Team Ineka

The Serum Run: Sled Dogs Save the Day-Part 2

A call for help was flashed across the wires and dog teams were posted at way stations along the route.  In an attempt to bring recognition to all the souls that braved the trail, the following account, in its entirety, was taken from Coppinger’s World of Sled Dogs: From Siberia to Sport Racing (Howell Book House 1977):

“The Alaskan Railroad sent a special train out of Anchorage, north to the end of the line in Nenana, with a small package of serum aboard.  Waiting at Nenana was William “Wild Bill” Shannon, the U.S. mail driver for the Northern Commercial Company.  He set out late on the 27th of January for Tolovana, 52-miles to the northwest, with a team of nine Malamutes, a big working team for those days.  The thermometer at the station read -50º.  The serum was wrapped in blankets to keep it from the damaging cold.

At noon on the 28th Shannon turned the serum over to Dan Green at Tolovana.  Green raced his eight dogs the 31-miles to Manley Hot Springs in weather featuring temperatures of –30º, and a wind of some twenty miles an hour: a chill factor of –70º for Green and his dogs.

At Manley Hot Springs, the Athabascan Indian Jonny Folger took over and ran 28-miles to Fish Lake with a team of eight dogs and the temperature still standing at thirty degrees below zero.

From Fish Lake to Tanana, Sam Joseph carried the serum 26-miles at an amazing average of nine miles an hour.  The temperature was dropping.

From Tanana to Kallads, 34-miles away, Titus Nicholi mushed his seven dogs through weather at forty below.  There Dave Corning took over in –42º temperatures; he averaged eight miles an hour for the 24 miles from Kallads to the Nine Mile cabin.

He was met by Edgar Kalland who raced his seven dogs to Kokrines, thirty miles away, with the temperature now at –44º.

From Kokrines to Ruby, another thirty miles, Harry Pitka fought his way through a white-out at 47 degrees below zero.  He somehow managed an incredible nine miles an hour.  At Ruby, Bill McCartney took the package and raced with his seven dogs the 28-miles to Whiskey Creek in slightly warming weather:  -43º now.

At Whiskey Creek, seven o’clock at night, Edgar Nollner continued on at –40º for the 24-miles to Galena, with seven dogs.

Edgar’s brother, George Nollner, carried the serum 18-miles from Galena to Bishop Mountain with the same seven dogs, and the temperatures began to plunge.  The dogs trotted the whole 42-miles for the Nollner brothers; it was too dark to lope.

At Bishop Mountain, the 22-year-old Athabascan Charlie Evans began with a team of nine dogs the run to Nulato, thirty miles away.  The temperature dived to 64 degrees below zero and the trip was a nightmare for Evans.  He had no rabbit skins to protect the vulnerable groin area of his dogs, and two of them began to freeze, even as they ran.  Loading the crippled huskies onto his sled, Evans continued on.  He ran in front of the sled, pulling on the traces, trying to help his seven remaining dogs.  Five hours after leaving Bishop Mountain he reached Nulato.  It was four o’clock in the morning and all he could manage was to carry his sick dogs into the cabin and collapse by the stove.  Recalling the event some fifty years later, Charlie Evans said, “It was real cold.”

Tommy Patsy loaded the serum from Evans’ sled onto his own and sped off into the darkness toward Kaltag, 36-miles distant.  Urging his team on at 58 degrees below zero, it took him three and a half hours to cover the distance.  He got there Friday noon, January 30th.  In less than three days, 13 dog teams had covered 377-miles.  They were a little over halfway to Nome.

At Kaltag, the trail left the Yukon River and headed over the mountains to the coast.  In the mountains, the weather grew worse.  The Athabascan River pilot Jackscrew took the serum at Kaltag and cursed his way through a blinding snowstorm at fifty below zero to Old Woman shelter cabin, forty miles away.  There he was met by Eskimo Victor Anagick who took off in blowing, drifting snow toward Unalakleet, 34-miles away on Norton Sound.

At Unalakleet, another Eskimo, Myles Gonangnan, was waiting, and set off in his turn with the serum for Shaktoolik.  He had to break trail for his eight-dog team through waist-high drifts for the entire forty miles.  They were traveling in one of the worst snowstorms in memory.  He made it in just under 12 hours and fell exhausted and frostbitten, but with the serum safe for the next sled.

Harry Ivanoff then started for Golovin.  Half a mile along to the trail the team picked up the scent of reindeer, and bedlam broke loose.  Fighting to straighten out his dogs, Ivanoff looked up to see Leonhard Seppala and his team of racing Siberians, the only such dogs in the relay, hustling down the trail.

Apparently the blizzard had interfered with communications and Nome thought there was no relay team available at Shaktoolik.  So Seppala had driven the team a good 150-miles, from Nome, to meet the precious package.  Ivanoff gave him the serum, and Seppala, turning back, chose the straight route across Norton Sound, a route traditionally avoided by dog drivers.  The high winds were pushing sea water up over the ice, which promised to break up at any moment and drift out into the Bering Sea, Seppala, serum and all.  But Seppala’s confidence in his proven fast dogs and his successful crossing of the creaking ice once that day stimulated his belief that he had a reasonable chance, with luck, to make it back across to Golovin and save hours, perhaps days.

In warming temperatures that made the ice more dangerous, Seppala sped off for Golovin, 91-miles west by the route across the Sound.  The little Norwegian and his lead dog Togo, made 84-miles that day.  Twenty of those miles were across the heaving, sloshing, breaking sea ice.  But Togo, the hero of many a sport sled dog race and veteran of many a trail, knew the dangers.  He also had the uncanny ability to begin carrying out Seppala’s wishes even before Seppala gave a command.  Togo led the fragile train of dogs, sled and driver as quickly as he could across the massive array of jagged, groaning ice floes.  They reached Isaacs Point, on the other side, late Saturday night.  There Seppala stopped to feed his team and tend to their raw, cut feet.  Continuing on [the] next morning in the blizzard, he met Charlie Olson at Golovin in mid-afternoon.  There was eighty miles left to go.

Tomorrow on the Dog Sledding Examiner: The Serum Run Part 3

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Dr. Robert Forto is the Dog Sledding Examiner, a musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and the host of the popular, Mush! You Huskies Radio Show

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