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.
Courtesy of the snow bound folks in Valdez, Alaska
I stopped by the grocery store on Friday morning, and was amazed at how many people wanted to encroach into my 6 foot bubble. I wasn’t even in the TP aisle! I wondered if people just don’t know what a six foot gap looks like. Lo & behold, the fine folks in Valdez have had the same thought.
In all honesty, this is the only time of year in Alaska where one sees only 457 mosquitoes in a space of six feet. Swatting season is just around the corner!
Over the weekend, I was asked if I had been affected much by actions for theCoronavirus.
Up until now, I’ve been affected only mildly. I imagine that will change shortly.
I’ve had a project going lately, which has taken me out to a few remote Alaska villages. I’ve basically been doing the two week on, two week off schedule, and the virus really hit the fan when I was out in the Naknek region. I finished my assignment, came back to Fairbanks, and will not be going out again. The project has been put on hiatus, although I suspect it has really been cancelled, at least for the foreseeable future.
I had a construction project already lined up for my return. Materials were on site, the building empty, so I worked on that all week, and will finish probably today or tomorrow. Like most people I know who work construction up here, I have no work projects currently on the horizon.
Normally, this is the time of year when I escape and go Outside, thus avoiding the Interior Alaska Breakup Season. A group of us attend the Frozen Four hockey championships that take place every April, but this year they have been canceled. When in the Lower 48, I would check in on my Dad, as well as other family & friends about now, but traveling anywhere is beyond a bad idea, so I’m staying in Alaska. From up here, airplanes & airports seem like giant petri dishes, but to be honest, my greatest unease with travel right now is the thought that if I leave Alaska, I won’t be able to come back! That’s enough to give any cabin-dweller the shivers.
The shelves at the local grocery stores & Costco are looking pretty sparse, but I’m well-stocked anyway. It’s kind of an Alaskan thing, I suppose. When you live at the end of the road, having enough food to get you through a patch of bad weather, or a closing of the Alaska Highway, or a barge losing its load coming up from Seattle, is just something we do. Especially in the winter months. I have a freezer stocked with salmon, rock fish, halibut and other Alaska morsels, so I’m good to go there. I am a bit low on blueberries, but that’s par for the course this time of year.
A friend wanted me to stop by the other day on my way home from work. I declined the invite, saying I should probably partake in some social distancing. I was informed that this was hardly new for me, and the virus was just a convenient excuse. I had to chuckle, because if left to my own devices, I can be a notorious hermit. I have no problem retreating into my little world at the end of the road, and turning off the phone and computer. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, someone threatened to call out the dog sled teams to hunt for me, when I went off grid for barely a week.
I have books to read, letters to write, and LP’s to spin – inside; trails to walk, lakes to circle on snowshoes, and moose to try to capture on film – outside.
We can’t control the virus; all we can do is try our best not to catch it. I hope, and fully expect, to see all of you on the other side of this.
I was reminded of an Inuit saying when revisiting the documentary “Noatak: Return to the Arctic”.
“I think over again
My small adventures
Those small ones that seemed so big
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach
And yet there is only one great thing
To live and see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.”
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.
The lean in the post office building is quite visible here. This was the day after the storm, and when we first walked by, you could not see the building under the snowdrift. On our return, a couple of hours later, the front had mostly been shoveled, but the front steps and door were still encased in snow.