This weekend was the kickoff of the Last Great Race.
Those of you who know me personally know of my passion for this uniquely Alaskan event, and my absolute respect for these mushers and their amazing dogs.
I’ve written about the Iditarod since Stonekettle Station was first on the internet. Three years ago in response to questions I was getting about the race and why I love it so much, I wrote the following article. Since then, each March on race weekend I’ve reposted it along with pictures and updated commentary from that year. This will likely continue.
AN EPIDEMIC OF DIPHTHERIA IS ALMOST INEVITABLE HERE STOP I AM IN URGENT NEED OF ONE MILLION UNITS OF DIPTHERIA ANTITOXIN STOP MAIL IS ONLY FORM OF TRANSPORTATION STOP …
Those lines were part of a message sent by Curtis Welch, MD, on January 22nd, 1925 via radio telegram from Nome to all towns in the Alaskan Territory.
That desperate message was intended for the Territorial Governor in Juneau, and the public health service in Washington D.C. and it sounded an emergency of almost unimaginable horror. Dr. Welch was facing a disaster the likes of which are rarely seen outside of fiction.
At the turn of the century, during the boom town glory days of the Klondike gold rush, more than 20,000 people lived in Nome – in January of 1925, long after the gold and gold miners had run out, Nome boasted a population of around 1400, about 975 white settlers and 450 Alaskan Natives. The last ship of the season, the steamship Alameda, had left Nome harbor two months before, tracking south ahead of the encroaching winter ice. The sun had followed the steamship, disappearing below the southern horizon and leaving Nome locked in the grip of –50F temperatures and the endless Arctic night.
During the Alaskan winter, Nome’s only contact with the outside world was unreliable HF radio – and the more reliable dog sled mushers and their teams who carried the mail and what light cargo they could via the old Iditarod trail.
Shortly after the departure of the Alameda, a native child fell sick and died. At first Dr. Welch was unsure of the cause, but as more and more children sickened over the next few weeks he began to suspect diphtheria – an upper respiratory tract infection caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae. In the early stages, diphtheria mimics the symptoms of tonsillitis, the flu, or the common cold – which is why Welch, with the primitive diagnostic tools available to him at the time, was slow to recognize the impending disaster. Left untreated, diphtheria destroys the nervous system, leading to a loss of motor control and sensation, and very quickly, death. Diphtheria is highly contagious, with fatality rates up to 10% in the general population and as high as 20% in young children and adults over 40. Among the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, the fatality rate is much higher. More than likely, crewmen from one of the visiting ships had unknowingly brought the disease north at the end of the shipping season, leaving behind a deadly time bomb. As Welch noted in his radio message, by January an epidemic was almost inevitable. Nome’s only doctor was staring straight into the specter of at least 300 immediate deaths – all of which would be his family and friends.
But the pending disaster was far, far worse and far more horrifying. Nome was the hub of the surrounding area, the native population around the town numbered well over 10,000. Those natives had no resistance to the disease at all.
Their expected mortality rate was nearly 100%.
Nowadays, diphtheria would be treated with antibiotics, Erythromycin or even the big gun, Procaine Penicillin G. But antibiotics didn’t exist in 1925, and the best treatment was diphtheria antitoxin. The antitoxin didn’t cure the disease but rather neutralized the toxins released by the diphtheria bacillus into the victim’s bloodstream – giving the body’s own immune system a chance to combat the infection without having to deal with being poisoned at the same time. Unfortunately, even today the antitoxin doesn’t neutralize toxins already bonded to tissues and does nothing itself to kill the bacteria. For the antitoxin to work, it has to be administered as early as possible, usually immediately as soon as a doctor makes the clinical diagnosis of diphtheria infection and without waiting for laboratory confirmation.
One other thing to note: the antitoxin is perishable. Dr. Welch had antitoxin on hand, all of which had expired.
And so he radioed for help.
No ship could reach them, and in fact couldn’t get within 500 miles of Nome by then. No plane, not even the most advanced aircraft in the Alaskan Territory at the time, the Postal Service’s DeHavilland DH-4, could fly under the winter conditions – their open cockpits and liquid cooled engines made that utterly impossible.
The only solution was dogsled.
The antitoxin would have to be transported via a relay of sled dogs, from Tanana to Nome, a distance of 674 miles through astoundingly rugged territory in temperatures that were at record lows, -50 to –60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wild Bill Shannon led off, mushing out of the train station in Tenana with the twenty pound package, about 30 doses, of serum in his sled at 9PM on January 27. Shannon’s team was composed of nine dogs, all inexperienced, led by Blackie. Shannon was forced onto the frozen Tanana River, with temperatures approaching –62F he ran behind the sled to stay warm. He mushed into Minto with his face frozen black from the cold, hypothermic and severely frost bitten. He left three dying dogs in Minto, and headed out for Tolovana. Another dog died on the trail.
