The “Great Race of Mercy” that Began a Tradition
During the month of January, 1925, diphtheria raged through Nome, Alaska. Children wheezed, gasped for air—died. Every day brought more cases of the killer respiratory disease, and Dr. Curtis Welch, the only physician in the village, feared an epidemic. A quarantine was ordered, however Welch knew that only an anti-toxin serum could combat the disease and save some 1,400 people. The situation was dire, with the nearest available medicine resting more than 1,000 miles away in Anchorage. The open cockpit planes wouldn’t fly in the sub-zero temperatures, and sea transport was impossible, as Nome’s harbor was completely ice-choked. The only hope for swift recovery depended on the strength and stamina of the toughest sled dogs.
It was arranged to have the medicine delivered to the Nenana train station, 674 miles from Nome; Scott C. Bone, the territory’s governor recruited the best dog teams and mushers to stage a round-the-clock transport from Nenana to Nome. On the night of January 27, 1925, a twenty pound package of anti-toxin serum wrapped in fur arrived at the train station. “Wild Bill” Shannon tied the cargo to his sled, and nine malamutes thundered through wilderness, across frozen water, and over vast tundra. Shannon developed hypothermia and frostbite during the 52 mile leg to Tolovana before handing off to the second team.
On January 31, Norwegian-born Leonhard Seppala, the country’s most famous musher, departed Shaktoolik on an impressive 91 mile leg. Seppala risked a shortcut with Togo, his Siberian Husky in the lead; the team raced over Norton Sound, battling a gale that dropped wind chills to 85 below zero. They hugged the coastline, coming to meet Charlie Olson and his dogs; after 25 miles, Olson handed off to Gunnar Kaasen for the second-to-last leg.
Kaasen set out in a blizzard so brutal, he couldn’t see his 13-dog team pounding the ground in from him. Lead dog, Balto, relied on scent over sight to guide the team; ice formed on his brown coat, and still he forged through rough terrain. Suddenly, an 80 mile an hour gust flipped the sled, and the antidote was launched into the awful white. Kaasen removed his mittens and rummaged through the snowbank with frostbitten hands until he found the precious package.
When Kaasen arrived in Port Safety during the early morning hours of February 2 to hand off for the final leg of the relay, the other team wasn’t ready to leave, so Kaasen decided his team would run the last 53 miles. With Balto in the lead, Nome met their salvation on Front Street at 5:30 a.m. The relay had taken five-and-a-half days, cutting the previous speed record by nearly half. Four hero dogs died from exposure to see that a village survive. Three weeks after injecting the people of Nome, the quarantine was lifted.
45th Annual Iditarod 2017
The Iditarod in an iconic Alaskan winter event that begins in Anchorage the first Saturday of March each year. With 24 checkpoints, teams race through some of the same trails that were beaten by the paws of lead dogs Togo and Balto 92 years ago.
The nearly one thousand mile race began at 10:00 a.m. on 6 March. Due to unsafe trail conditions, the official start from Willow was moved to Fairbanks for the second time in three years; this change delivered mushers a flatter route to Nome.
More than 70 mushers and their sled teams from the United States; France; Norway; Czech Republic; Canada; England; Hungary; and Sweden commenced the 45th Iditarod, leaving behind cheering fans, friends and family to brave the wild of beautiful Alaska. Sadly, the 2017 race marks the most sled dog deaths since 2009, with two of the six succumbing to pneumonia, and pulmonary edema; four died on the trail, one being hit by a car after escaping his handler.
It wasn’t all sadness on the trail, however.
Certainly not for Mike Seavey.
At 57, Mike Seavey is the oldest winner of the Iditarod on Tuesday, 14 March. He’s also the fastest, setting a record at 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes and 13 seconds. Further impressive, this is Seavey’s third win; his first was in 2004, then again in 2013. The Seward, Alaska musher beat his son, defending champion Dallas Seavey, who placed second–just five minutes ahead of France native Nicolas Petit. Father and son are close, but competitive. Between the two of them, the Seaveys have won six races. Mike Seavey’s 2017 prize: $75,000 and a brand new pickup truck. Not bad.