The Nenana Ice Classic tripod was raised on the Tanana River this past weekend. The Ice Classic is our annual event, where residents and visitors can guess when the ice goes out on the Tanana. This is the 104th year of the event. Tickets are $2.50 per guess. The ice thickness as of Sunday was 44-1/2″.
The 2021 Iditarod:
The Last Great Race is seeing a lot of changes for Covid-2021. The race will not end at Nome this year, due to Covid concerns. In fact, to protect villagers, mushers will not be venturing into communities like in a normal year. Due to the new route, which is now an 850 mile long loop, teams will race to the ghost town of Flat, and return to Willow.
There was no ceremonial start in Anchorage this year. The 46 mushers and their teams went directly to Willow for the Sunday morning start time. Press accounts have the crowd at starting line at 300 visitors, mostly family and dog handlers. In a normal year, there would be at least 6000 cheering the teams on.
The fourth day of the drive back to Alaska took me to McLeod Lake on the famed Fraser River of British Columbia.
I was starting to see more wildlife now, and that always adds to the drive for me. I was woefully unprepared for wildlife photography however, with a cell phone and the 120 shooter, a Kodak 66. I made do, as best I could.
The first real sighting in BC was a moose. I did not stop for a moose, nor did I later stop for a caribou. I see them all the time, as it is.
One of many black bear
I do not normally see a lot of black bear in Alaska, so I stopped to take pictures of a couple of them. In all, black bear ruled the animal sighting roost: I spotted 17 along the road, all eating the lush grass, like the one in the picture.
This picture came about, mainly because I had spotted a lynx, which is an incredibly rare sighting along a road. I hit reverse, but by the time I came to where I had seen the wary cat, it had made its way to the tree line. Just 100 yards further on, was this black bear. I hadn’t even made it out of second gear yet, so it didn’t take a lot of effort on my part to slow for it.
Further on down the road, I came across a pair of bison. I would go on to spot several on this day. They really are magnificent beasts.
I did not see my first grizzly until the final day of my drive, after crossing into Alaska. It was a sow and her cub. The cub was absolutely adorable, as it stood on its hind legs in order to get a better look at me, or maybe my car. I did slow down in order to attempt to get a picture, but that action seemed to intrigue the mother a tad too much. She started to trot right over to my car, leaving her cub standing on the opposite shoulder. Since I was in a car that sat lower than she stood, and I had an open window for a clear view, I decided the picture wasn’t that important and released the clutch to move forward. The sow continued to trot, and I proceeded to engage second gear.
Larry Ball Sr; Induction into the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame; Photo credit: The Curator
Larry Ball Sr, the father of a good friend of mine, passed away from Covid-19 complications over the weekend.
I spent several months in Iowa in 2007-08, and was lucky enough to get to know Senior, or LBS, as he was known to many of us. I worked, i.e. volunteered, as a glorified bouncer on the Second Floor of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame during races. LBS and his family had a suite above, and I would wander up to see them at some point during every race, and Senior was always a most gracious host. In 2008, LBS was inducted into the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame, as the successful car owner of Ball Racing.
Photo credit: Ball Racing, Inc; Jeff Tuttle in #3, 1994
The last time I saw LBS in Des Moines, he and Saint Donna, his wife, put me up for a night as I spent some time in DSM. Senior kept me up half the night arguing a point that was desperately important to him. The best part of that conversation, was that we were debating something that we were in total agreement on. To this day, I’m not sure if he was hammering the point home because I wasn’t a convincing accomplice, or because he expected me to come up with a plan of attack, because he had already done the hard part by detailing the problem. It’s a night that I look back on fondly.
LBS was a frequent visitor here between The Circles. I remember hearing from him one February, because my posts had been very infrequent, and he wanted to know what was up. When I told him it was February in Fairbanks, and there wasn’t much going on to write about, he was unconvinced and told me to try harder.
Over the course of the years, I’ve done a fair amount of traveling, and the great surprise and reward of travel is not the locations, but the people I have met by chance. A random hockey game in Fairbanks brought Des Moines back into my orbit, which in turn, brought me into the orbit of Larry Ball, Sr. What a rewarding hockey game that turned out to be.
Rest in peace, Larry. You will be missed by many, and East Des Moines will never be the same.
Emmitt Peters crosses the Iditarod finish line in Nome in 1982. He came in 4th place that year.
Emmitt Peters, the Athabascan sled dog musher from Ruby, Alaska, passed away this past week.
Peters, known on the trail as “The Yukon Fox”, won the 1975 Iditarod as a rookie. Not only did he win, but he shaved off six days from the previous record time. To this day, The Yukon Fox remains the only musher to win the Iditarod as a rookie.
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.
A musher and dog team take the Chena River out of Fairbanks
The Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race started on Saturday morning. Fifteen teams left Fairbanks, with the goal of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory in 9 days, give or take.
It was a rather chilly morning to be hanging out on the Chena River to cheer the teams on their way, but several hundred people turned out to do just that. It was -25F when I left the cabin, and it must have been -30 down on the river ice. Everyone, including the dogs, were bundled up.
The 1000 mile race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse first started in 1984. A 1983 bull-session in the Bull’s Eye Saloon in Fairbanks, led to the race’s creation. Twenty-six teams left Fairbanks that first year. The winner, Sonny Linder, made it to Whitehorse in just over 12 days.
The Quest follows the historic gold rush routes between the Yukon and Alaska’s Interior, traveling frozen rivers and crossing four mountain ranges. Dawson City, YT is the half-way point. In even years, the race starts in Fairbanks, and in odd years the race starts in Whitehorse.
There are ten checkpoints and four dog drops, where dogs can be dropped off, but not replaced. Sleds can not be replaced without a penalty. The record run happened in 2010, when Hans Gatt finished in 9 days, 26 minutes. The slowest time happened in 1988, when Ty Halvorson completed the race in 20 days, 8 hours, 29 minutes.
There is a small local museum on the second floor of the Co-Op Plaza Building in the heart of downtown Fairbanks. I believe that two museums combined forces, with the Community Museum embracing the once separate Dog Mushing Museum, which had fallen on hard times.
The 1962 Bombardier Ski-Doo is a powerhouse of snow, stomping fun. The four-cycle engine produces 7 whole horsepower, and offers a top speed of 15mph. Is that quicker than a horse-drawn sleigh? The little Ski-Doo last raced in the 2006 Tired-Iron Snowmachine Rally, which is an annual event here in Fairbanks.
Dog mushing is a major part of Interior Alaska’s identity, although recreational mushers are becoming a rare breed. Currently, around the same time frame in March as the Dog Derby of 1941, Fairbanks hosts the Open North American Championship dog sled races. The Open North American brings in mushers from around the globe.
The big race for Fairbanks is the Yukon Quest, which runs between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The 1000 mile race was first run in 1984. The start line alternates yearly between the two cities.
This Yukon style toboggan, circa 1920, is representative of the style used in the Interior Alaska woods. They traveled better than sleds with runners. The woodwork was obviously done by hand, and the sides, and back are made of moose hide. It was built, owned and operated by a famed local trapper.
The museum is full of photographs from all stages of Fairbanks’ history. From the gold rush days of its founding, to the Great Flood, and beyond.
During the tourist season, the film “Attla” has been shown on a weekly basis at the museum. George Attla was the iconic Alaskan dogsled racer. He dominated sprint races, with a career that spanned from 1958 to 2011, doing it all on one good leg. Mr Attla, originally from the village of Koyukuk, passed away in 2015.
On a separate, but related note: The PBS show, “Independent Lens” will be broadcasting an episode on George Attla on December 16. Check your local PBS station for showtimes.