The Last Great Race on Earth

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on March 4, 2018

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It's Iditarod Time once again here on the Last Great Frontier!

The Iditarod for those who are not familiar with it is the Dog Sled Race that runs these days from the Matanuska-Susitna River Valley in Alaska up to Nome.  Total length of the course is around 1000 miles, a very long trek for both the Dogs and the Musher.  The race commemorates the Great Race for Mercy in the 1920's, when a Diptheria Epidemic hit Nome and they had to get medicine up there as quick as they could.  They did not have the network of Bush Planes then that we have now, nor did they have Snow Machines.

The most famous dog that pulled this medicine to Nome was Balto, the last lead dog who pulled the sled for the last leg into Nome.  There is a statue of Balto in Central Park in NYC.  It is the Feature Photo for this article at the top of the page.


1925 serum run to Nome

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia











The 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the Great Race of Mercy, was a transport of diphtheria antitoxin by dog sled relay across the U.S. territory of Alaska by 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs 674 miles (1,085 km) in five and a half days, saving the small town of Nome and the surrounding communities from an incipient epidemic.

Both the mushers and their dogs were portrayed as heroes in the newly popular medium of radio, and received headline coverage in newspapers across the United States. Balto, the lead sled dog on the final stretch into Nome, became the most famous canine celebrity of the era after Rin Tin Tin, and his statue is a popular tourist attraction in both New York City's Central Park and downtown Anchorage, Alaska. The publicity also helped spur an inoculation campaign in the U.S. that dramatically reduced the threat of the disease.

The sled dog was the primary means of transportation and communication in subarctic communities around the world, and the race became both the last great hurrah and the most famous event in the history of mushing, before the first aircraft in the 1930s and then the snowmobile in the 1960s drove the dog sled almost into extinction. The resurgence of recreational mushing in Alaska since the 1970s is a direct result of the tremendous popularity of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which honors the history of dog mushing.


Location and geography

Nome lies approximately 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle, and while greatly diminished from its peak of 20,000 during the gold rush days at the turn of the 20th century, it was still the largest town in northern Alaska in 1925, with 455 Alaska Natives and 975 settlers of European descent.[1] From November to July, the port on the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula of the Bering Sea was icebound and inaccessible by steamship.

The only link to the rest of the world during the winter was the Iditarod Trail, which ran 938 miles (1,510 km) from the port of Seward in the south, across several mountain ranges and the vast Alaska Interior before reaching Nome. The primary source of mail and needed supplies in 1925 was the dog sled, but within a decade, bush pilots would become the dominant method of transportation during the winter months.

Mail from outside the Alaska Territory was transported 420 miles (680 km) by train from the icefree port of Seward to Nenana, and then was transported the 674 miles (1,085 km) from Nenana to Nome by dog sled, which normally took 25 days.

Outbreak and call for help

In the winter of 1924–25, the only doctor in Nome, a town of less than 2,000 people, and the surrounding communities was Curtis Welch, who was supported by four nurses at the 25-bed Maynard Columbus Hospital.[2] Several months earlier,[3] Welch had placed an order for more diphtheria antitoxin after discovering that hospital's entire batch had expired. However, the shipment did not arrive before the port closed for the winter[4][3] and he would not be able to order more until spring.[5]

In December 1924, several days after the last ship left the port, Welch treated a few children for what he first diagnosed as sore throats or tonsillitis, initially dismissing diphtheria since it is extremely contagious and he would have expected to see the same symptoms in their family members or other cases around town.[4] In the next few weeks, as the number of tonsillitis cases grew and four children died whom he had not been able to autopsy, Welch became increasingly concerned about diphtheria.[6]

By mid-January 1925, Welch officially diagnosed the first case of diphtheria in a three-year old boy who died only two weeks after first becoming ill.[4] The following day, when a seven-year old girl presented with the same tell-tale symptoms of diphtheria, Welch attempted to administer some of the expired antitoxin to see if it might still have any effect, but the girl died a few hours later.[7] Realizing that an epidemic was imminent, that same evening, Welch called Mayor George Maynard to arrange an emergency town council meeting.[8] The council immediately implemented a quarantine. The following day, on January 22, 1925, Welch sent radio telegrams to all other major towns in Alaska alerting them of public health risk and he also sent one to the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington, D.C. asking for assistance.[4] His message to the Public Health Service said:

An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here. Stop. I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin, stop, mail is only form of transportation. Stop. I have made application to Commissioner of Health of the Territories for antitoxin already. Stop. There are about 3000 (sic) white natives in the district.[4]

Despite the quarantine, there were over 20 confirmed cases of diphtheria and at least 50 more at risk by the end of January. Without antitoxin, it was expected that in the surrounding region's population of around 10,000 people, the mortality rate could be close to 100 percent.[4] A previous influenza pandemic of the so-called "Spanish flu" had hit the area in 1918 and 1919 wiped out about 50 percent of the native population of Nome, and 8 percent of the native population of Alaska. More than 1,000 people died in northwest Alaska, and double that across the state.[3] The majority were Alaska Natives who did not have resistance to either of these diseases.[9]

