The Last Great Race

by Joe Swiffen, 3rd February 2021

As the world is whipped up into a vaccine frenzy, Joe Swiffen of Mynydd Sleddog Adventures explains how an epidemic of diphtheria a century ago prompted a similar race for survival

What on earth do sled dogs have to do with Covid-19? Well, actually nothing. But in the deepest, darkest, coldest part of winter, a similar situation occurred in the region of Nome, Alaska nearly a century ago and it was our brave sled dogs and their handlers who saved the day.

In December 1924, an epidemic of diphtheria struck the population of 10,000 inhabitants, many of whom were gold rush prospectors, settlers and indigenous people. 

Curtis Welch was a lone doctor in the area who worked alongside four nurses. Dr Welch warned that the illness had the capacity to kill all the inhabitants of Nome as Diphtheria is a highly contagious illness commonly known back then as ‘the strangling angel of children’. The only antitoxin available in the town had expired in 1918 and despite new batches being ordered in 1924, they simply never arrived.

In January 1925, with thick arctic snow covering the Alaskan interior, temperatures ranging from -50F to -85F, and gale force winds to boot, Dr Welch had no choice but to order Nome to be quarantined. Emily Morgan, the quarantine nurse, took on the dreaded job of placing notices on the homes of those inhabitants who were suspected or confirmed cases, warning: 'Do Not Enter – DIPHTHERIA!'

On 22nd January, a telegram was sent by Dr Welch asking for one million units of Diphtheria Anti Toxin. As the child inhabitants of Nome grew increasingly sick and the death toll rose, the authorities fought amongst themselves as to how the antitoxin serum would be delivered to Nome. In the depths of the Alaskan winter, planes and automobiles would not withstand the weather conditions, so it was agreed that the antitoxin serum would be delivered from Anchorage to Nenana by train and from Nenana to Nome by dog-sled relay.  

Developed by the indigenous people of Alaska, Canada and Siberia, sled dogs were traditionally used to haul heavily loaded sleds for many hundreds of miles to remote fishing and hunting grounds, before returning to camps with their weighty catch. Canadian and Alaskan sled dogs were generally heavy, brawny dogs known today as freight dogs; they could be slow, cumbersome and at times not so well mannered. 

The Chukchi people (from the coastal tip of Siberia), however, selectively bred the Siberian Husky to pull sleds to their fishing grounds, and also to live as part of the family unit, keeping the native people warm in their dwellings at night when temperatures dropped. Siberians were much smaller, faster, ate less food and were better natured than their Alaskan cousins. 

During the gold rush era, sled-dog teams were used to deliver the mail and supplies throughout the Alaskan interior, and in early 1900, William Goosack introduced the Siberian Husky to Alaska with epic results. The locals initially laughed, calling the dogs ‘Siberian rats!’. But the little Siberian dogs proved themselves against the freighting dogs and in 1910, the All Alaska Sweepstakes race was won by a team of Siberian Huskies. Their musher (dog-sled driver) was a Norwegian settler named Leonard Seppala. 

To save the lives of the people of Nome, a relay of 20 sled-dog teams would be deployed to cover the gruelling 674 miles from Nenana to Nome (equivalent of Land’s End to Inverness). Leonard Seppala was notified that he and his Siberian dogs (pictured above) would be leading the efforts to save the town. Despite his elderly years, Togo a 12-year-old Siberian Husky, would lead Seppala’s team from Nome to meet the relay and return with the serum. 

On 27th January 1925, with temperatures as low as -50F, the first team of nine dogs left Nenana. Lead by five-year-old sled dog Blackie, the otherwise inexperienced team diverted from the planned trail due to severe weather conditions, to run on the frozen Tanana River. Musher ‘Wild Bill Shannon’ ran alongside the sled in order to keep warm as temperature drop to -62F, and arrived at Tolovana in bad shape after a gruelling 51 miles. Parts of his face was frost bitten and sadly three of his dogs later passed away. 

The second musher and his dogs ran 31 miles to the next team with little problem, other than his hands being frozen to the sled handlebar upon arrival! By 30th January, a further 170 miles had been covered by a relay of six teams. However, a major storm system set in, bringing record-breaking low temperatures to the Alaskan Interior. The 12th musher, Charlie Evans, sadly forgot to cover the vulnerable areas of his dog team and the frozen air caused them to collapse in front of him as a result of frostbite. Despite this, he lead his team himself to the next relay after his two lead dogs passed away.  

The local press reported: "all hope is in the dogs and their heroic drivers" as another life was taken in Nome. More dog teams were ordered to speed up the mission, with Leonard Seppala ready to take on the most dangerous part of the serum run. 

With temperatures now as low as -85F, Seppala, with his lead dog Togo and 12-dog Siberian team, made their way in the dark from Nome to meet the next team with the serum. 

At this point Seppala’s team had already covered 84 miles in the pitch dark. At 2am, Seppala and his Siberian dogs picked up the serum and headed back towards Nome. Togo lead the way and headed into the 65mph winds, over Little McKinley Mountain at 5000ft above sea level (higher than Ben Nevis) and back across Norton Sound as the pack ice started to brake behind them! 

With winds now hitting 80mph, Dr Welch ordered a stop to the relay in order to protect the lives of the mushers, but the order didn't get through and the relay continued. Meanwhile, the death toll in Nome rose to 28.

At 3am, Seppala passed the serum to musher Charlie Olsen who suffered from serious frostbite when placing blankets on his dogs. Nevertheless, Olsen passed the serum to the last musher in the relay, Gunnar Kaasen who was driving a team of Seppala’s little Siberians through the night. Balto and Fox lead the team through the continuing storm when snow drifts flipped the sled and Kaasen dropped the serum into the snow. Kaasen made the mistake of removing his gloves to find the serum in the darkness and later suffered from severe frost bite as a result. He eventually arrived in Nome with the antitoxin serum at 5.30am on 2nd February 1925... and promptly collapsed at the front of his team after thanking his lead dog Balto. 

In total 150 sled dogs and 20 mushers took part in the relay to save the inhabitants of Nome. Leonard Seppala and his Siberian Huskies travelled a total of 261 miles during the serum run, in some of the worst winter storms in Alaskan history. He and Togo have only just recently been recognised for their outstanding achievements.  

These days, every year sees ‘The Last Great Race’ celebrate sled dogs and in particular the ‘Serum Run’ of 1925. The 1,000-mile route runs from Anchorage to Nome and covers some of the roughest and most beautiful terrain including jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests and desolate tundra at temperatures far below zero with winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility. Despite the global pandemic, the organisers are planning to go ahead with this year’s race on 6th March. 

It's these kinds of factual events and stories that inspired my passion for sled dogs. After many years of daydreaming about arctic landscapes, native people, wolves and sled dogs, I took the plunge and in 2001 purchased my first Siberian Husky. The rest as they say is history! 

In December 2019, I launched Mynydd Sleddog Adventures, Wales' first and only sled-dog adventure trails, offering Husky rides and sleddog experiences. When the world settles again and Covid-19 is all but history, come and meet some of our Siberian Huskies and our other sled-dog breeds. They truly are amazing working animals.

Reference: The Cruellest Miles by Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury

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