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FORT KENT, Maine — A St. John Valley musher/author and aspiring artist teamed up to set the record straight about an overlooked sled dog with Maine ties that helped save hundreds of lives in the early 20th century.
“The True Tails of Togo the Sled Dog!,” written by Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes and illustrated by Kayla Higgins, both of Madawaska, is a children’s book that tells the story of Togo, the lead dog of Leonhard Seppala, a sled dog musher originally from Norway who helped deliver antitoxin medication to thwart a diphtheria epidemic in the area of Nome, Alaska, in 1925.
A more well-known dog named Balto took most of the credit for that achievement, and Hayes is looking to ensure that Togo gets his due.
Hayes is a United States Postal Service carrier in Madawaska and breeds Seppala Siberian sled dogs, which are descendents of Togo and the other dogs of that famous dogteam.
Originally from Tennessee, Hayes moved to northern Maine more than 20 years ago, and prior to the move received advice from an older gentleman who was a former Maine resident about how he might best endure the area’s notoriously harsh weather.
“He said, ‘If you’re gonna move to Maine, you gotta find something you like doing outdoors in the wintertime or your gonna go crazy with cabin fever’,” Hayes said.
Hayes said he had no prior mushing experience and in fact had never even met a musher, but knew he liked working with dogs so began studying the sport at the library.
He ultimately rescued several Siberian huskies from the dog pound and began mushing himself.
“After becoming famous with his dogs, Seppala and Togo came here to Maine and settled down in Poland Spring, and the dogs out of Poland Spring were the first AKC-registered Siberian huskies. So really the Siberian husky breed in general, and the Seppala Siberian sleddog in particular, have their origins as much here in Maine as anywhere,” Hayes said.
Hayes is vice president of the International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club.
His experience with the Seppala dogs resulted in the New York Times interviewing him for a story in 2012 about the breed.
Hayes said he has planned for some time to write a children’s book about Togo, but when he found out about a year ago that Disney was producing a movie about the dog, he decided it was time to complete the project.
Higgins, 30, an artist and aspiring writer herself, said she became connected with the project because her family and Hayes attend the same church.
“I’ve loved drawing ever since I was a kid, but I’ve dedicated more time to drawing for my personal growth over the past couple of years, and this was my first picture book,” she said.
Higgins sketched out illustrations for the book in pencil, traced them with pen and then painted them in with watercolor.
“I have dogs [and they] inspired me, but they’re not huskies so I would find reference images online to help me get the right forms or close to at least,” Higgins said.
“The True Tails of Togo the Sled Dog!” can be purchased online.
The author, who self-published the book, has yet to run his book by a publishing house, but intends to in the coming months. “It will have to wait until after the holidays as the postal business is quite busy this time of year,” he said.
Hayes is also the author of “Mush: Leadership Lessons Learned from a Lead Dog,” “ A Mix of Mud and Stardust: Poetry Prose and Prophecies of a Celtic Christian,” and “The Chivalric Code: The Poetry of Knightly Virtues for the Modern Warrior,” all of which are also self-published and available on Amazon.