The Serum Run: Sled Dogs Save the Day-Part 3
At three o’clock Charlie Olson left Golovin for the 25-mile run to Bluff. He fought his way through a blizzard with a gale wind of fifty miles an hour throwing him and his team of seven dogs from the trail time and time again. The thermometer read thirty below zero, Olson’s hands froze, his dogs froze and stumbled, but they fought on through the night. His vision obscured by the raging blizzard, Olson had to trust his lead dog to stay on the trail. At 7:30 P.M., only four hours and fifteen minutes after leaving Golovin, he reached Bluff and passed the serum over to Gunnar Kasson.
Kasson ran the last 55-miles to Nome, to honor and fame, with 13 dogs in harness. Somewhere along the trail he bypassed the next relay driver, Ed Rohn, who was waiting at Safety to take the serum on the final lap into Nome. “Intentionally bypassed,” chuckled the old-timers many years later.
But, for Kasson, leaving Bluff at 10 o’clock in total darkness and an eighty-mile-an-hour wind-driven snowstorm, no landmark was familiar and he could have easily missed the roadhouse. Dressed in seal mukluks that reached to his hips, sealskin pants, a reindeer parka and hood with a windbreaker over that, Kasson could still feel the sting of the wind. Two of his dogs, longhaired veteran trail huskies, began to succumb to the weather and Kasson had to stop and buckle on their rabbit skins. The sled kept tipping over in the soft snow; he couldn’t see; he didn’t really know where he was.
The only way for Kasson to survive, the only way he could even attempt to get the serum through the storm, was to give direction of the team to the leader, Balto. Balto, one of Seppala’s Siberians, was a powerful, experienced leader, but Seppala had not taken him for this run because the six-year-old dog’s speed wasn’t as fast as it had been. Kasson needed the leadership, however, and borrowed Balto from Seppala’s kennel. Given his head in the worst weather, Balto put his nose down and sniffed and felt his way along the buried, invisible trail. All Kasson could do was trust the dog’s instincts and experience. The efforts of over one hundred and fifty other sled dogs and nineteen other drivers depended solely now on Balto. The lives of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Alaskans depended on the doughty little sled dog and his team.
In the tradition of the great lead dogs, Balto, ears flattened against his head to keep out of the storm, nose working to pick out the trail, guided the team and the serum directly to Nome.
When they got there, at 5:30 in the morning on February 2, the half frozen Kasson collapsed beside battered, depleted dog team and began pulling ice from Balto’s feet.
“Balto,” he was heard to mumble… “Damn fine dog!”
In New York City’s Central Park a statue of Balto stands vigilant watch, keeping the accomplishments of sled dogs alive. The inscription reads: “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. Endurance. Fidelity. Intelligence.” R. Coppinger