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Monday, March 3, 2014

Iditarod 2014

 

This last 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.  Several 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. //Jim

 

Dog 4

 


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 Tanana 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 pour 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.

A day later, the race begins in earnest on a frozen lake in the little town of Willow a hundred miles north of Anchorage.

We’ve been out on that ice at –30F in howling snow so thick you could see barely ten feet and you had to find your way to the starting line by following the sound of excited barking. But this year was unusually warm, the sky was brilliant blue and beautiful, and we enjoyed the novelty of watching the beginning of this epic event without being bundled up like Arctic explorers.

 

Dog 3

Dog 2Dog 1

 

Dog 5  Dog 6

Dog 7

Dog 8

 

 

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.

46 comments:

  1. Very moving post, Jim. The heroism, of those mushers in 1925, is a spectacular example of meritorious service to humanity.

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  2. Oh, Jim, what a wonderful piece. Still loving that smiling dog. Thanks so much for writing this.

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  3. Wonderful account of the story! I know at least part of my decision to move back up to Alaska was because of Fur Rondy and the Iditarod. I missed the excitement and the dogs!

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  4. Thanks for sharing the credit for success between the dogs and the men. I have lived with Huskies for the last 25 years. I seriously doubt that I would have survived the relay, but when I've studied the dogs I can sometimes see strength, intelligence, and that ever present attribute they possess that I don't have a word for so lets just call it "never give up". I have been blessed by these dogs who have chosen to live with me. Thank you again Jim.

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  5. You repost it every year, and I re-read it every year, happily and in awe. It truly is a great, great story, and I love that you share your joy and celebration of it as you do. Thanks.

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  6. An amazing and powerful story, very well told (of course). Still choked up ...

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  7. Read it every year. Cry and cheer every year. Thank you.

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  8. I knew the basics of the story and the ending already, but I still read this piece with my heart in my mouth. Amazing tale, amazing writing.

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  9. In the 1960s there used to be a dogsled race along the drained Erie Canal. Medina NY where I was born had a large harbor on The Canal. One year we sat in the cold -- but the snow and ice had all melted. So they raced with their wheeled summer practice sleds, the race was not going to be stopped. We sat in the car until the sleds came into view -- fifty years later I can no longer clearly remember, but I think they rode west. The dogs were so happy. Medina was not a stopping point, so the team's came in and were gone under the high bridge -- the only one that wasn't a lift bridge (Low bridge, everybody down, Low bridge, cause we're comin' into town... from the Erie Canal song).

    The U.P.'s big sleddog race has its history based on... the Iditarod.

    Dr. Phil

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  10. Man's best friend, indeed! Amazing teamwork beyond anything you can think of and bravery and determination in spades! That's a bond to truly celebrate.

    Pam in PA

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  11. Damn, Chief! You are one hell of a fine raconteur! The kids have, of course, seen the animated Balto many times in their younger days. Today they were introduced to Togo and Seppala et al, as well. I can't wait to share this post with them tomorrow. Thanks!

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  12. The retelling of the heroic efforts of these gallant men and dogs brought tears to my eyes. Their selfless bravery in service to others is indeed inspiring. Thank you for this post.

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  13. Great piece (hadn't read it before.)

    I do have to smile at the comment of an Alaska (native) friend some years back:

    "Alaska! Where men are men - and women win the Iditarod!"

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  14. What a wonderful story. I first learned about the rescue mush to Nome so many years ago I can't remember exactly when (and that the Iditarod Race commemorates it), but I never get tired of hearing about that extraordinary undertaking. And I cry every time. Every. Damn. Time.

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  15. Smiles and tears together. Thank you.

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  16. I read The Cruelest Miles a few years ago. As an old Navy Preventive Medicine Tech and a dog lover, the story really was stirring. You captured the terror in Nome and the unbelievable courage of the mushers and their teams nicely. Thank you.

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  17. Wild Bill Shannon left Tenana ... ?
    Chandra in MO

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  18. Tears in my eyes. Awestruck at such courage and perseverance in men and dogs. I look forward to re-reading the story every years.

