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What Really Inspired The Iditarod?

March 7, 2017
by Anesa McGregor , Emmetsburg News

The Iditarod Dog Sled Race is currently underway. It is an eight-day race that covers 970 miles and tests the stamina of man and beast. But how many really know the inspiration behind this iconic race? I never really thought about it until my son had me watch the movie "Balto" when he was young and it has stuck with me since.

In January 1925, the children of Nome, AK were dying. They wheezed and gasped for air, and every day brought a new case of the lethal respiratory disease, diphtheria. At the time, Nome had one physician, Dr. Curtis Welch, fearing an epidemic that could put the entire village of 1,400 at risk, ordered a quarantine of those who had symptoms of the disease, but he knew that only an antitoxin serum could stop the fast spreading disease.

The closest batch of the lifesaving serum was more than 1,000 miles away in Anchorage. The harbor was ice-choked and open-cockpit planes of the era could not fly in Alaska's subzero temperatures. With the nearest train station close to 700 miles away in Nenana, canine power offered Nome its best hope for the lifesaving serum.

On the night of January 27, 1925, the precious cargo came by train to Nenana. Musher "Wild Bill" Shannon tied the 20 pound package of serum to his sled and gave the signal to his nine malamutes and the "Great Race of Mercy," as it was eventually known as, began. It was 674 miles to Nome through rugged wilderness, across frozen waterways and over treeless tundra, with temperatures plunging to 60 degrees below zero. Although Shannon ran next to his sled to raise his body temperature and keep the dogs at a slower pace, he still developed hypothermia and frostbite on the 52-mile journey before handing the package of serum off to another dog team.

On January 31 Leonhard Seppala and his team lead by Togo, a Siberian Husky decided to risk a shortcut over the frozen Norton Sound, in a wind that dropped wind chills to 85 degrees below zero. Traction on the glassy ice and the fierce wind threatened to break the ice apart sending the team adrift at sea. The team made it safely to the coastline hours before the ice cracked but the winds continued to batter them as they trekked onward meeting the next musher, who only traveled 25 miles before handing off the package to Gunnar Kaasen for the second to last leg of the journey.

Kaasen set off in a blizzard so fierce that he could not see any of his dog team, let alone his trusted lead dog, Balto. Balto relied on scent rather than sight to lead the 13-dog team as the snow began to crust over his brown coat. At some point a massive gust of wind, upwards of 80 miles per hour, flipped the sled and sent the package of the precious serum into a snow bank. Panic set in as Kaasen rummaged through the snow trying to locate the serum.

Arriving in Port Safety and realizing the next team was not ready to leave, Kaasen decided to make the last 53 miles into Nome. In the early morning hours, the sled dogs yipped and yapped down Front Street to deliver the valuable package to Dr. Welch.

Balto became the hero. In 1925, a bronze statue of Balto's likeness was unveiled in Central Park in New York. He lived out his final days at the Cleveland Zoo, and his body is on display at the Cleveland Natural History Museum. Togo ran his last long distance run to get the serum to Nome. He died in 1929 and his preserved body is on view at the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race Headquarters in Wasilla, AK.

The memory of the serum run to Nome is relived every year since 1973. It commemorates the sacrifice and struggles of Balto, Togo, the rest of the dogs and their drivers made to save the people in Nome AK.



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