Edgar Kallands picked up the relay in Tolovana. When he arrived at Manley Hot Springs, they had to poor hot water over his hands to pry them off the sled’s handlebars.
Meanwhile the world waited. Nome’s plight had caught the attention of the entire globe . Famed Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, even offered to make an attempt in an airplane. The Navy proposed sending one of its ships as far north as possible, then assembling a plane on the ice pack and launching it towards Nome. Many other ideas were suggested. All were rejected as too risky and foolhardy. Nome would live or die with the mushers and their dogs.
The serum went north, from Manely Hot Springs via native mushers arriving at Bishop Mountain on January 30, at 3:00 in the morning. The temperature was –62F, and dropping. Charlie Evans mushed out of Bishop Mountain and lost both of his lead dogs on the trail, legend has it that he himself held the traces and led the remaining dogs into Nulato.
Tommy Patsey took the next leg out of Nulato and across the Kaltag Portage. The serum was handed off to Victor Anagick and then to Myles Gonangnan at Unalakleet at the edge of the vast Norton Sound.
A storm was rising. The type of storm you’ll only find in the deepest of arctic winter on the ‘Sound. The kind of storm that comes from winds driven across two thousand miles of frozen ocean. Gonangnan took one look at it and decided not to cross the ice – he knew the storm winds could easily push the pack ice and open leads to the frigid black water below, cutting the team off from land and dooming 10,000 people to almost certain death. He choose instead to circle the Sound in whiteout conditions and with wind chills approaching 70 below zero in gale force winds. He arrived in the native village of Shaktoolik at 3PM on January 31st damn near froze to death. Henry Ivanoff, took the serum and headed out into the storm.
At the same time the serum was heading north, Leonhard Seppala rode south out of Nome to meet the relay in Shaktoolik. Sappala crossed Norton Sound on the ice and turned east toward Shaktoolik in blinding conditions. Just outside Shaktoolik, he meet Ivanoff who had gotten tangled up with a reindeer and was struggling to free his harness and dogs.
Seppala took the serum and turned back into the teeth of the storm, again crossing the ice of Norton Sound. His lead dog, Togo, managing to find the way with almost supernatural instinct. Togo led the team unerringly from Ungalik to the road house at Isaac Point on the far side of Norton Sound, and in one day they covered a distance of 84 miles through one of the worst arctic storms on record. They rested at the road house, and then departed into the full power of the worsening storm, and as they ran across the ice the 65 mile per hour winds begin to open leads behind them and the ice began to break up. Seppala managed to make the shore, just ahead of the buckling ice and crossed Little McKinley Mountain – climbing nearly 5000 feet in the process. Seppala reached the road house at Golvin at 3PM on February 1st and passed the serum on to Charlie Olsen.
Olsen lost the trail in the storm and suffered severe frostbite to his hands while trying to save his dogs, but he made it to Bluff on on the evening of February 1st. Gunnar Kassen was waiting for him.
Kassen attempted to wait out the storm, but instead of lessening it kept getting worse. Kassen, afraid that drifts would block the trail, departed Bluff at 10PM into a 60 mile per hour headwind and whiteout conditions so bad that he could not even see the wheel dogs harnessed closest to the sled. He missed the lodge at Solomon and was two miles beyond it before he realized his mistake – so he kept going. Beyond Solomon the trail became an endless nightmare. The winds flipped Kassen’s sled and the precious cylinder of antitoxin fell out and was lost in the snow. Kassen froze his hands feeling around in the drifts for it. He found it, righted the sled, and continued on to Point Safety, making it ahead of schedule on February 2nd. Kassen’s lead dog, Balto, had performed an almost unbelievable feat of navigation through the storm.
Ed Rohn, believing that Kassen would have to wait out the storm at Solomon was not prepared when Kassen arrived. Because it would take time to ready Rohn’s team, and time was of the utmost importance, Kassen elected to continue on rather than wait. Kassen and Balto covered the remaining 25 miles and arrived two hours later on Front Street, Nome at 5:30AM on the morning of February 2nd.
Not a single glass ampoule of the antitoxin was lost, and the serum was thawed and ready for use by noon. Altogether the teams covered 674 miles in 127.5 hours under extreme arctic winter conditions in a hurricane force gale.
That was the first relay.
There were more, carried by many of the same men who ran in the first relay.
And later there were plane flights.
Nome was saved and so was the Alaskan Native population.
Rarely in fact or fiction has there ever been anything to match the skill, courage, and dedication of those men and dogs.
Today, we remember the events of that long ago time with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race.
It began humbly enough.
The Last Great Race had its origins in the mid 1960’s, the idea of Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr (later called “The Father of the Iditarod”), as mostly unnoticed competitions between enthusiasts of a slowly dying and mostly forgotten way of life. Snow machines and technology had long ago replaced dogs on the snowy trails of the north, and mushing was a skill likely soon to be lost in the frozen blizzards of history – along with diphtheria epidemics and open cockpit mail planes.
