us ponder how to change ourselves for the better through resolutions. The civic-minded among us are likely to contemplate how to change Columbia and Boone County for the better.

This is an invitation to share your thoughts in the coming weeks with other readers.

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At one such event I attended, the speaker gave a presentation about the heroic 1925 race to Nome, Alaska. A terrible case of diphtheria had broken out in the tiny village, but they did not have enough serum to stop the epidemic. The town was isolated, and no plane could fly to them. No ship could be sent to their port; ice blocked all entry. It became apparent the only way to save the town would be for multiple sled dog teams to relay the serum across the frozen lands and perilous, icy sounds.   

Togo was one of these dogs.  His owner was Leonhard Seppala, a renowned sled dog driver who broke racing records like they were pieces of uncooked spaghetti. When Togo was born, Seppala thought he was too small and sickly to be part of his award-winning team, and he left Togo at home when he went on trips. But one day, Togo broke loose, followed the scent through the night and appeared at the front of the pack the next morning, demonstrating the unparalleled skill and dedication that would keep him lead dog for years. By the start of the run to Nome in 1925, Seppala and Togo had covered more than 55,000 miles together. 

The leg of the trip that they completed was the longest by 200 miles and by far the most dangerous. Seppala had to cross frozen Norton Sound, where Togo saved the lives of his fellow dogs and owner in a daring swim through the icy floes. They forged through white-out storms and minus 40 degree weather at top speed, saving a day's worth of time when hours could mean life or death in Nome. Thanks to their efforts, the speaker concluded, the serum was passed off early and eventually delivered to the tiny village, saving many townspeople's lives.

As he finished, I felt unsurprised by the story's ending: I had heard the tale before. I was shocked, however, that I had been told the successful Nome rescue was to the credit of another canine: Balto.

Balto was the dog who led the final team, which entered the city of Nome after traveling a paltry 55 miles. He was greeted as the hero, but it was unwavering, fearless Togo who had really done the work. It was the equivalent of God creating the world, the animals congratulating Adam on what a nice job he did with paradise and Adam saying, "What? This old thing?"

And the hype has spread dramatically. There is a bronze effigy in Central Park that was erected in Balto's honor. There is an animated movie, "Balto," for which there is a fan site that claims "the name of Balto, and its incredible history, remain still quite present, in the memory of young and old." There were parades held for Balto, wreaths laid around his neck; he has been nicknamed "The Wonder Dog," and is the subject of many books including "The Bravest Dog Ever." A play about him premiered in 2005. Its title? "Balto: The Dog that Saved Nome, Alaska."

Meanwhile, Togo, presumed dead after being separated from his team,  showed up alone in Nome a week after Balto arrived with serum and got all the glory. There are no animated movies, no hit plays, no bronze effigies for Togo, and if that is not injustice, I simply don't know what is.

So I implore you to help me address the wrongs of history. If you hear Balto extolled, politely listen, nod your head sympathetically and then drop truth bombs about who the truly heroic sled dog is. I for one will be doing my part by naming my first dog Togo (middle name: Better-than-Balto) Steinmetz. 

(Information for this column was taken from "The Cruelest Miles," a book about the 1925 run to Nome by Gay and Laney Salisbury. Think Christmas present.)

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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