Ryan Redington comes into the village of Ruby, Alaska; Photo credit: ADN/Loren Holmes
Due to the coronavirus scare, about the only sporting event still taking place in the United States is the Iditarod sled dog race. Interestingly, the Iditarod commemorates the 1925 Nome Serum Run.
Known at the time as the Great Race of Mercy, the race against time stands alongside the Good Friday Earthquake as one of Alaska’s defining moments.
Curtis Welch was the only doctor in Nome in the autumn of 1924. He had placed an order for diphtheria antitoxin, but it had not arrived by the time the port was entombed in winter ice. In January of 1925, Welch had diagnosed the first case of diphtheria.
His pleading telegram to the outside world read as follows:
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
With the area population around 10,000, and close to 100% mortality rate, the situation was dire. After the 1917 influenza, in which half the native population perished, time was of the essence.
Nome, Alaska circa 1916
The mail route between Nenana and Nome was 674 miles. The only diphtheria antitoxin was in Anchorage. The antitoxin was put on the Alaska Railroad to Nenana and then hauled west by dogsled. The rural Alaskan mail carriers were the best dog mushers in the State, and the vast majority were Athabaskan. “Wild Bill” Shannon was the first musher to take the serum from Nenana. The temperature was -50F when he left Nenana with a team of 11 dogs. When Shannon reached the village of Minto at 3am, it was -60F, and Wild Bill was suffering from hypothermia and frostbite.
The serum went from relay team to relay team. At times, the serum was brought into various roadhouses to warm up. One musher at Manley Hot Springs had the roadhouse operator pour hot water over his hands so that they could be broken free of his sled’s handle bars. It was -56F.
By January 30, a fifth death, and 27 cases of diphtheria had occurred in Nome. Plans were made to fly serum in, but they were rejected by the Navy and experienced pilots because of the weather. The relay went on.
Leonhard Seppala left Nome for Shaktoolik to take his place in the relay. He faced gale force winds and -85F wind chill. His lead dog Togo traveled 350 miles in total.
Henry Ivanoff’s team was tangled up with a reindeer.
Charlie Olson took the serum from Seppala, his team was blown off course by the winds. He passed the serum to Gunnar Kaasen in Bluff, AK. Kaassen waited for the weather to improve, but it only became worse, so he set out into a nasty headwind. His lead dog was Balto. Kaassen could barely see the first two dogs in front of his sled because of the blowing snow, but Balto led the team through high drifts, river overflow and heavy winds. At one point, a gust of wind flipped the sled. The serum was thrown into the snow, and Kaassen’s hands were frostbit trying to recover the cylinder of serum.
In spite of the hardships, Kaassen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule. The next man up, Ed Rohn, was sleeping, so Kaassen and his team led by Balto continued on. They arrived in Nome at 5:30am. The relay of dog teams traveled the 674 miles in 127-1/2 hours. Not one vial of serum had been broken.
Gunnar Kaassen and Balto
For the first time since the Last Great Race first ran, mushers this year are not being allowed into villages due to coronavirus concerns. Checkpoints are in tents out on rivers away from communities. Spectators have been told not to show up in Nome to cheer as teams cross under the famed burled arch on Front Street.
If nothing else, 1925 shows us how vital it is to step up and come together at a time of crisis.
I don’t think I saw one power pole standing completely upright when I was in Newtok. Due to the melting permafrost, the poles were all leaning one way or the other. Some lines were so slack, I had to duck under them, some were so taught, I expected them to snap at any moment. Several poles had been propped up with lumber.
We needed a ride across the Ninglick River to the new townsite of Mertarvik. So the word went out, and by morning we had a couple of offers of snow machine rides. I also had received an offer to guide us the nine miles across by foot. Of our little troupe, I was the only one who was intrigued by this, although I had one guy who said, “If you’re walking to Mertarvik, I sure as hell won’t let you be the only one!” In the end, lack of time overcame intense desire, and I hitched a ride on the back of a snow machine.
The snow machine trail back to Newtok
Thirty minutes later, I was dropped off at the Tundra View Lodge. Within fifteen minutes my partner in crime arrived, and we set off to explore the new location for Newtok.
The Tundra View Lodge
People started to move across to Mertarvik from Newtok in October of last year. First in line were the people who were displaced or very soon to be displaced, either by the melting permafrost or the river erosion. Approximately twenty-two homes have been completed in Mertarvik, along with an evacuation center that currently houses the school.
In the evacuation center, I talked with an elder on the move from her traditional home. She told me that she had cried for weeks leading up to the move, and the first few days in the new location. But after a week or so in Mertarvik, she no longer wanted to go back to Newtok. This was home now, and it was time to move forward. The upcoming weekend had an area wide basketball tournament at the Newtok gym, the elder confessed to me that her granddaughter was playing, but she didn’t even want to cross the river for that!
Toksook Bay traveling basketball team
Since the planes were not flying between the villages due to high winds, the basketball teams from around Nelson Island headed over to Newtok by snow machine. I believe this is the Toksook Bay team, as they took a break on the edge of Mertarvik, before taking on the final nine miles to Newtok. Toksook Bay is approximately 59 miles, as the caribou plods, from Newtok.
Mertarvik, looking back across the river towards Newtok
The move across the Ninglick River has been 20 years in the making for the villagers of Newtok. A lot of challenges remain, and the move for the remaining people of the village will still be a long and slow process, but the residents here are a hardy bunch.
There is something quite impressive about a Southwestern Alaska blizzard. We were out at the far end of the village, when our local guide told us that we had 15 minutes left to take cover. He had become incredibly reliable with his predictions, and we had already used up 3/4 of an hour from his first warning call. He had been counting down regularly after that first one.
Visibility had been shortened considerably, and it was obvious that we needed to take cover soon. Even Bear, our furry, four-legged companion, had left us to take his own cover at the 30 minute warning mark.
One side of the church…
… and the other side of the church after the storm.
By sunset, one could hardly see the closest building to you. The wind howled over, under and around the building that housed us. It was simply put: Intense. I can’t think of any time I have experienced such fierce winds. In Fairbanks, we rarely see much wind, the colder it gets, the calmer it gets. Out here in Newtok was a totally different animal. Which meant that we spent far too much time outside reveling in the chaos.
The next day, the kids were climbing up snow drifts against a couple of connex units and running the length of them, then launching off into the massive piles of snow. Backflips were par for the course.
Trails that we had been walking, now had steep drops, only to have us climb back up the other side.
We flew in on a Wednesday, and due to weather, another flight didn’t land at Newtok for the next 8 days. Weather permitting, Grant Aviation makes 2-3 flights per day.