Due to lack of snow in Anchorage, the 2015 Iditarod was re-started in Fairbanks last Monday. The Iditarod is an annual long-distance sled-dog race starting with sixteen (!) dogs per sled (see photo above). The race is in memory of the serum run to Nome in 1925.
At that time, Nome faced a diphtheria epidemic against which the Alaska Native children were not immune. In Nome, serum existed only in insufficient quantity. Moreover, it was expired! Anchorage was the nearest place with enough serum. Back then (as still today), there was no road to Nome.
The serum run
Back then, air planes had never been flown in the depth of winter. The two available planes were both dismantled. Thus, Governor Scott Bone approved the serum transport by train 298 miles (480 km) from Seward to Nenana and relay by dog teams 674 miles (1085 km) to Nome. Dog teams out of Nome and Nenana were to meet half-way at Nulato.
Upon arrival in Nenana shortly before midnight, more than 100 dogs and twenty mushers were ready. Every dog was to run no more than over 100 miles (160 km) pulling the serum. Only five and a half day later, on Monday February 2, 1925 at 5:30 am, Balto, the lead dog of Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen set paws on Front Street in Nome. Upon arrival, the serum was thawed and ready to use at 11 am.
Alaskans’ heroes of the serum run
Of course all these dogs and mushers were heroes. However, Alaskans especially appreciate Togo and Leonhard Seppala. Due to Seppal’s experience, decision makers considered him to be the most qualified to cover a shortcut across Norton Sound that would save 24 hours.
In Norton Sound, sea-ice moves fast due to strong sea-currents and winds of up to 70 mph (110 km/h). Both can take a team of course. Together wind and currents pile up sea-ice to rough hills as if the trail was not already difficult enough. The harsh cold winds can chill the air to feel like −100F (−73 °C). Picking up debris of ice the strong winds acts like a sand jet. They polish the sea-ice surface to slippery “glare ice” as if intending to hinder the dogs to get paw-hold. Wind and currents grant small cracks in the ice the potential to open up any time.
On his way out of Nome, Seppala had crossed the sound leaving behind his only daughter Sigrid who also was at risk. Meanwhile the deadly disease had accelerated. More mushers had joined the race to accelerate transportation. Thus, the serum was already farther north than Seppala expected when early in the afternoon around dawn, knowing the urge of the run, Seppala did something Alaskans under other circumstances never do, violating the unwritten Alaska law of supporting each other. He had passed Ivanoff – a musher who seemed to have trouble with his team. Ivanoff mushed his team after Seppala yelling, “The serum! The serum! I have it here!”
A deep low-pressure system located over the Gulf of Alaska was moving towards the trail. It showed its ugly face with strong, hauling winds and darkened the night with clouds as if to ensure that Seppala could neither see nor hear any cracks of the ice. Moreover, he would not be able to use the North Star for orientation.
Taking the safe land route around the sound, but delaying the delivery by a day, or crossing the sound? A tough sole decision to make in a hostile environment when mother nature seems to be on the edge to prove that she is the man. Plunging into the freezing water would be the death of the team, the loss of the serum and the death sentence for those infected, but still alive in Nome.
Trusting Togo’s great nose to smell open water, Seppala turned the team across the sound towards Isaac’s Point. At 8 pm, they reached exhausted the roadhouse on the other side of the shore. Winds had picked up gale-force leading to a windchill of an estimated −85F (−65oC). On this brutally cold Saturday, Seppala and his dogs had run 84 miles (135 km), much of it with headwinds. Nevertheless, after only a short rest, the sleep-deprived team headed out onto the sound again at 2 am in meanwhile blizzard-like conditions.
After finishing the last stretch on the sound, the team climbed a steep 8 miles (13 km) long ridge to Little McKinley. They had now already 260 miles (420 km) in their legs. On Sunday at 3 pm, Togo and his team set paws at Golovin only 78 miles (126 km) from Nome and home. Seppala handed the serum that they had carried 91 miles – the single farthest stretch of any team – to the next musher. The ice went out to sea only a couple of hours after they had left it.
Note that Balto got a stature in Central Park in New York City in 1925, while Togo has one in Anchorage, Alaska.
Next Monday Focus Alaska will cover another Alaska weather caused rescue story. Thus, stay tuned.
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Photos: G. Kramm, N. Mölders
© 2013-2018 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved