The Serum Run
ALASKA will never forget the bravery of war-trained
dogs and mushers who saved a community 80 years ago.
By: Mike Coppock
On Jan. 21, 1925, Dr. Curtis Welch of Nome , Alaska, looked in on two small Eskimo boys who were violently sick. After that, he was called to the home of a prominent Nome family whose son also was ill. Soon, all three boys were dead of diphtheria. It was an outbreak, and Nome did not have serum.
A frozen landscape isolated Nome from the rest of Alaska. No road connected it to any other place. No ships could sail through the sea ice. Open-cockpit air-planes of the time could not fly in the sub-zero temperatures. The nearest railhead was at Nenana, 674 miles away. Nome had one chance for survival that horrifying winter 80 years ago: relay mushers and well-trained sled dogs. To save the community, the teams would need to shatter the Nenana Trail record. The serum would last only six days in the extreme temperatures. No one had ever made the trip by sled team in fewer than nine days. But it was their only chance. Facing the challenge, the mushers turned to some of the greatest dogs that ever lived on this earth, some of which were used by American Expeditionary Forces on the Italian front during World War I.
No Time to Lose. A surgeon for the Alaska Railroad Hospital in Anchorage found 300,000 units of serum in a supply room. Within an hour, the serum was on its way to Nenana. A man known as “Wild Bill” Shannon - a prospector, freighter, trapper, brawler and former U.S. Army blacksmith - was the first musher. He left at 11 p.m., with the temperature having fallen to 40 degrees below zero. The serum had to reach its destination in less than 144 hours. Shannon logged 52 miles by 5 a.m. when he arrived at Tolovana. Two of his dogs died from frozen lungs. Edgar Kallands took the serum the next 31 miles to Manley Hot Springs. Hot water had to be poured over his hands to free him from his sled. Dan Green, Johnny Folger, Sam Joseph, Titus Nikoli, Dave Corning and Harry Pitka pushed on. Bill McCarty fought a blizzard for 28 miles before reaching Whiskey Creek. Edgar Nollner continued 24 miles. His brother, George, went the next 18 miles to Bishop Mountain. Charlie Evans raced his dogs through temperatures of minus-64 degrees until two dogs started limping. He stopped and put them in his sled, but they died before he reached Nulato. Tommy Patsy raced down river another 36 miles into Kaltag. The mayor of Nome knew they had to make better time. He asked Leonhard Seppala - a three-time winner of the All-Alaska Sweepstakes - to race 200 miles to the Yukon River, take the serum, and race back through an incoming blizzard. By that time, Seppala’s own daughter, Seigrid, was in the hospital. Five more children had died, and 50 were in the hospital.
Seppala left immediately. Nome families lined Main Street as Alaska’s greatest musher raced into a 400-mile journey through a blizzard. He would get no rest. A volunteer named “Jackscrew” took the serum from Kaltag to the Bering Sea. A lantern was lit at a shelter hut so he could find it. From there, Victor Anagick moved it to Unalakleet 34 miles away. Nome set up its own relay team so Seppala would have fresh runners as he returned. One of the relay men was Gunnar Kaasen.
For his lead dog, he picked an all- black husky named Balto that Seppala had left behind. Myles Gonangnan forced his team through six inches of fresh snow for 40 miles to Shaktoolik, handing the serum to Henry Ivanoff, whose dogs picked up the scent of a reindeer and entangled themselves. He was untangling his team when a lone figure appeared.
Seppala had already raced 43 miles. Taking the serum from Ivanoff, Seppala now had a 90-mile run to Golovin. The trail ran along the frozen Norton Sound. Time had been lost. Seppala knew the serum would never make it if he took the trail.
But what if he cut across the sea for the other shore? Gale-force winds were heaving the pack ice, breaking it up. Seppala weighed the danger of being taken out to sea against his need to gain hours. The winds howled and blew Seppala sideways. The ice moaned. Halfway across, he was blinded by a white-out. Fissures opened up, exposing the sea beneath him. His heroic lead dog Togo kept going and reached shore by 8 p.m. By morning, the pack ice was gone - taken out to sea.
Seppala soon met Charlie Olson, part of Nome’s relay. Nome was only 78 miles away. Fierce winds soon buried Olson’s team in a snowdrift. He had to wrap his dogs in blankets and expose his bare hands. Olson watched his fingers turn white as he met Kaasen at Bluff. Frostbite set in. Worse yet, Olson believed the serum was frozen. Kaasen the cylinder. Nothing. Kaasen hurried on for Port Safety 32 miles away. The full force of the storm had arrived. The mushers were ordered to stand down, but Kaasen had already left.
Nearing Port Safety, the wind blew Kaasen’s team into a snow bank. Righting the sled, he discovered the cylinder was gone. He frantically dug into the snow until he found the metal container, tied it back on the sled and raced for the Port Safety Roadhouse. The roadhouse was dark when Kaasen pulled up. Kaasen’s dogs, especially Balto, seemed able to continue. They pressed on for Nome . Wind-burn soon caused Kaasen’s eyes to swell shut. He had to trust Balto. The dog led the team and its blinded musher into Nome at 5:30 a.m. Monday, Feb. 2. The relay teams delivered the serum in 132 hours. In that time, six children and four dogs had died. Dr. Welch and his nurses had cared for 64 patients who would have died without the medicine.
The Run Remembered. Annually since 1997, the route of the serum run has been retraced to raise awareness about the health-care needs of Alaska’s interior villages. The effort was begun by another Alaska legend, retired Air Force Col. Norman Vaughan. Vaughan taught himself to mush dogs as a teen-ager; he was Adm. Richard Byrd’s dog wrangler on his first expedition to Antarctica and was the first American to drive dogs at the South Pole.
During World War II, Vaughan led search-and-rescue efforts on the Greenland ice cap using dog teams and saved the lives of 24 servicemen. He later mushed supplies through blizzards during the Battle of the Bulge. Vaughan competed in 13 Iditarod races after the age of 70 - a 1,049-mile race through some of Alaska’s most rugged terrain, from Anchorage to Name. The Iditarod was started in 1967 inspired by those who had saved Nome in 1925. Leonhard Seppala’s ashes were ceremonially scattered along the trail for the inaugural race.
At age 91, in 1997, using a combination of snow machines and dogs, Vaughan covered 776 miles through bitter cold, closely following the serum run route, visiting villages in the Alaska interior and speaking on the importance of inoculations for native children. At age 98, the retired colonel continues to speak out on rural health care and mushing - two subjects of life-and-death importance for Nome in the winter of 1925.
Mike Coppock is a freelance writer
and parc-time Alaskan living in
The Serum Run
The Serum Run, initiated in 1997 by CoI. Norman Vaughan, is a
long-distance dog sled and snow machine expedition that annually
commemorates the courageous effort that saved Nome in 1925.
Inspired by the serum run of 1925, the world-famous lditarod --
known as “The Last Great Race” — covers nearly 1,100 miles
from Anchorage to Nome and takes 10 to 17 days. This year’s lditarod
is March 5.2005.
The AMERICAN LEGION MAGAZINE
January , 2005 (pgs, 44-45)
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993