Museum to send Balto back, temporarily

Posted: Thursday, August 06, 1998

ANCHORAGE - After months of second thoughts and a last-minute attack of nerves, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History has agreed to send Balto, the famous if somewhat overrated Iditarod hero, to Alaska for a six-month visit.

He'll be accompanied by a paid courier and a protective Plexiglas shield.

Talk about bringing Balto's remains to Alaska for a visit started about 18 months ago. But grumbling by Alaskans who question Cleveland's claim to the dog worried everyone involved, especially when a group of schoolchildren in Butte started writing letters and lobbying the Alaska Legislature to get Balto back and the Legislature passed a resolution stating that Balto's remains should be housed in Alaska.

Balto was lead dog on the team that ran the last leg of the famous 1925 relay that mushed diphtheria serum from Nenana to Nome. Alaska's annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race commemorates the event. But Balto's owner sold him Outside almost immediately after the run, and in 1927, the people of Cleveland rescued him from a California carnival.

The Cleveland museum was willing to lend Balto to Alaska for a couple of months, museum officials said, but they are very sentimental about their stuffed dog and want to be sure Alaska plans to return him.

``I know it's always been an issue,'' said Carole Camillo of the Cleveland museum. ``It always has been a concern.''

Negotiations with Cleveland fell through twice, said Judy Baletka, loan coordinator for the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. At one point there was talk of requiring a bond.

Alaskans who know the real story of the original Iditarod may wonder what all the fuss is about. Balto was not the real hero of the famous 674-mile diphtheria serum run to Nome, and the real hero, Togo, already ``lives'' at the Wasilla museum.

Twenty dog teams helped get the diphtheria serum to Nome. Togo, heading a sled driven by famed musher Leonhard Seppala, raced about 200 miles east from Nome, across the shifting, fog-shrouded ice of Norton Sound to a rendezvous point near Shaktoolik, where they picked up the serum from a westbound relay team. He and Seppala then turned around and ran 91 miles back across the ice toward Nome to pass the urgently needed medicine to a fresh team. In all, Togo ran more miles than any other dog in the race and five times the 53 miles run by Balto.

But Balto was pulling the sled that arrived in Nome. Americans across the country had followed the dramatic mercy mission via nightly radio newscasts, and the dog whose picture showed up in newspapers was Balto.

Balto is expected to be in Anchorage and ready to receive visitors on Oct. 20 at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

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