Balto’s musher lived quiet life in Everett

In 2001, a New York author called me in search of information about Balto, the famous sled dog. It wasn’t exactly Balto that Laney Salisbury was asking about, but the dog’s musher.

Gunnar Kaasen was the last sled driver on a run to bring diphtheria-fighting serum to Nome, Alaska, in 1925. The lifesaving feat inspired the annual Iditarod, a 1,100-mile dogsled race between Anchorage, Alaska, and Nome.

Salisbury was doing research for a book she was writing with her cousin, Gay Salisbury. As girls, they had played on the statue of Balto in New York’s Central Park. Kaasen had once lived in Everett, but Salisbury had little information about his time here.

David Dilgard, an Everett Public Library historian, was intrigued. “He was Balto’s human. And we could use some heroes,” Dilgard said in 2001, when his search of R.L. Polk city directories showed that Kaasen lived in Everett from 1952 to 1960. A 1962 Everett directory lists Anna S. Kaasen as his widow.

After I wrote about Kaasen in 2001, several of his relatives contacted me. Janice Weiland of Arlington said Gunnar Kaasen was her great-uncle, married to her grandmother’s sister.

Weiland’s brother, Jack Strege of Everett, said in 2001 that Kaasen had come to Nome from Norway in the early 1900s. The year after the serum run, Strege said Kaasen brought the dogs to Snohomish, where Strege’s mother went to school.

After Kaasen moved to Everett, years after selling Balto, “he shirked any publicity; he was real quiet,” Strege said in 2001. Kaasen isn’t mentioned at all in “Balto,” the 1995 animated movie from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment — in which actor Kevin Bacon is the voice of the dog.

Anyway, without ever meeting the author, I helped her find a few people and then forgot all about Balto. It was a busy and then terrible year. My daughter finished high school in 2001, and not long after came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A book about dog mushers in 1925 wasn’t top of mind.

Forgive me for taking so long to find out whether that book was ever written. It was written and favorably reviewed, with Publishers Weekly calling it “an elegantly written book.”

“The Cruelest Miles,” by Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury, was published in 2003 and is now in paperback from W.W. Norton. Read the acknowledgments, and you’ll find yours truly, of this newspaper.

Toward the end of the book, the authors tell how Gunnar Kaasen was swept up in a 1925-style media frenzy, including appearing with Balto in a 30-minute Hollywood film, “Balto’s Race to Nome.” The producer, Sol Lesser of “Rin Tin Tin” and “Tarzan” movie fame, hired Kaasen and his dog team to promote the film by touring the West Coast, according to the book.

That was despite the fact that musher Leonhard Seppala and his team led by Togo covered the longest stretch of the run.

Maybe it was the “Real Huskies Go North” T-shirt slogan used by supporters of a University of Washington campus in Marysville that got me thinking this week about Kaasen and his noble Siberian husky. The real Balto was sold to a touring show, and in 1927 to the Cleveland Zoo, where the dog lived out its life. The stuffed Balto — he died in 1933 at age 11 — is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Thursday, I spent some time in the rain searching for Kaasen’s final resting place. He is buried at Everett’s Cypress Lawn Memorial Park next to his wife, Anna.

In an appendix at the end of the book, Janice Weiland is quoted as saying her great-uncle once told her: “If it wasn’t for Balto, I wouldn’t be alive today.” In Everett, the book says, Kaasen “led a quiet life, highlighted by long walks and trips with the children to buy vanilla ice cream at the store.” He was 78 and living in Everett when he died of cancer in 1960.

Dilgard is right, we can always use heroes. “The Cruelest Miles” is one heroic tale.

As for “Real Huskies,” this one thinks a university should go where it makes the most sense.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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