Problem solving

At the January 24 meeting of the board of health superintendent Mark Summers of the Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields proposed a dogsled relay, using two fast teams. One would start at Nenana and the other at Nome, and they would meet at Nulato. The trip from Nulato to Nome normally took 30 days, although the record was nine.[2] Welch calculated that the serum would only last six days under the brutal conditions of the trail.[2] Summers' employee, the Norwegian Leonhard Seppala, was chosen for the 630-mile (1,014 km) round trip from Nome to Nulato and back. He had previously made the run from Nome to Nulato in a record-breaking four days, won the All-Alaska Sweepstakes three times, and had become something of a legend for his athletic ability and rapport with his Siberian huskies. His lead dog, the 12-year-old Togo,[3] was equally famous for his leadership, intelligence, and ability to sense danger.

Mayor Maynard proposed flying the antitoxin by aircraft. In February 1924, the first winter aircraft flight in Alaska had been conducted between Fairbanks and McGrath by Carl Eielson, who flew a reliable De Havilland DH-4 issued by the U.S. Post Office on 8 experimental trips. The longest flight was only 260 miles (420 km), the worst conditions were −10 °F (−23 °C) which required so much winter clothing that the plane was almost unflyable, and the plane made several crash landings.

The only planes operating in Alaska in 1925 were three vintage Standard J biplanes belonging to Bennet Rodebaugh's Fairbanks Airplane company (later Wien Air Alaska) The aircraft were dismantled for the winter, had open cockpits, and had water-cooled engines that were unreliable in cold weather. Since both pilots were in the contiguous United States, Alaska Delegate Dan Sutherland attempted to get the authorization to use an inexperienced pilot, Roy Darling.

While potentially quicker, the board of health rejected the option and voted unanimously for the dogsled relay. Seppala was notified that evening and immediately started preparations for the trip.

The U.S. Public Health Service had located 1.1 million units of serum in West Coast hospitals which could be shipped to Seattle, and then transported to Alaska.[2] The Alameda would be the next ship north, and would not arrive in Seattle until January 31, and then would take another 6 to 7 days to arrive in Seward. On January 26, 300,000 forgotten units were discovered in Anchorage Railroad Hospital, when the chief of surgery, John Beeson, heard of the need.[2] The supply was wrapped in glass vials, then padded quilts, and finally a metallic cylinder weighing a little more than 20 pounds.[2][3] At Governor Scott Bone's order, it was packed and handed to conductor Frank Knight, who arrived in Nenana on January 27. While not sufficient to defeat the epidemic, the 300,000 units could hold it at bay until the larger shipment arrived.

The temperatures across the Interior were at 20-year lows due to a high pressure system from the Arctic, and in Fairbanks the temperature was −50 °F (−46 °C). A second system was burying the Panhandle, as 25 mph (40 km/h) winds swept snow into 10-foot (3.05 m) drifts. Travel by sea was hazardous, and across the Interior most forms of transportation shut down. In addition, there were limited hours of daylight to fly, due to the polar night.

While the first batch of serum was traveling to Nenana, Governor Bone gave final authorization to the dog relay, but ordered Edward Wetzler, the U.S. Post Office inspector, to arrange a relay of the best drivers and dogs across the Interior. The teams would travel day and night until they handed off the package to Seppala at Nulato.

The decision outraged William Fentress "Wrong Font" Thompson, publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and aircraft advocate, who helped line up the pilot and plane. He used his paper to write scathing editorials.


The mail route from Nenana to Nome spanned 674 miles (1,085 km) in total. It crossed the barren Alaska Interior, following the Tanana River for 137 miles (220 km) to the village Tanana at the junction with the Yukon River, and then following the Yukon for 230 miles (370 km) to Kaltag. The route then passed west 90 miles (140 km) over the Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet on the shore of Norton Sound. The route then continued for 208 miles (335 km) northwest around the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula with no protection from gales and blizzards, including a 42 miles (68 km) stretch across the shifting ice of the Bering Sea.

Wetzler contacted Tom Parson, an agent of the Northern Commercial Company, which contracted to deliver mail between Fairbanks and Unalakleet. Telephone and telegrams turned the drivers back to their assigned roadhouses. The mail carriers held a revered position in the territory, and were the best dog mushers in Alaska. The majority of relay drivers across the Interior were native Athabaskans, direct descendants of the original dog mushers.

The first musher in the relay was "Wild Bill" Shannon, who was handed the 20 pounds (9.1 kg) package at the train station in Nenana on January 27 at 9:00 PM AKST by night. Despite a temperature of −50 °F (−46 °C), Shannon left immediately with his team of 11 inexperienced dogs, led by Blackie. The temperature began to drop, and the team was forced onto the colder ice of the river because the trail had been destroyed by horses.

