Friday, March 29, 2013

Celebrating the Great 1925 Race of Mercy

3/13/13 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

Photo from the Internet
The so-called “Last Great Race On Earth” is held in Alaska every year in the month of March. This famous week long, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has always been somewhat of a mystery to me. Sixty six musher teams each led by 13-16 sled dogs, run a grueling 1,000 mile trek from the town of Willow through the punishing frozen wilderness to the gold rush town of Nome on the western coast.

It gives me chills just thinking about it. But when asked why they do it, one race organizer responded, “We do it because it’s important; because we love the dogs, the race, Alaska and this sport. We do it because there is history and this is the Last Great Race on Earth.”

Yes, there are prizes: bragging rights, first place is a 2013 Dodge Ram truck and a $50,400 cash prize; plus other prizes including $3,000 in gold nuggets. However, most of the mushers say that whatever prize money they win is barely enough to feed their stable of dogs (some have over 100), let alone pay their other bills. BTW: the last musher to finish extinguishes (and wins!) a red finish lantern.

Why do they really do it? They do it because they love it.

The most common sled dog breeds are Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies. The dogs appear well cared for. Photos show them being fitted with booties for the day’s run, fed, resting on piles of hay, checked by veterinarians and loved on by support teams. Still, the weather, ice and sheer stamina needed to run the equivalent distance from Cottage Grove to Los Angeles in horrific weather, takes its toll. Over the course of 40 years, several dozen dogs have died.

The Iditarod Race was originally conceived in 1973, as a way to celebrate Alaska’s centennial as an American territory, it eventually came to include a lifesaving mission by mushers and their sled dogs in 1925. In fact, there was even a movie made about it that I didn’t see. So if you didn’t see it either, here’s the story…

It was Jan. 25,1925, when Dr. Curtis Welch discovered an outbreak of diphtheria in a village outside Nome that could kill the region’s population of 10,000 people. Soon this upper respiratory disease killed three boys. Welch didn’t have enough antitoxin to save the rest of the villagers from this highly contagious disease. Anchorage had a supply but it was nearly 1200 miles away and un-accessible in winter.

Nome’s ports were blocked by ice for the winter. Transportation options were few. The engine of the primitive aircraft that was available was frozen and wouldn’t start. The nearest railroad was 674 miles away and would take 30 days to reach by dog team. The only way in was overland, via the Iditarod/Seward-to-Nome Mail Trail that ran from Seward to Nome, along the Bering Sea.

Dr. Welch pleaded for help via telegrams and ordered quarantine.
Alaska’s Territorial Governor ordered the serum put on a special train and picked up in Nenana. A relay of the 20 top mail carrier mushers (sled dog drivers) would take it from there. The dogs delivered mail in 15-20 days. But could they get the serum to Nome in time?

Here, the facts get a little fuzzy. When the train pulled into Nenana at 11 p.m. on Jan. 27, the temperature was 40°-below. A man of (formerly) dubious character named Wild Bill, loaded the serum and headed down to the frozen Tanana River, where the temp would dip to minus-62. He covered 52 miles by 5:30 a.m. The physical cost was high. When they stopped, Bill’s face had frostbite; blood was dripping from the mouth of his dogs; two others would die from frozen lungs and more dogs would die before the race was over.

Wild Bill handed off the serum and the race to Nome was on! Miraculously, one-by-one, in relay fashion, through whiteouts, blizzards, and impossible conditions, connections were made. On the final leg, the musher had snow blindness and was unable to see. Balto, his magnificent Siberian Husky, unerringly led the team to Nome and became a legendary hero. The Great Race of Mercy was completed in 5 days, 7 hours.

The serum was delivered to Dr. Welch at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 2. It arrived with only 12 hours to spare. He thawed the frozen serum, administered it to a patient and it worked! Each musher was paid $18.66 plus a $25 trail bonus from the Alaska Territorial government. Four of them would die within two years on the trail.

By the time you read this, we will all know the winner of the 2013 race. His or her incredible skill, courage and stamina will be celebrated. I, however, will be congratulating those amazing dogs. I think of how blindly obedient they are and how confused they must be as they run across the treacherous Alaska wilderness. After all, they don’t know about the Great Mission of Mercy of their predecessors.

Balto is honored with a statue in New York’s Central Park. A male Siberian Husky, he was born in 1919 in Nome, Alaska, (that’s why he knew his way home!). He died in Cleveland, Ohio, after being rescued from a humiliating life on the vaudeville circuit by George Kimble, a Chicago businessman. The statue’s plaque says:

“Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925.


As a dog lover, I can only say, “Amen!”

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

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