Later Redington, along with local school teachers Gleo Huyck and Tom Johnson, came up with the idea of extending those short races all the way to Nome – many, including Dorothy Page thought they were crazy. But in 1973, the very first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race followed the old traces 1100 miles from Anchorage to Nome and forty years later The Iditarod is an ingrained part of our state’s history – and more than any other event, responsible for reviving and preserving dog mushing in North America.
The race begins on the first Saturday in March after a two week winter festival known as The Fur Rendezvous (called simply Rondy by Alaskans) with a ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage.
The whole city turns out for the celebration and people come from all over the world to watch the mushers and their dogs run through the streets.
It can be little crowded on 4th Street, but the crowd is always good natured and well behaved. The streets smell like wood smoke and grilling food. The air is filled with laughter and the excited yipping of the dogs. Even if you hate crowds, as I do, it’s damned hard not to like this one.
As we worked our way through the press, I held the camera over my head and snapped a dozen shots. Eleven of them were nothing special, then I got this one. The camera was set in facial recognition mode and the autofocus locked on to the man in the bottom left-of-center who was staring intently into the lens – and suddenly the impersonal crowd had a face. And I love the color and the huge snow flakes caught mid fall.
There’s every kind of food you can imagine, but it’s Alaska so you better have yourself a Reindeer brat smothered in onions.
The ceremonial start begins on 4th Street at the Iditarod Mile Zero Marker (a bronze statue of a running sled dog) and goes about eleven miles across town to the Campbell Airstrip. This is a good warm-up for the dogs and helps temper their enthusiasm, who at this point just hours before the real race begins are bounding bundles of excitement and energy. Typically during the ceremonial start, the teams tow an additional sled in tandem behind the main sled and bring along “Iditariders,” i.e. folks who have either bought or won a chance to ride along through the cheering crowds with their favorite mushers. The Iditarider concept helps raise money to support the teams and makes the race personal for a lot of fans.
My wife was an Iditarider on Alan Moore’s sled in 2007.
Which is how we met and became friends with Alan and his wife, musher Aily Zirkle. Aily is Bib #14 this year. Alan is sitting out the race, having given up his slot to a rookie racer who has been training at their kennel. Considering what’s on the line here, It doesn’t get much classier than that. Seriously.
The Fabulous Aily Zirkle herself:
The dogs take the excitement in stride. They’re beloved athletes, born and bred for this and despite the protestations of certain animal rights organizations, these dogs are often better cared for than the most delicate and pampered toy poodle living in a penthouse on Fifth Avenue. There are few things that will earn you the contempt and scorn of mushers and Alaskans alike, than not placing the welfare of your dogs above all else. Aily herself literally risked her own life to save her dogs when she was attacked by a moose on the trail, and that’s pretty damned typical of the regard mushers hold for their dogs.
Despite all the noise and excitement, few of the dogs act as if there is anybody else on the streets of Anchorage except for themselves. They sit calmly and uninterested while fans snap pictures and the crowd shouts its lungs out. They don’t start getting excited until they get hooked to the traces, then it’s an entirely different story.
Sunday, the day after the ceremonial start, the race begins in earnest on a frozen lake 70 miles north of Anchorage in the tiny town of Willow. Some years, we’ve been on that lake at thirty below in blowing snow, but not this year. Today, like last year, was a gorgeous Alaskan day, clear and mild and not a cloud in the sky. The temperature was about 30 degrees warmer than it usually is this time of year.
This didn’t keep anybody from firing up the fire pits and propane warmers. 30 degrees warmer than usual is still only about 8F or so.
The race starts with the first team out of the gate at 2PM, and each subsequent musher follows at two minute intervals. About fifteen minutes before each team’s turn, the dog handlers start forming up the teams.
The dogs get a last minute feeding. Running, they’ll burn an amazing amount of calories, in the range of 15 to 20,000 per day, with that kind of energy expenditure their problem isn’t staying warm in subzero temps, it’s just the opposite – which is why these dogs typically have shorter fur and are smaller than you’d expect.
The dogs need a constant, high calorie food intake and they typically get topped off right before they form up.
I love the expressions on the dogs’ faces in the following picture, especially the gray one (the first dog facing the camera) Oh Boy! High protein fish slop again! My favorite!
And then it’s time for the race, only a thousand more miles to go!
For the rest of us, it’s back to Anchorage via car or bush plane.
My wife and I saw old Joe Redington race his last Iditarod in 1997 at the age of 80. He died two years later, in 1999, and was buried in his favorite dogsled in the town of Wasilla where it all began.
His legacy is a very big deal in Alaska, it’s a celebration of much more than a mere sport, it reminds us forcefully of our history here in The Great Land, it speaks directly to a triumph of the human spirit in this harsh and beautiful place.
More, the race reminds Alaskans every single year of those long ago men and their dogs who dared greatly, and won.