It has been a rough winter for much of the nation. The ol’ Polar Vortex has been dumping snow on parts of the country in amounts that you normally only read about in that Little House on the Prairie book where the Ingalls family had to grind wheat in a coffee grinder and burn straw to survive. I’ve done more than my fair share of moaning about the cold temperatures this winter. And since my moaning hasn’t helped one single bit, I’ve decided to start counting my blessings instead! No matter how cold I have been this winter, I never once had to resort to twisting sticks of straw for fuel. And, when I got sick, I was able to drive my vehicle over to the corner of “Happy and Healthy” in order to pick up some medicine from the Walgreens Pharmacy.
Not everyone has had those sorts of luxuries! With the Iditarod dogsled race coming up on March 1st, I’m reminded of the 1925 Serum Run that inspired it. Of course, the most famous participant of the Serum Run was a Siberian Husky named Balto, but he was far from alone in this heroic effort. Today, in an effort to count my blessings – – while paying tribute to some individuals who knew a thing or two about winter weather – – I dedicate this edition of The Campfire Chronicle to Balto, and the 150 other sled dogs and twenty drivers who rescued the city of Nome in the 1925 Serum Run.
Spreading Like Wildfire Across the Ice
The year 1925 started out with quite a scare for the residents of Alaska. In January, doctors realized there was the potential for a diphtheria epidemic among the young people of Nome. I have played enough games of Oregon Trail to know that diphtheria is not to be trifled with.
As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20, and foresight is often about as clear as mud. In December of 1924, a two-year-old Inuit boy died of diphtheria in a village near Nome, but he was misdiagnosed because no one else in the village was showing symptoms and the boy’s mother refused an autopsy. This first case wasn’t properly diagnosed until January 20, 1925, and by that time, it was already too late. By January 24th, there had been multiple fatalities and there were twenty more confirmed cases of diphtheria. The population of Nome and the surrounding area was about ten thousand people. If the disease couldn’t be stopped, and stopped quickly, all of those people were at risk of contracting a disease with a nearly 100% mortality rate. (Cue: The Oregon Trail music, because the outlook was grim.)
The Snowball Effect
The inventory of diphtheria antitoxin in Nome had expired in 1918. More had been ordered, but it hadn’t arrived before the port of Nome had closed up for the winter. I confess that I have a habit of playing fast and lose with expiration dates on canned goods, but apparently it is one thing to consume a can of slightly expired stewed tomatoes and another thing to take a dose of diphtheria antitoxin that expired seven years ago! In an act of desperation, one child in the late stages of diphtheria had been given 6,000 units of the expired antitoxin . . .she died later that day.
The nearest supply of serum to stop the outbreak was located in Anchorage, approximately 1000 miles from Nome. It was one of those times when it seemed as if a thousand miles might as well be a million miles. Trains could not get through the snow of the Alaskan winter and the three airplanes in the vicinity that could potentially make the journey had been dismantled for the winter. But, as it turned out, the planes had open cockpits, so they weren’t reliable in cold weather anyway. There was apparently no way to get the serum in time to save Nome.
There’s No Business Like Snow Business
Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. And sometimes necessity is the mother of convention! In the Alaska of 1925, necessity meant that it was time to go back to a more conventional form of transportation, one of a bygone era—dogsleds. You can imagine the desperation felt by the members of the Alaska Board of Health, when they determined that the only way to save an entire city was to bring serum in by dogsled. It was a unanimous decision. There was no other hope.
The serum was transported from Anchorage to Nenana by train, arriving on January 27th. There wasn’t enough of the antitoxin available to end the epidemic, but there was enough to contain it until the port of Nome reopened and the previously ordered serum could get through.
More than twenty mushers agreed to take part in the heroic effort. The plan was brilliant in its simplicity: Relay teams of canine athletes were arranged to cover the over 600 miles that lay ahead, and the Nome Serum Run began on January 27th.
Dashing Through the Snow
Due to the limited amount of daylight in Alaska at that time of year, the teams had to run both day and night. The first driver, William “Wild Bill” Shannon was handed the 20-pound package of life-saving serum at the train station in Nenana. With the temperature dropping to -62° F, Shannon, who was suffering from severe frostbite, was forced to stop at a roadhouse where he warmed the antitoxin by the fire and dropped three dogs from his team, who were unable to continue. Then off he went!
Shannon handed the antitoxin over to the next driver, at a roadhouse in Tolovana on January 28th. The temperature was then a balmy -56°! It was a grueling race against time, under the most extreme conditions. On January 30th, George Nulner was the tenth driver in the relay for life. Both of his lead dogs died during the journey, so Nulner took over for them, and led the team himself!
Nome Sweet Nome
On February 2, the last team, led by Gunnar Kaasen, with Balto in the lead, completed the final leg of fifty-three miles to reach Nome. But were it not for Balto’s keen sense of smell they would never have made it to Nome, because the winds were so intense and the snow was coming down so heavily, that Kaasen could not even see his hand in front of his face. Remarkably, through all that, Balto held the scent of Nome, and led them all safely home.
Balto is the name we all recognize and associate with the heroic event, and he was most certainly a hero in his own right. . .but the facts are that he had more than a little help. All told, there were twenty drivers and 150 sled dogs responsible for the success of this venture. They traveled 674 miles in temperatures that rarely rose above -40°, through gusts of wind that were strong enough to knock over sleds and dogs. Twenty teams of brave men and dogs ran distances ranging from eighteen miles to an unthinkable 170 miles . . . and that 170 mile team, led by Norwegian born, Leonhard Seppala and his twelve-year-old lead dog, Togo, deserve a special commendation. But Seppala had a very personal motive for his superhuman efforts. His daughter was infected with the disease and in desperate need of the serum. To save an extra day in transport time, Seppala took a dangerous shortcut across the ice, at a time when breakthrough was not only possible, but probable. They blazed across the ice in a whiteout snowstorm in -60 degree temperatures, and they made it, but barely. . .the very next day, the ice broke through.
There are multiple monuments dedicated to Balto and the Serum Run. The first, and possibly most famous, is the Balto statue and sled dog/musher monument located in Central Park in New York City. The statue is of Balto, but as the plaque says, it is,
“Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards, from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925.”
So the next time I feel the need to complain about the cold weather or grouse about having to drive to the corner drugstore, I’ll think about the rescue of Nome. Bravo, heroes of Nome. Bravo.
If you have a few minutes available, watch this wonderful video from the History Channel, with documentary footage of the many heroes of Nome, during their journey and upon their arrival in Nome!
Happy Trails, y’all!