Courage of the Musher   Leave a comment

Banner CourageI took a couple of weeks off from the Courage posts because I was finishing a book, but I’m back.

Remember what I said about not really believing in heroes. I think people do heroic things amid their mundane or abusive lives. I don’t believe anyone is really a hero. But some people do some really heroic things for a short period of time.

Image result for image of seppalaThis is a shared post. I thought I was going to focus on Leonhard Seppala for this article, but then when I started my research, I remembered that there were a lot of heroes in the 1925 serum run to Nome, sometimes called the Great Race of Mercy. Seppala was indeed heroic, but he wasn’t the only one, and not all of the heroes were human.

Forget what you think you know about the Iditarod. Anchorage had nothing to do with it and the dog Balto wasn’t the star.

Nome lies approximately 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle, out on the tip of the Seward Peninsula (the “nose” of Alaska). In 1925, it had shrunk from its gold-rush era population of about 20,000, but it was still the largest town in the northern half of Alaska. There were 455 Alaska Native residents and 975 settlers of European descent. From November to July, the port on the Bering Sea was icebound, inaccessible to steamships. The only link to the rest of the world during the winter was the Iditarod Trail, which ran 938 miles (1,510 km) from the port of Seward on the Kenai Peninsula in the south, across several mountain ranges and the vast Alaska Interior before reaching Nome. Dog sleds did the hauling of mail and needed supplies. Airplanes were still a decade away. Mail from the Lower 48 was transported 420 miles by train from Seward, which is icefree, to Nenana on the Tanana River, then transported 674 miles from Nenana to Nome by dog sled. It normally took 25 days.

Nome had 80,000 units of diphtheria antitoxin, but it had expired and the order to replace it had not arrived before the port closed. The last steamship of the year departed in December. The first case of diphtheria showed up only a few days later. It was originally misdiagnosed as tonsillitis, but by January 20, they knew it was diphtheria. Dr. Curtis Welch hesitated to use the expired antitoxin, but people were dying, so he injected a seven year old girl with the late stages of the disease with 6,000 units of antitoxin. It didn’t work.

Image result for image of seppalaWelch called the mayor and the town council into emergency session and announced he needed at least one million units to stave off an epidemic. The town entered quarantine while Welch radioed all the major towns in Alaska, pleading for assistance.

There were about 10,000 people living in the greater Nome area and the mortality rate was expected to be close to 100% without the antitoxin. A previous Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918 had wiped out 50% of the Native population of Nome. Natives lacked resistance to the disease.


Mark Summers of the Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields proposed a dogsled relay. Summer’s employee Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian, had previously make the usually 30-day run from Nulato to Nome in four days, but given the winter conditions, it was thought it would take nine days. The doctor calculated the antitoxin would last only six days under the brutal trail conditions. The mayor proposed flying the antitoxin by aircraft. The previous year, Carl Eielson had flown a DeHavilland DH4 from Fairbanks to McGrath in the winter, but it was considered highly dangerous and there were no pilots available to fly the available aircraft from Fairbanks. And, thus the relay began.

Image result for map of the route of the nome serum run

I don’t know if I can explain Alaska winter to you. In January  there are only a few hours of daylight a day and the sun gets about a thumb’s thickness above the horizon. The cold — wow, the cold. Step into a walkin freezer and stand there for 20 minutes. You get an inkling of how cold it is. Imagine facing that for days on end, standing on the runners of a dogsled facing into a high wind with blowing snow.

The US Public Health Service located 1.1 million units of serum in West Coast hospitals, shipped it to Seattle and put it on a steamship. It too a week to reach Seward. Meanwhile, the Anchorage Railroad Hospital discovered 300,000 forgotten units. They wrapped them in quilts, stowed them in a metallic cylinder and train bound for Nenana. It wasn’t sufficient to beat the epidemic, but 300,000 units would hold it at bay until the large shipment arrived.



The temperatures across the Interior were at 20-year lows due to a high pressure system from the Arctic. Fairbanks thermometers read −50 °F (−46 °C). A second system was burying the Panhandle (what we now call Southeast) with 25 mph (40 km/h) winds sweeping snow into 10-foot (3.05 m) drifts. Travel by sea was hazardous, and across the Interior most forms of transportation shut down.

