We have previously considered the essential role dogs have played in making human life possible in the Polar Regions. Here is a brief account of one of the most famous examples of an almost superhuman lifesaving effort by men and their dogs.
In December 1924, just outside Nome, a gold-mining town in Alaska, a 2 year old Inuit boy contracted diphtheria and died. So began what became a substantial outbreak affecting both native and settler communities.
The first cases were misdiagnosed as tonsillitis and it was not until 20th January, 1925 that diphtheria was confirmed. The local hospital’s stock of diphtheria anti-toxin, dated from 1918, too old to use.
Fresh supplies, ordered in the summer of 1924, would come by ship to Nome. It had not arrived before the winter ice closed the harbour.
More cases were diagnosed. The Mayor, called an emergency meeting of the town council. It was evident that they faced a growing epidemic and the doctor estimated that at least a million units of the anti-toxin serum would be needed. The State Governor was informed of the situation and a telegram, to Washington DC carried an urgent plea for supplies of anti-toxin to be delivered by whatever means possible.
Using a relay of dog sled teams to carry the serum, once it was available, to Nome was suggested. Consolidated Gold Fields had an employee, Leonhard Seppala, who was already famous as a dog sled racer, in Nome. He could go from there with his team to Nulato, 315 miles away. There he could meet a team coming from Nenana, considered the best place to pick up the anti-toxin for the journey.
Some argued for flying the supply by bush plane, however only two of these aircraft were located in the area and both were stowed away, dismantled, for the winter.
Meanwhile, three hundred thousand units of the diphtheria anti-toxin serum were rushed by train from the Anchorage Railroad Hospital to Nenana. It arrived on 27th January. It wasn’t enough to end the epidemic but it would serve to hold it in check until more arrived. Over a million more units from hospitals all over the country were being shipped to Seattle for transport by sea to Seaward, near Anchorage, but that would not arrive before the first week in February.
Leonhard Seppala was already training his team of 20 dogs, led by his usual lead dog, Togo. Togo was already famous in the dog sled racing world and was getting on in years for a working dog in these conditions at 12 years old.
The plan was modified to use more teams to break the journey into more stages. On 27th January the first driver, “Wild Bill,” Shannon, set out with his team from Nenana railway station, carrying the 20lb pack of serum. His lead dog, Blackie, was five years old and an experienced sled dog. Shannon chose to travel along the relatively smooth surface of the frozen Tanana River to avoid the rutted track which could tear the pads of the dogs’ paws and cause ankle injuries. He ran alongside the sled to reduce the drag and keep as warm as possible.
He arrived at the roadhouse at Minto where he rested the dogs and himself and warmed the antitoxin. This had to be done at every opportunity to prevent it freezing and becoming useless. Apparently by this time, parts of his face were blackened by severe frostbite. After four hours rest, Shannon resumed his leg of the relay with just six dogs, leaving three behind. He arrived at the next staging post, Tolovana at 11.00a.m on the 28th January where he handed the serum over to the next driver.
Shannon and his team were described as being in pretty bad shape. When he returned home afterwards, two of the dogs he had left at Minto died. There is no record of what became of the third.
The serum continued its journey and reached the roadhouse at Shaktoolik on 31st January.
From there, Leonhard Seppala with Togo and his team had the task of taking the short cut across the frozen sea water of Norton Sound, the most dangerous part of the whole journey, due to the unpredictable nature of the treacherous sea ice which was actually starting to break up, just to make a bad situation worse!
Seppala and his large team of dogs set out into the Arctic storm, reaching Isaac’s Point a day later, a distance of 84 miles. He rested his team and himself for a few hours and then pressed on to Golovin, crossing more of the hazardous Norton Sound and traversing Little McKinley Mountain.
By then there were 28cases of diphtheria in Nome. The serum the teams were carrying was sufficient to treat 30.
The wind speed was 80 mph by then and when the serum arrived at Bluff the temperature was down to -57˚C. It was handed over to Gunnar Kaasen, a young Norwegian, trained by Seppala, and his team led by the soon to be famous Balto.
Kaasen waited a while for the storm to abate before setting out into the still ferocious weather. He later reported that at times the visibility was so bad that he could not even see the last two dogs in the team, nearest to the sled!
For various reasons he skipped the next stop and pressed on to Port Safety where he arrived considerably earlier than expected. Finding the next driver still asleep he decided that, rather than wait for him to get kitted up and his team ready, he would take a short rest and warm the serum and then press on again.
This he did and finally arrived outside the Merchants and Miners Bank on Front Street in Nome at 5.30am on February 2nd. A few people were about and they reported that on stopping, Kaasen staggered to the front of the team and collapsed there. He was heard to mutter, “Damn fine dog!” referring of course to Balto.
The serum delivered by means of this heroic example of men and dogs working together, held the situation in Nome until more substantial supplies could reach the town. Kaasen and Balto and Seppala and Togo became national heroes, particularly Kaasen and Balto, theirs being the team that actually brought the serum into town. It seems a little unfair to the other drivers and their dogs but such is the nature of fame and public acclamation! It should not be forgotten that at least four dogs did not survive the run.
Today, the Nome serum run is commemorated annually in a dog sled race in rather less desperate circumstance. This has been a very much condensed summary of the story. To find out much more fascinating detail, read The Cruelest Miles by Gay and Laney Salisbury, ISBN- 13:978-0393325706. There can be found the full story including all the events leading up to the run and what happened afterwards.
This article was provided by freelance copywriter uk, Pete Hopper of Write For You.
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