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Bow Valley sled dogs, mountain guides real stars of Disney's Togo

Just as it took dozens of dogs to accomplish the real journey in 1925, it took 66 of the Bow Valley’s Snowy Owl Sled Dog tour company’s dog pack to complete this film.

KANANASKIS – The real stars of the new Disney film Togo, are, of course, the dogs.

And, it turns out, many of them happen to be Bow Valley dogs.

The newly released film, which began airing on the on-demand streaming subscription service Disney+ late last month, tells the story of a desperate delivery of diphtheria antitoxin serum by a series of dog sled teams over some 1125 kilometres of Alaskan wilderness in 1925. When the outbreak was detected in Nome, on Alaska’s Bering Sea Coast, the nearest serum was in Fairbanks, in the eastern interior of the state.

Sometimes called the “Great Race of Mercy,” 100 dogs led more than 20 mushers in a spectacular relay effort travelling through brutal winter conditions along the Yukon River and over a frozen bay in temperatures as low as -45 C. They succeeded and an epidemic was averted.

While the story has been told in film before, this version focuses on Togo (pronounced Tow-go), a remarkable dog who ran half the total distance and performed other heroic feats along the way.

The film’s human star is Willem Dafoe, who plays Togo’s owner, Leonhard Seppala. Filming took place in the foothills and Rockies area from September 2018 through February 2019, with the production’s main office located in Cochrane.

Just as it took dozens of dogs to accomplish the real journey in 1925, it took 66 of the Bow Valley’s Snowy Owl Sled Dog tour company’s dog pack to complete this film. On the human side of the equation, five mushers doubled for different actors, not including Dafoe.

The adventure began for Snowy Owl co-owner Jereme Arsenault in spring 2018 when he was contacted by film producer Doug Jones who inquired about using the company’s dogs for the film.

“They’d never seen a dog sled; they had no idea how it would work,” Arsenault said.

Jones, another producer and director Ericson Core flew up to Calgary and spent a full day with Arsenault and some of his dogs at Fortress Mountain ski area. During that test day, they filmed the dogs from every which angle in order to gain an idea of what would be possible, and what would not.

In the end, Snowy Owl dog Hugo was one of five dogs that doubled for Diesel, the Hollywood trained Siberian husky that played the starring canine role of Togo, and who is a distant descendant of the original Togo. There were some tasks that Diesel was good at, Arsenault said, and others he wasn’t.

A trained sled dog, Hugo performed some of the jobs that were “too complicated for a Hollywood dog.”

Like the other doubles, Hugo was selected for certain looks and characteristics, but still he required having some Hollywood work done.

“They gave us creative freedom, and we chose dogs that are traditional breeds accurate to those they would have had in Alaska for that era,” Arsenault said. “Hugo looked similar to Diesel, but he did have a professional animal colourist perfect his look.”

Lots of Snowy Owl puppies were also used in the film, each for its unique assets. The filming process involved taking every single dog into a dark room to be filmed in 360 degrees in all sorts of poses to create computer generated images that would be used to digitally create scenes.

Locations included Fortress Mountain, Abraham Lake and the Cline River in the David Thompson area, and a private ranch outside Cochrane where indoor and home scenes were filmed. While the days were long and often demanding, the dogs were always given the star treatment.

“We were on set 93 days,” Arsenault said. “It was huge. We were exhausted. We spent long hours just waiting around for the perfect light. So much work went into each scene, compared to running a sled dog operation, which is focused on being efficient and practical. Then when you see it [finished film], it’s totally worth it.”

Arsenault recalled one day at Abraham Lake when the wind blew so fiercely it was pushing vehicles around.

“The entire set was being pushed down the ice,” he said. “Some days I’d get the dogs out there and they’d look at me like ‘you’re kidding, right? We don’t do that stuff.’ When you work with animals, you work for them. Everything is on their time.