While the first batch of serum was traveling to Nenana, Governor Bone gave final authorization to the dog relay, but ordered Edward Wetzler, the U.S. Post Office inspector, to arrange a relay of the best drivers and dogs across the Interior. The teams would travel day and night until they handed off the package to Seppala at Nulato.


The mail route from Nenana to Nome spanned 674 miles (1,085 km) in total. It crossed the barren Alaska Interior, following the Tanana River for 137 miles (220 km) to the village Tanana at the  confluence with the Yukon River, and then followed the Yukon for 230 miles (370 km) to Kaltag. The route then passed west 90 miles (140 km) over the Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet on Norton Sound. The final part of the route (and the only part that the modern race uses) continued for 208 miles (335 km) northwest around the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula with no protection from gales and blizzards, including a 42 miles (68 km) stretch across the shifting ice of the Bering Sea.

Wetzler contacted Tom Parson, an agent of the Northern Commercial Company, which contracted to deliver mail between Fairbanks and Unalakleet. Telephone and telegrams called the drivers back to their assigned roadhouses. Mail carriers held a revered position in the territory. They were typically the best dog mushers in Alaska. The majority of relay drivers across the Interior were native Athabaskans. In other words, these were men who knew that if the diphtheria spread, their families were the most at risk.

“Wild Bill” Shannon was the first musher to take the 20 pounds package at the train station in Nenana on January 27 at 9:00 PM AKST. Despite a temperature of −50 °F (−46 °C), Shannon left immediately with his team of 11 inexperienced dogs, led by Blackie. The temperature began to drop, and the team was forced onto the colder ice of the river because the trail had been destroyed by horses. Despite jogging alongside the sled to keep warm, Shannon developed hypothermia. He reached Minto at 3 AM, with parts of his face black from frostbiteThe temperature was −62 °F (−52 °C). After warming the serum by the fire and resting for four hours, Shannon dropped three dogs and left with the remaining eight. The three dropped dogs died and a fourth died later.

Half-Athabaskan Edgar Kalland arrived in Minto the night before, and was sent back to Tolovana, traveling 70 mi (110 km) the day before the relay. Shannon and his team arrived in bad shape at 11 AM, and handed over the serum. After warming the serum in the roadhouse, Kalland headed into the forest. The temperature had risen to −56 °F (−49 °C). According to the owner of the Manley Hot Springs roadhouse, they had to pour water over Kallands’ hands to get them off the sled’s handlebar when he arrived at 4 PM.


As deaths mounted and various schemes for flying the antitoxin into Nome were considered and rejected, Governor Bone decided to speed up the relay and authorized additional drivers for Seppala’s leg of the relay, so they could travel without rest. Seppala was still scheduled to cover the most dangerous leg, the shortcut across Norton , but because of the primative communications network of the day, they couldn’t get word to Seppala. They had to hope the drive from the north would catch Seppala on the trail. Summers arranged for drivers along the last leg, including Seppala’s colleague Gunnar Kaasen.

From Manley Hot Springs, the serum passed through largely anonymous Athabascan hands before George Nollner delivered it to Charlie Evans at Bishop Mountain on January 30 at 3 AM. The temperature had warmed slightly, but at −62 °F (−52 °C) was dropping again. Evans relied on his lead dogs when he passed through ice fog where the Koyukuk River had broken through in overflow, but failed to protect the bellies of his two short-haired mixed breed lead dogs with rabbit skins. Both dogs collapsed with frostbite. Evans threw the dogs in the sled and took the harness himself. He arrived in Kaltag at 10 AM  with two dead dogs. Tommy Patsy departed within half an hour.

The serum then crossed the Kaltag Portage in the hands of Jack Nicolai and Victor Anagick, who handed it to Myles Gonangnan on the shores at Unalakleet on January 31 at 5 AM. Gonangnan saw a storm brewing, and decided not to take the shortcut across the dangerous ice of the Sound. He departed at 5:30 AM in a white-out (that’s a blizzard with almost zero visibility. Conditions cleared as he reached the shore, and the gale-force winds drove the wind chill to −70 °F (−57 °C). At 3 PM he arrived at Shaktoolik. Seppala was not there, but Henry Ivanoff was waiting just in case.

By this time, 27 people were sick with diphtheria and Dr. Welch hoped to see the serum by February.

