Monday, January 25, 2010
By Linda Cole
The Iditarod serum run of 1925 put man and dog smack dab into the middle of nature's fury. Both mushers and dogs had to stay on their toes and keep their wits about them to survive their mission. Without hesitation for their safety, these men made what was thought by some to be a foolish and impossible run on the only trail that linked Nome to the lower part of Alaska. But because of their compassion, grit, trust and knowledge in the ability of their dogs to persist through difficult and at times dangerous conditions, a handful of men were able to save many lives that could have been lost.
Twenty men and 150 dogs took turns inching their way along the mail route as each man handed their precious cargo off to the next musher and team of dogs. They ran 674 miles in five and a half days and safely delivered serum to Nome, Alaska. This small town had been hit with a diphtheria epidemic that threatened the entire town which is only 130 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Most of the relay was done in the dark which makes the Iditarod serum run even more amazing.
Because a major winter storm had developed, the only feasible mode of transportation was by dog sled. Racing along the one established trail, the mail route, the first team headed into the storm. Anyone who lives in an area where wind chills can drop to -50 to -90 can appreciate the determination and grit it took for the men and their dogs to set out on their mission of mercy in one of Alaska's mighty storms.
The names of the 20 mushers who ran the Iditarod serum run have been recorded, but only some of the names of the dogs are known. Balto, Togo and Fritz have been recorded for posterity and are considered the most famous, but each dog had a name and a role in the success of the run. Twenty lead dogs persisted through howling winds, which at times were gale force, frigid temperatures and blinding snow. Each dog had earned their musher's trust in their ability and confidence in their instincts to lead.
The lead dog steers the sled and sets an example for all the other dogs to follow. It's his responsibility to keep the other team members safe. A good lead dog is strong, confident, intelligent and capable of following commands. Good instincts and being familiar with the trail they ran on enabled the dogs to stay on track and avoid any serious accidents that could have spelled disaster if the serum had been lost or any of the vials broken.
Leonhard Seppala was in Nome as the serum run began. He was considered to be the premier dog musher of his time with the best dogs. Togo was his lead dog and Fritz is believed to have run either beside Togo or directly behind him. Seppala planned on taking a risky shortcut across the unpredictable ice packs off shore on Norton Sound as he headed south to meet up with the relay team heading north to Nome. Because of Togo's experience and the trust Leonhard had in his dog, Togo skillfully lead the team of 20 dogs safely over the shifting and breaking ice pack twice—once heading south to meet the others and then on his return trip with the medicine.
Togo was 12 years old at the time of the serum run which is a testament to his stamina and desire. On top of that, Seppala's team ran farther than any of the other teams in the relay. He and his dogs began their trip in Nome, the very place where the serum was heading. Norton Sound was considered to be the most dangerous part of the entire run because the ice pack was breaking up and only the best driver and dogs would be able to navigate around the cracking ice. Seppala, Togo and the rest of his team ran a total of 260 miles. They covered 84 miles in one day running at 8 mph, in the dark.
Balto and his team ran the last leg of the relay and is the dog most people remember. Every dog and man pulled their own weight in bone chilling weather conditions that threatened the success of the run at every mile. The story of the Iditarod serum run of 1925 chronicles how man and dogs trusted in the abilities and instincts of each other to survive in the wilds of Alaska. It’s a story that is important to remember and one that needs to be retold from time to time because it's a story about the courage of dogs and men.
Read more articles by Linda Cole