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.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Traffic idles while waiting for the lights to change along 33rd Avenue West on Tuesday, April 2, 2024 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Lynnwood seeks solutions to Costco traffic boondoggle

Let’s take a look at the troublesome intersection of 33rd Avenue W and 30th Place W, as Lynnwood weighs options for better traffic flow.

A memorial with small gifts surrounded a utility pole with a photograph of Ariel Garcia at the corner of Alpine Drive and Vesper Drive ion Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Death of Everett boy, 4, spurs questions over lack of Amber Alert

Local police and court authorities were reluctant to address some key questions, when asked by a Daily Herald reporter this week.

The new Amazon fulfillment center under construction along 172nd Street NE in Arlington, just south of Arlington Municipal Airport. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald) 20210708
Frito-Lay leases massive building at Marysville business park

The company will move next door to Tesla and occupy a 300,0000-square-foot building at the Marysville business park.

A voter turns in a ballot on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, outside the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
On fourth try, Arlington Heights voters overwhelmingly pass fire levy

Meanwhile, in another ballot that gave North County voters deja vu, Lakewood voters appeared to pass two levies for school funding.

Judge Whitney Rivera, who begins her appointment to Snohomish County Superior Court in May, stands in the Edmonds Municipal Court on Thursday, April 18, 2024, in Edmonds, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Judge thought her clerk ‘needed more challenge’; now, she’s her successor

Whitney Rivera will be the first judge of Pacific Islander descent to serve on the Snohomish County Superior Court bench.

In this Jan. 4, 2019 photo, workers and other officials gather outside the Sky Valley Education Center school in Monroe, Wash., before going inside to collect samples for testing. The samples were tested for PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, as well as dioxins and furans. A lawsuit filed on behalf of several families and teachers claims that officials failed to adequately respond to PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, in the school. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Judge halves $784M for women exposed to Monsanto chemicals at Monroe school

Monsanto lawyers argued “arbitrary and excessive” damages in the Sky Valley Education Center case “cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny.”

Mukilteo Police Chief Andy Illyn and the graphic he created. He is currently attending the 10-week FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. (Photo provided by Andy Illyn)
Help wanted: Unicorns for ‘pure magic’ career with Mukilteo police

“There’s a whole population who would be amazing police officers” but never considered it, the police chief said.

Officers respond to a ferry traffic disturbance Tuesday after a woman in a motorhome threatened to drive off the dock, authorities said. (Photo provided by Mukilteo Police Department)
Everett woman disrupts ferry, threatens to drive motorhome into water

Police arrested the woman at the Mukilteo ferry terminal Tuesday morning after using pepper-ball rounds to get her out.

Bothell
Man gets 75 years for terrorizing exes in Bothell, Mukilteo

In 2021, Joseph Sims broke into his ex-girlfriend’s home in Bothell and assaulted her. He went on a crime spree from there.

Allan and Frances Peterson, a woodworker and artist respectively, stand in the door of the old horse stable they turned into Milkwood on Sunday, March 31, 2024, in Index, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Old horse stall in Index is mini art gallery in the boonies

Frances and Allan Peterson showcase their art. And where else you can buy a souvenir Index pillow or dish towel?

Providence Hospital in Everett at sunset Monday night on December 11, 2017. Officials Providence St. Joseph Health Ascension Health reportedly are discussing a merger that would create a chain of hospitals, including Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, plus clinics and medical care centers in 26 states spanning both coasts. (Kevin Clark / The Daily Herald)
Providence to pay $200M for illegal timekeeping and break practices

One of the lead plaintiffs in the “enormous” class-action lawsuit was Naomi Bennett, of Providence Regional Medical Center Everett.

Dorothy Crossman rides up on her bike to turn in her ballot  on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Voters to decide on levies for Arlington fire, Lakewood schools

On Tuesday, a fire district tries for the fourth time to pass a levy and a school district makes a change two months after failing.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.