To reach the handoff point for his leg of the relay, Leonhard Seppala, his lead dog Togo and the rest of the team traveled 91 miles from Nome on January 27 to Shaktoolik by January 31. They took the shortcut directly across Norton Sound. When they left Nome it was a balmy −20 °F (−29 °C), but in Shaktoolik the temperature was estimated at −30 °F (−34 °C), and gale force winds caused a wind chill of −85 °F (−65 °C). Togo, a middle-aged dog of 12, ran 350 miles. He would never run again.

Henry Ivanoff’s team ran into a reindeer and got tangled up just outside Shaktoolik. Seppala still believed he had more than 100 miles (160 km) to go and was racing to get off the Norton Sound before the storm hit. He was passing the team when Ivanoff shouted, “The serum! The serum! I have it here!”

With the news of the worsening epidemic, Seppala decided to brave the storm and once again set out across the exposed open ice of the Norton Sound when he reached Ungalik, after dark. The temperature was estimated at −30 °F (−34 °C) with a wind chill of -85. Seppala had to rely on his lead dog to find the way because the dark and the wind-blown snow cut his own visibility to zero. Togo led the team in a straight line through the dark, and they arrived at the roadhouse in Isaac’s Point on the other side at 8 PM. In one day, they had traveled 84 mi (135 km), averaging 8 mph (13 km/h). The team rested, and departed at 2 AM into the full power of the storm.

During the night the temperature dropped to −40 °F (−40 °C), and the wind increased to storm force (at least 65 mph (105 km/h). To gain time, the team ran across the ice parallel to the shoreline. Seppala knew he was risking the storm breaking up the ice and sending them all to the bottom of the Sound, but he also knew time was of the essence. They returned to shore to cross Little McKinley Mountain, climbing 5,000 feet (1,500 m). After descending to the next roadhouse in Golovin, Seppala passed the serum to Charlie Olsen on February 1 at 3 PM.

On February 1, the number of cases in Nome rose to 28. The serum en route was sufficient to treat 30 people. With the powerful blizzard raging and winds of 80 mph (130 km/h), Welch ordered a stop to the relay until the storm passed, reasoning that a delay was better than the risk of losing it all. Messages were left at Solomon and Point Safety before the lines went dead.

Safety is called safety because it is the last “safe” point before a grueling crossing of the Norton Sound. Charlie Olsen was blown off the trail, and suffered severe frostbite in his hands while putting blankets on his dogs. The wind chill was −70 °F (−57 °C). He arrived at Bluff on February 1 at 7 PM in poor shape. Gunnar Kaasen, who became famous as the owner of Balto (supposedly his lead dog), waited until 10 PM for the storm to break, but it only got worse and the drifts would soon block the trail so he departed into a headwind.

Kaasen traveled through the night, through drifts, and river overflow over the 600-foot (183 m) Topkok Mountain. Balto led the team through visibility so poor that Kaasen could not always see the wheel dogs, those harnessed closest to the sled. He was two miles (3 km) past Solomon before he realized it, and kept going. The winds after Solomon were so severe that his sled flipped over and he almost lost the cylinder containing the serum when it fell off and became buried in the snow. He acquired frostbite when he had to use his bare hands to feel for the cylinder.

Kaasen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule on February 2, at 3 AM. Ed Rohn believed that Kaasen and the relay was halted at Solomon, so he was sleeping. The weather was improving. Kaasen’s dogs were moving well and he reasoned it would take time to prepare Rohn’s team, so he pressed on the remaining 25 miles (40 km) to Nome, reaching Front Street at 5:30 AM. Not a single ampule was broken, and the antitoxin was thawed and ready by noon.

Together, the teams covered the 674 miles (1,085 km) in 127 and a half hours, which was considered a world record, incredibly done in extreme subzero temperatures in blizzard conditions and hurricane-force winds. Men were severely tested and a number of dogs died during the trip.

But the crisis and the relay wasn’t over. Diphtheria showed up in Solomon and it was decided to bring the antitoxin ordered from the Lower 48 by the same route. Many of the same dog drivers and dog teams participated in this second relay.

Seppala, Kasaan and Shannon received lavish attention for their part in the run while the media ignored the Athabaskan and Alaska Native mushers who covered two-thirds of the relay distance. Edgar Kalland dismissed it with typical Native understatement. “It was just an everyday occurrence as far as we were concerned.”


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