"The dogs were always put first, in harsh weather they would be put somewhere comfortable while the rest of us were left out there. That’s typically what it’s like for us, but the top of a mountain at Fortress for lunch is not typically something I would do.”

While for Arsenault sitting high on a windy mountain is not a typical lunch spot, for the professional mountain guides working as safety specialists, that location was absolutely a typical jobsite.

During the filming days, ACMG-certified professional guides with Canmore-based Yamnuska Mountain Adventures (YMA) worked as mountain safety crew. At Fortress they were the first people on the site every morning, and the last to leave at the end of each day.

The guides were on site whenever the terrain dictated, such as a cliff or drop off, any terrain that was deemed hazardous to crew and cast. On average six guides were on the Fortress site daily, with each morning beginning with the Fortress avalanche forecaster assessing the stability for that day and giving the green light for filming – or not.

“We were the first on the site and the last off at the end of the day,” said Dave Stark, director of operations for YMA. “Everyone on the set wore avalanche transceivers [safety gear capable of both emitting and receiving a signal from another transceiver]. Everyone was transported up there by Ski-Doo, and we had a gatekeeper checking transceivers.”

For one scene, an intricate set of walkways was built on a steep slope for the crew and actors to access the site safely, including ropes set up as handlines. The set involved a platform the actor would stand on, and another to support the camera.

“It was a fairly interesting thing to maintain,” Stark said.

The YMA guides worked with the stunt riggers, professionals from Vancouver, to do just that.

In the scene, the dog team and the sled are on the slope, and the sled slides down the steep incline with the dogs heading toward the edge of a cliff. The star falls off the sled and has to self-arrest using an ice axe – a skill taught to him by a YMA guide.

“The slope was 30 degrees, if anyone slipped, they’d go sliding for a ways,” Stark said. “Nobody fell, though.”

Another day, the winds were so strong a gust was measured at nearly 300 kilometres per hour.

“All the circus tents got blown away.” Stark said. “We declared the set a no-go zone.”

To measure the wind, the YMA guides were able to access the University of Saskatchewan’s instrument sites on the mountain, which record various wind and precipitation readings as part of the Canadian Rockies Hydrological Observatory. In exchange, YMA guides will teach crevasse rescue and safe glacier travel skills to new researchers.

Stark said YMA began working with the Disney crew in summer 2018 to outline safety plans and scout locations. Yamnuska Mountain Adventures’ guides have worked as safety professionals and riggers on a long list of major film productions over the years, including The Revenant, The Claim, Snow Dogs, Bourne Legacy and Klondike, and an equally long list of commercials and television shows, including Hell on Wheels, Amazing Race Canada and Heartland. In 2019 alone YMA guides worked as mountain safety professionals on 14 productions ranging from movies to commercials.

One of YMA’s guides, Barry Blanchard, is a veteran of mountain safety work on Hollywood films with his resumé includes films like Cliffhangers, Vertical Limit, and also, shot in the Bow Valley and Rockies, Last of the Dogmen and The Edge.

For his part, Togo director Ericson Core is a former Outward Bound instructor.

“He took to the guiding aspect right away,” Stark said. “He loved working with us, and he’s a big fan of Barry’s.”

In late December Stark, Blanchard and Arsenault attended the film’s world premier in Cochrane. Stars Willem Dafoe and Julianne Nicholson were not there, having attended a private screening in New York City the night before, but four theatres filled with local area crew members. Core addressed each audience individually as the films had staggered start times.

“He said we weren’t a crew, but a community, a team,” Stark said. “That felt really nice. It was a long cold shoot, but it was fun.”

Having never been invited to a Hollywood premier before, Arsenault said being there was exciting, but also a big surprise as it was a much larger extravaganza than he expected.

“It was busy. It was my first opportunity at a red-carpet event,” Arsenault said. “There were Disney people with a film crew, cameras in my face. I wasn’t ready for that. It was pure chance I had a collared shirt on.”