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  19. Love your bare telling of the original relay. I've read the story before, but it's always so overdone that it hides the bare raw courage of these mushers and their partners.

    And I love seeing all those happy dogs ready to do what they love.

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  20. I cry every single time I read this article. Thank you.

    Susan

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  21. I did not know about this, and enjoyed learning about it. Thanks, it was fascinating.

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  22. This is a great book, Jim, and you are the person to write it.

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  23. Jim: Great story, well told. Do you know if there is any record of the names
    of the native mushers who covered the Manley Hot Springs to
    Bishop Mountain stretch?

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  24. I look forward to this post every year, and was just thinking on Sunday "isn't it time for Jim to mention the Iditarod?"

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  25. There's a grin! Our dog Jake ran the Iditarod with Bruce Linton in 2009 - I think 2009. He's fourteen now and very stiff. But he still can pull you on your face. :)

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  26. I grew up on the Balto story. I did not know until now the full achievement accomplished by many men and dogs, all of them heroes; the story was simplified for children into one mission and one dog. I am terrifically grateful to have this straightened out for me, and to find a detailed, well written and chilling account to get the message across. Well told.

    It is a shame that there isn't more recognition that accomplishments are made, that challenges are overcome, by TEAMS rather than individuals.

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  27. I had, of course, heard of the Iditarod, but had never heard the history behind it. Thank you for bringing this tale of courage and perseverance to life. I will make it a point to read it again every year now that I know about it. Thank you!

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  28. This is a great story. Thank you for sharing it, Mr. Wright.

    --Medicine Man

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  29. Your telling of the tale is spare but spell-binding. Thanks for reposting every year. It's worth reading each time.

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  30. Thank you for posting that remarkable story: the heroism of those men and their dogs makes me glad to be alive.

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  31. "Awe inspiring" is overused today but I think fitting for the story you tell. I never knew the origins of the race though I have watched it on TV here in the UK.
    Great story well written.

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  32. If any of those men were here today, we could thank them for the amazing thing they did. And they would shrug and say,"It just needed doing".

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  33. Thanks for the post. Never knew this story. Sometimes it amazes me that I could have lived this long and still be so ignorant about so many things. Guess I'll have to live to 1000 to learn it all.

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  34. What a beautiful story, masterfully written. Thank you for the smiles and the tears.
    I know this is a little slow, since the essay is over a year old, but I first read it when you reposted it on your FB page a few days ago. At any rate, I believe there is a typo in the essay and I know you like to eradicate them wherever they appear, so here we go.

    "Meet" should be "met" in this sentence:
    Just outside Shaktoolik, he meet Ivanoff who had gotten tangled up with a reindeer and was struggling to free his harness and dogs.

    Thanks again for sharing this with us.
    Sallie Wickstrom, Minion via FB

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  35. Thank you for the powerful reminder of the great things mankind, in partnership with four-legged beings, is capable of in service to humanity. I truly needed such a reminder today.

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  36. Why isn't this a movie??? Is there a book? I devoured this post. Amazing. Thanks so much for posting this.

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  37. I remember seeing the stature of Balto in Central Park, NYC, when I was a kid. I think that was when I fell in love with the huskies. I just love them to much to have them in Florida weather.

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  38. As long as I have been aware of the race, I never heard the entire story so clearly defined. Thank you.

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  39. It also costs the mushers quite a pretty penny to run. People get sponsors and raise money for years to get a chance to participate. To run in, let alone finish this race is a massive accomplishment!

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  40. Very much enjoyed this post! It's clear I have lazy spoiled dogs. Eh, but I couldn't love them more. The huskies, the malamutes and the little Klee Kai too.

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  41. Good story told well. Thank you.

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  42. Thank you so very much for posting -- I got it through my fb. I had No Idea. I wonder about all that frostbite the men got and how those parts of their bodies recovered, if at all. Love the "get it done" attitude expressed by the humans and the dogs, together! ~~ LindaNoel

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  43. We have a Husky, I've read the story, but love your recap better.

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