Tag Archives: iditarod

The Great Race of Mercy

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.


Iditarod 2019


Aily Zirkle and her team mush out of Anchorage on Saturday.

This weekend was Iditarod weekend in Anchorage & Willow. The ceremonial start to the “Last Great Race” was on Saturday in Alaska’s largest city. The race officially began, for the 52 competing mushers, outside of Willow the next day.


Sea ice image of Norton Sound; Satellite image credit: NASA

This year, the race will follow the southern route, which goes through the old mining town of Iditarod, the race’s namesake. Normally, mushers travel the sea ice of Norton Sound when they approach Nome. This year, however, the sea ice is at a minimum, and the trail has been routed over land, adding approximately 40 miles to the 1000 mile sled dog race.


Iditarod Trail Map


2018 Iditarod

The Last Great Race started this past weekend, and leaders arrived in the village of Takotna (Mile 329) on Tuesday night. Many mushers, including Mitch Seavey, who was leading at the time, stopped here for their mandatory 24 hour rest.
Norwegian, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, gambled and flew through Ophir (Mile 352) at 4:52am on Wednesday. Ulsom is expected to take his 24 hour layover further on down the historic trail in Iditarod.

Trail temperature was at 32 degrees on Wednesday, which will slow down travel. Depending on what happens with the weather, Ulsom’s gamble may or may not pay off. It should be noted that the 31 year old musher from Norway has never finished outside of the Top 10, and his best finish was last year when he came in fourth.
The next check point for Ulsom is the trail’s namesake: the abandoned mining town of Iditarod. The first musher to enter Iditarod, the halfway point in the southern route, gets $3000 worth of gold nuggets. Ulsom, is still running a full team of 16 dogs.


A musher comes into the Nikolai checkpoint. Photo credit: Loren Holmes/ADN


45th Iditarod Wrap


Mitch Seavey, with lead dogs Pilot & Crisp in Nome. Photo credit:AP

Mitch Seavey, of Seward, Alaska, won his third Iditarod. Not only did Seavey beat his own record on being the oldest to win the Iditarod at age 57, but he also won the race in record time: 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes and 13 seconds.

The elder Seavey already won “The Last Great Race” in 2013 at the age of 53.

Dallas Seavey took second place, with Nicolas Petit coming into Nome five minutes later for third.


Iditarod Update #2


Race map credit: Alaska Dispatch News

As of 09:46am Monday, two time Iditarod winner, Mitch Seavey, was the only musher out of Koyuk. Nicolas Petit had arrived at Koyuk, approximately 45 minutes after Seavey had left. Defending champion, Dallas Seavey, Mitch’s son, was out of Shaktoolik, and running in third.

When asked about Mitch’s performance, Dallas had this to say about his dad: “He’s beating the crap out of us and everybody else in this race. I’m not upset, I’m impressed and kudos to him”. Dallas Seavey is looking for his fifth Iditarod title.

There is 171 miles of trail between the village of Koyuk and the burled arch in Nome.