The Iditarod

The famous great sled dog race.

The Iditarod

In the 1950s and 60s the use of working dogs gradually disappeared throughout North America. Airplanes and snowmobiles eliminated the need for sled dogs as transportation. Joe Redington, Sr. conceived the idea of a long-distance sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome. The Iditarod, more than any other factor, is responsible for preserving mushing and continuing its traditions. The Iditarod a 1000+ mile race, is today the most reported and recognized sled dog race in the world. The course roughly follows an old mail route, the Iditarod Trail. About 60 teams enter the Iditarod each year. It takes the winner about 10 days to reach Nome.

One of the most famous Iditarod mushers is four-time winner Susan Butcher. Libby Riddles was the first woman to win the Iditarod in 1985. Look for another woman, Aily Zirkle, to be competitive this year. Aily won the other 1000-mile sled dog race, the Yukon Quest, in 2000. The teams consist of a maximum of 16 dogs. Dogs that are injured or tired can be dropped off with race veterinarians at checkpoints that are between 20-50 miles apart. The dropped dogs are well taken care of and flown back to Anchorage in small planes. They are cared for by volunteers in Anchorage until they are picked up by the musher's family. The dogs that run the Iditarod start training in the summer and may log over 3000 miles in training runs before they start the race. They are cared for like Olympic athletes, with special diets and training regimens.

The 1925 Serum Run to Nome, Alaska

An outbreak of diphtheria was diagnosed by Dr. Curtis Welch on January 21, 1925, in Nome, Alaska. Nome is a remote village on Alaska's northwestern coast. No roads connect Nome to the major cities of Alaska. The only way to get to Nome is by plane, boat, or dog team. Dr. Welch immediately sent telegraph messages to Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seward and Juneau, asking for help. The only serum in Alaska was found in Anchorage at the Alaska Railroad Hospital, where they had 300,000 units.

The problem was to get it to Nome in the shortest time possible. The only two planes available were in Fairbanks and had been dismantled and stored for the winter. A pair of pilots offered to attempt the flight if the planes could be made ready, but it was left to Alaska's governor to decide. Many thought dog teams were the only reliable answer. In Juneau, Governor Scott C. Bone decided on dog teams. He ordered an additional supply of antitoxin from Seattle. Then he called on the Northern Commercial Company to arrange for relay teams. Mail, people and cargo were transported by dog teams in Alaska in those days. There were no roads, and dog teams were the best mode of transportation. (They still are today, in many parts of rural Alaska.)

The Army Signal Corps, at their scattered telegraph stations, also assisted. It was decided to send the serum to Nenana by railroad and then relay the serum to Nome using local mail carrier dog teams. At Anchorage, Dr. Beeson packed the serum in a cylinder, which he wrapped in an insulating quilt. The whole parcel was then tied up in canvas for further protection. The parcel left Anchorage by train on Monday, January 26, in charge of conductor Frank Knight of the Alaska Railroad.

It was at 11 p.m. on Tuesday that the train reached Nenana and Knight turned over the parcel to the first driver, William "Wild Bill" Shannon. Shannon carried the serum 52 miles to Tolovana, where he handed it over to Dave Green. Green carried it 31 miles to Manley and handed it over to Johnny Folger. Folger went the 28 miles to Fish Lake. Sam Joseph picked it up there and carried it 67 miles to Tanana. Titus Nickoli carried it 34 miles to Kallands and Dave Corning carried it 24 miles to Nine Mile. Edgar Kalland picked it up at Nine Mile and went 30 miles to Kokrines and Harry Pitka carried it another 30 miles to Ruby. Billy McCarty carried it 28 miles to Whiskey Creek and turned it over to Edgar Nollner, who carried it to Galena. George Nollner carried it from Galena to Bishop Mountain, 18 miles. Charlie Evans went the 30 miles to Nulato and Tommy Patsy went the next 36 miles to Kaltag. At Kaltag, Tommy Patsy picked it up and took it 40 miles to Old Woman. Jack Screw carried it 34 miles to Unalakleet and Myles Gonangnan carried it 40 miles to Shaktoolik. Leonhard Seppala left Nome intending to rest at Nulato and return with the serum. But Seppala met Gonangnan at Shaktoolik where he took the serum and turned around, heading back for Nome. He carried the serum back over Norton Sound with the thermometer 30 degrees below zero. Seppala had to face into a merciless gale and in the darkness retraced his route across the uncertain ice. When Seppala turned the serum over to Charlie Olson in Golovin, after carrying it 91 miles, he had traveled a total of 260 miles. Olson turned the serum over to Gunnar Kaasen, who took it the remaining 53 miles to Nome.

The serum arrived in Nome just one week after leaving Anchorage and 127 1/2 hours from Nenana. It arrived in time to prevent a large outbreak of diptheria. Balto, Kaasen's lead dog, owned by Seppala, was memorialized with a statue in Central Park in New York City. The inscription reads:

Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice across treacherous waters through arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the Winter of 1925. Endurance, Fidelity, Intelligence.

Sources

This information comes from a combination of personal knowledge from a TOTTSHR volunteer and articles on the following web sites:

The Iditarod Trail Committee