The Great Serum Run

With all the craziness and uncertainty due to the Covid 19 pandemic that is sending the world into disarray, major events, large gatherings and sporting events have been cancelled. Well, all except the Iditarod Sleddog Race 2020!

‘The Last Great Race’ is an annual event which celebrates sled dogs and, in particular, the ‘Serum Run’ of 1925. Following the race and the Mushers practicing their own social distancing, got me thinking about the history of sled dogs and in particular the Siberian Husky breed.

You will likely be thinking ‘what on earth do sled dogs have to do with Covid 19?’ Well, actually nothing….BUT in the deepest, darkest, coldest part of winter, a similar situation occurred in the region of Nome, Alaska.

In December 1924, an epidemic of Diphtheria struck the population of 10,000 inhabitants, many of whom were gold rush prospectors, settlers and indigenous people. Curtis Welch was a lone Doctor in the area who worked alongside 4 nurses. Dr Welch warned that the illness had the capacity to kill 100% of the inhabitants of Nome. Diphtheria is a highly contagious illness commonly known back then as ‘the strangling angel of children’. The only antitoxin available in Nome had expired in 1918, despite new batches being ordered in 1924, they simply had not arrived.

In January 1925, with thick arctic snow covering the Alaskan interior, temperatures ranging from minus 50F to minus 85F and gale force winds on top, the crisis became clear and Dr Welch ordered that Nome be quarantined.

On 22nd January 1925, A telegram was sent by Dr Welch; “I am in urgent need of one million units of Diphtheria Anti Toxin”. Emily Morgan, the Quarantine Nurse, took on the dreaded job of placing notices on the homes of those inhabitants, who were suspected or confirmed cases, warning: “Do Not Enter – DIPHTHERIA!”

Sled dogs were developed by the indigenous people of Alaska, Canada and Siberia, traditionally used to haul heavily loaded sleds for many hundreds of miles to remote fishing and hunting grounds, then returning to camps with their weighty catch. Canadian and Alaskan sled dogs were generally heavier, brawny dogs known today as Freight Dogs; slower, cumbersome and at times not so well mannered.

The Chukchi people inhabited the region of coastal Siberia located on the tip of the Bering Strait, 55 miles from the tip of Alaska. The Chukchi people developed and selectively bred the Siberian Husky to pull sleds to their fishing grounds, but also to live as part of the family unit, keeping the native people warm in their dwellings at night when temperatures dropped. Siberians were much smaller, faster, ate less food and were better natured than their Alaskan cousins.

During the Gold Rush era, sled dog teams were used to deliver the mail and supplies throughout the Alaskan interior, races and sweepstakes took place amongst the locals for entertainment and bets were taken on which team would win the race.

In early 1900, William Goosack introduced the Siberian Husky to Alaska with epic results. The locals laughed calling the dogs ‘Siberian Rats!’ but the little Siberian Dogs proved themselves against the freighting dogs and in 1910, the All Alaska Sweepstakes race was won by a team of Siberian Huskies, their Musher (dog sled driver) was a Norwegian settler named Leonard Seppala.

As the child inhabitants of Nome grew increasingly sick and the death toll rose, the authorities fought amongst themselves as to how the antitoxin serum would be delivered to Nome. In the depths of the Alaskan winter, planes and automobiles would not withstand the weather conditions, so it was agreed that the antitoxin serum would be delivered from Anchorage to Nenana by train and from Nenana to Nome by dog sled relay.

A relay of 20 sled dog teams would be deployed, to cover the gruelling 674 miles (1085km) from Nenana to Nome (equivalent of Land’s End to Inverness). Leonard Seppala was notified that he and his Siberian dogs would be leading the efforts to save the town. Despite his elderly years, Togo a 12 year old Siberian Husky, would lead Seppala’s team from Nome to meet the relay and return with the serum.

On 27th January 1925, with temperatures as low as -50F, the first team of 9 dogs left Nenana. Lead by 5 year old sled dog Blackie, the otherwise inexperienced team diverts from the planned trail due to severe weather conditions, to run on the frozen Tanana River. Musher ‘Wild Bill Shannon’ running alongside the sled in order to keep warm as temperature drop to -62F, arrives at Tolovana in bad shape after a gruelling 51 miles, parts of his face are frost bitten and sadly 3 of his dogs later pass away.

The second Musher and his dogs ran 31 miles to the next team with little problem, other than his hands being frozen to the sled handlebar upon arrival! By 30th January a further 170 miles had been covered by a relay of 6 teams, however a major storm system sets in, bringing record breaking low temperatures to the Alaskan Interior. The 12th Musher, Charlie Evans, sadly forgets to cover the vulnerable areas of his dog team and the frozen air causes his team to collapse in front of him as a result of frostbite. He leads his team himself to the next relay after his two lead dogs pass away.

The local press reports “All hope is in the dogs and their heroic drivers” as another life is taken in Nome. More dog teams are ordered to speed up the mission, with Leonard Seppala ready to take on the most dangerous part of the serum run.

With temperatures now as low as -85F Seppala with his lead dog Togo and 12 dog Siberian team, are making their way in the dark from Nome, to meet the next team with the serum on the frozen trail, having crossed the famous Norton Sound (a ‘short cut’ stretch of ocean that is frozen ice in winter).

At this point Seppala’s team had already covered 84 miles (135km) in the pitch dark. At 2am, Seppala and his Siberian dogs pick up the serum and head back towards Nome. Togo leading the way head on into the 65mph winds (105kph), over Little McKinley Mountain 5000 ft (1500 meters) above sea level (higher than Ben Nevis!) and back across Norton Sound as the pack ice starts to brake behind them!

With winds now hitting 80mph (129kph), Dr Welch orders a stop to the relay in order to protect the lives of the Mushers, but the order doesn’t get through and the relay continues. The death toll in Nome has risen to 28.

Seppala passes the serum to Musher Charlie Olsen at 3am, Olsen suffers from serious frostbite when placing blankets on his dogs. Olsen passes the serum to the last Musher in the relay, Gunnar Kaasen who is driving a team of Seppala’s little Siberians, through the night. Balto and Fox lead the team through the continuing storm when snow drifts flip the sled and Kaasen drops the serum into the snow. Kaasen makes the mistake of removing his gloves to find the serum in the darkness and later suffers from severe frost bite as a result. Kaasen arrives in Nome with the antitoxin serum at 5.30am on 2nd February 1925, he collapsed at the front of his team after thanking his lead dog Balto.

In total 150 sled dogs and 20 Mushers took part in the relay to save the inhabitants of Nome. Leonard Seppala and his Siberian Huskies travelled a total of 261 miles during the serum run, in some of the worst winter storms in Alaskan history, he and Togo have only just recently been recognised for their outstanding achievements.

These are the kinds of factual events and stories that inspired my passion for sled dogs. After many years of daydreaming about arctic landscapes, native people, wolves and sled dogs, I took the plunge and in 2001 purchased my first Siberian Husky. The rest as they say is history! In December 2019, I launched Mynydd Sleddog Adventures, Wales first and only sled dog adventure trails offering husky rides and sleddog experiences to people who want to experience these fantastic dogs and their drive to pull sleds. So, when the world settles again and Covid 19 is all but history, why not come and meet some of our amazing working Siberian Huskies (and our other sled dog breeds).

The Cruellest Miles by Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury