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‘Togo’, the Untold True Story of One Man and His Heroic Sled Dog

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From Disney+, “Togo” is the untold true story set in the winter of 1925 that takes you across the treacherous terrain of the Alaskan tundra for an exhilarating and uplifting adventure that will test the strength, courage and determination of one man, Leonhard Seppala, and his lead sled dog, Togo.

When a deadly epidemic strikes the town of Nome, Alaska, and the only cure is more than 600 miles away, the town looks to champion dogsled trainer Leonhard Seppala to help transport an antitoxin serum.

“Togo” is set in 1925 in Nome, Alaska, a small community closer to Siberia than to any other city in Alaska. The sea was frozen for seven months during the winter—the population halved and dog sleds were the only means of transport at the time. So, when a highly contagious infection known as diphtheria struck the town, the outlook was dire. Children were dying and the entire population of the region was at risk. Their only hope was obtaining life-saving serum from Anchorage—which was more than 520 miles away as the crow flies.

But aviation was in its infancy and the open cockpit planes, with their water-cooled engines, couldn’t fly in 3 the freezing conditions. The serum could be transported to Nenana by train—a few miles from Anchorage where the railroad ended. From there, it would have to be transported by dog-sledding teams all the way to Nome—some 674 miles—and it all had to happen within six days for the serum to be effective upon arrival.

The town put its trust in Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe), a prize-winning musher whose Siberian huskies were known for their speed and intelligence. “Sep was the only musher capable of taking on the impossible task in the storm of the century,” says director Ericson Core. “Together, he and Togo were a force of nature.”

Togo and Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe)
Photo: Film Frame ©2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Seppala was challenged to retrieve the serum and return to Nome within six days of the retrieval. On January 27, 1925, with the massive storm brewing, he set out on a grueling journey with a team of Siberian huskies led by Togo. The trail Seppala chose to Nulato was challenging. It crossed a 5000-foot mountain peak and the treacherous ice of Norton Sound, notorious for cracking under pressure from the Bering Sea. Unknown to Seppala, a relay was created after he left, which would carry the serum from Nenana, using a network of mushers who delivered the mail. An additional 19 mushers and 160 dogs took part, traveling an average of 30 miles, day and night, in terrible conditions. The relay created uncertainty, as one of them needed to cross trails with Seppala, who wasn’t expecting them. But, thanks to what some called a miracle, Seppala was able to meet up with the team hoping to find him—more than 160 miles into his journey.

His return trip was perilous, death defying and trying—particularly on Togo. After traveling more than 260 miles, Seppala and Togo handed off the serum to another team. Gunnar Kassen, with a team of dogs trained and owned by Seppala and led by a dog named Balto, carried the serum the final 53 miles to Nome while Seppala and Togo recovered and awaited a break in the storm to trek home. The serum successfully and amazingly arrived five and a half days after leaving Nenana.

©2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

In the film, the dramatic action of the serum run is intercut with lighter moments, showcasing Togo’s life as a rambunctious puppy. Young Togo was sickly and small, the runt of the litter, but Seppala’s wife Constance nursed him in the house, believing the pup had the heart of a survivor. Togo grew into a mischievous and disruptive puppy that Seppala tried to give away—twice. The musher was a stoic man, but was ultimately transformed by Togo’s loyalty and devotion.

Togo was an agouti colored Siberian Husky and in their search for a dog to play him, the production had an extraordinary piece of luck. Not only did they find a dog with sledding training, which meant he’d be able to do the sledding close-ups, he’s also a direct descendent of Togo, with paperwork to prove it. His name is Diesel and he was 5 years old during production. He was joined by two other Siberian Huskies as understudies.

The film will be streaming on Disney+ December 20th.

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