Despite jogging alongside the sled to keep warm, Shannon developed hypothermia. He reached Minto at 3 AM, with parts of his face black from frostbite.[2] The temperature was −62 °F (−52 °C). After warming the serum by the fire and resting for four hours, Shannon dropped three dogs and left with the remaining 8. The three dogs died shortly after Shannon returned for them, and a fourth may have perished as well.

Image result for alcan highway As a Kollapsnik and adopted Alaskan, I love the Iditarod for a few reasons.  First off, the race is run through one of the last places left on the planet you could do such a thing.  There are no roads through this part of Alaska, although the Start Point has had to be moved persistently northward to avoid the suburban development up here and the road system that goes with that.  In fact, there is very little in terms of road development in Alaska as a whole, once you get off the main drag of the Parks & Glenn Highways, there is pretty much nothing.  Then to get in or out of Alaska, there is in fact only ONE road, the Al-Can.  It only got completely paved over in 1996, and to this day there are sections of it you really don't want to be driving on in bad weather, which is common.  So in the modern age, the communities that Alaska supports are either along the narrow corridor of the 2 highways, or they are supported by the air network of Bush Planes.  The main communities of mostly First Nations people are all along the coast, and they get their diesel to run their generators by sea, but this takes a while.  Back when the Great Race for Mercy occured in the 1920's, it would have taken many weeks to get the medicine to Nome by sea.  So they did it over land, with a chain of Mushers, who got it up there in about a week or so.  There were only 3 available planes that might have been able to make the trip at that time, and no experienced pilots to fly them.  So they went with the dogs and the traditional methods.  They made it, and Balto led them into town.

The next reason I love the Iditarod is because it is one of the last examples left of the cooperation between Homo Sap and the animals we have domesticated as helpers.  Those dogs were the ones that pulled that medicine, they were HEROES.  So were the Mushers who trained them and who drove them to the finish line, IN TIME.  No gas, no diesel, just Humans and Dogs working together over 1000 miles of the toughest terrain and the toughest weather nature can pitch out.

Image result for iditarod

I also love the Iditarod because besides Alaskans, Canadians, Ruskies, Finns, Swedes and Norwegians, basically nobody knows about it or follows it.  Even among the people who live in these places the fans are few.  Mushing is not a lucrative sporting pastime, although a few of the top mushers make enough from endorsements to feed their dogs and train year around.  For everyone below about the Top 10 Mushers, it's a labor of love and it costs them plenty every year to pursue this hobby.

In the past few years there has not been enough snow on the ground in the southern portion of the race to do the traditional start, now in in the Matanuska-Susitna River Valley rather than Seward where the original Great Race for Mercy began.  In fact they had to move the start from Wasilla where the HQ of the Iditarod is up to Willow, because there simply has been too much suburbabn development and road construction around Wasilla to have a good place to start from safe for the mushers and the dogs even in good snow years.  Lately though, even Willow didn't work, so they made a new route that started I think in Fairbanks.

Image result for iditarod The ceremonial start is done come hell or high water (or no snow) down in Anchorage the day before the real race begins.  For two years they shipped snow down from Fairbanks via the Alaska Railroad to lay down on MainStreet in Anchorage so they could run the Ceremonial Start.  Anchorage is the only place in Alaska you will get any media coverage whatsoever or enough spectators to come out and wave at the Mushers and make the event look semi-popular to anyone outside Alaska.  This year, the Ceremonial Start has enough local snow in Anchorage to run the start there without resorting to using fossil fuels to ship snow in, which is nice.  However, overall Alaska has had a very mild winter this year at least in terms of temperatures overall.  Hovering mostly in the 20sF.  However, particularly in the last couple of weeks leading up to the official Race Start today, we have had a few good snowfalls and the trail conditions are very good.

Image result for susan butcher sled dog racer Favorite for this year's race by far is Ken Anderson, but I am rooting for the Berington Twins, Kristy & Anna.  They run separate sleds of course, but I don't care which one wins.  Also it's nice when female mushers win, the race gets more publicity.  Susan Butcher was probably the most famous of the female mushers, and I followed her career even before I moved to Alaska.  Sadly, Susan died of Cancer a few years back.

For the Kollapsnik though, the most important thing about the Iditarod is that the people who run this race with their dogs represent the type of people who can SURVIVE collapse.  They are TOUGH & RESOURCEFUL people.  They aren't QUITTERS like the Nihilists and Misanthropes on Nature Bats Last, Our Finite World and r/collapse. They are athletic and in good physical condition.  They know the terrain, the weather and how to deal with it.  They do use modern industrial produced material now of course to make the sleds lighter and to insulate themselves better from the cold, but I would bet most of them could put together a sled from scratch and hunt down the Caribou, Moose and Bear and make their parkas from those materials.  Many of them live out in the Bush and do subsistence Hunting & Fishing, along with raising their dogs.  Susan Butcher was one like that.

I will follow the Iditarod again this year with great interest.  I will update Inside the Diner as I receive times in email for all the mushers I follow.


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