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.
When I sent in the film from the Billy-Clack, I had one roll of 120 black & white film that I could not remember when I had shot it. Somehow, a roll of film had been forgotten in a pack pocket during one of my travels. It sat around for a bit more, as I waited to get some more 120 used up.
The roll does have some history to it, and it has been a while. It’s from the last time The Rover was down in the Lower 48. Probably right after I swapped out the motor, because there are a few shots of San Antonio.
There was also a shot of some young punk, riding alongside me in the Land Rover, taking a picture of himself as he stuck out his tongue at the camera. He also took this shot of the Rover dash, probably scared at how fast we were moving.
I must have been concentrating on traffic, because I do not remember him sticking his tongue out at me or the camera.
Camera: Agfa Clack (not the Billy-Clack); Film: Kodak 120 TMax 100; Photographer: Minnesota “Moose” Matthew
The Chatanika Lodge in the heart of downtown Chatanika, Alaska
When in Chatanika, one really should stop in and see Ron & Shirley at The Lodge. It is a collection of Alaskana; along with some spruce burls, Christmas lights, and a few dollar bills thrown in for good measure.
The bar at the Chatanika Lodge
The Lodge was originally part of the F.E. Company holdings. The current owners bought the building in 1974, the place had a fire in 1975, but was rebuilt and back in operation within three months. They have been adding things to the walls and ceilings ever since.
The Chatanika Lodge Ballroom, or dance floor…
The Lodge has 11 rooms for rent, as well as the full bar and restaurant. The Dredge Burger is quite popular. It’s also a popular place to go for live music on the weekends.
The T-Bird room
There is a 1956 Thunderbird in the back of the restaurant in the T-Bird Room. The car was brought up to Alaska in 1992.
One of the highlights of March in Interior Alaska is Chatanika Days, and the famed outhouse races. Contestants build an outhouse on skis, and a team pushes the outhouse around a “track”. One team member must be sitting on the throne, within the outhouse, as the team scampers about the track. Life is good, if a bit odd, in the Interior.