The Ottumwa Courier

AP National

December 6, 2013

Going beyond Balto, film shows life-saving dog run

(Continued)

Weinstein's agency provided $695,000 to fund the $1 million project.

Diphtheria is an airborne disease that attacks the upper respiratory system and has been largely eradicated.

But in Nome, Alaska, in 1925, it was a deadly threat. The official medical record counted five deaths and 29 stricken residents. However, many believe that deaths among Alaska Natives were never accurately tracked during a time when they were segregated from Nome's white residents.

Balto, namesake star of a 1995 animated film about the outbreak, became famous out of scores of other dogs because he was a lead canine on the last leg of the first relay.

The dog was an unlikely hero. Balto was a freight dog owned by a champion musher of the time, Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian who lived in Nome. But he never made Seppala's competitive teams of Siberian huskies because he was too slow.

Gunnar Kaasen, another Norwegian and Seppala's assistant, drove the final leg of the first supply run. Kaasen was supposed to hand off the last dash to sprint champion Ed Rohn for the final stretch to Nome. But Kaasen led the team all the way in. He said later that no lights were on at a cabin where Rohn was waiting, and he didn't want to waste time.

Historians say Balto and Kaasen received a lion's share of the fame that should have gone to Seppala and his 12-year-old lead dog Togo. Also, lost in the hoopla were other dogs and mushers — many Alaska Natives among them — who took part in the relay. They included Athabascan and Inupiat Eskimos.

Seppala's team traveled more than 200 miles of the relay, including a treacherous 20-mile trek across the frozen Norton Sound. Kaasen's team traveled a little more than 50 miles, some of that, however, in a severe blizzard.

"While it was going on, much of the coverage seemed to be focused on Seppala because he was the champion musher," said Anker, who was nominated for an Academy award in 2001 for another documentary, "Scottsboro: An American Tragedy."

"When Gunnar Kaasen made his surprise appearance in Nome," Anker said, "well, it was a perfect opportunity to generate more and different stories."

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