Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run (Part V)
Half an hour after Charlie Evans and his dead lead dogs had arrived in Nulato, the serum was thawed and Tommy Patsy, another Athabaskan driver with a formidable reputation for his wilderness survival skills, headed down the trail following the Yukon River to Kaltag, the last stop on the run before the trail rose into the Nulato Hills. He covered his 36 miles in about three and a half hours, making the best time of the entire relay at just over 10 miles per hour.
Jackscrew, a Koyukuk Indian, took the serum through the mountains from Kaltag to Old Woman Shelter. To lighten the dogs’ load and make better time on this difficult stretch of the trail, Jackscrew ran uphill through the woods of the Nulato Hills for a good bit of the first 15 miles of his 40 mile leg of the relay. Once he passed the Kaltag Divide and headed downhill toward Norton Sound, he climbed back aboard the sled.
Victor Anagick took the 34-mile leg from Old Woman Shelter to Unalakleet, across mostly open tundra and through the stunted coniferous taiga closer to the coast, where he passed the package to Myles Gonangnan, an Eskimo musher.
On the morning of Saturday, January 31, at Unalakleet on the southern shore of Norton Sound, Gonangnan took the measure of Norton Sound. He had to make the decision as to whether to cross it or go around it. The shortest route from Unalakleet would have been straight across Norton Sound to Nome. Leonhard Seppala had been warned against taking this route as it was entirely too risky. The center of the sound at this point rarely froze entirely because of the currents and motion of the water.
Norton Sound is an inlet of the Bering Sea. Nome, Alaska, sits on its north shore. The sound is about 150 miles long and about 125 miles across. Norton Bay is its northeast arm. The Yukon River, along which the teams of dogs drew their sleds carrying the precious diphtheria antitoxin serum in January 1925, flows into the sound from the south. The sound is only navigable from May to October. In October the sound begins to freeze as average temperatures dip well below freezing. By January, when the average temperature is below zero, the sound is completely frozen.
The closer you got to the sound, the more conscious you became that the ice was in a constant state of change and re-creation. huge swaths would suddenly break free and drift out to sea or a long narrow lead of water would open up…. Depending on the temperature, wind, and currents, the ice could assume various configurations – five-foot-high ice hummocks, a stretch of glare ice, or a continuous line of pressure ridges, which look like a chain of mountains across the sound. …
Then there was the wind. It was a given on Norton Sound that the wind howled and that life along these shores would be a constant struggle against a force that tried to beat you back at every step of every task. But when the wind blew out of the east, people took special note. These winds were shaped into powerful tunnels, and gusts barreled down mountain slopes and through river valleys, spilling out onto the sound at spectacular speeds of more than 70 miles per hour. The could flip sleds, hurl a driver off the runners, and drag the wind chill down to minus 100 degrees. Even more terrifying, when the east winds blew, the ice growing out from shore often broke free and was sent out to sea in large floes.
–The Cruelest Miles, pp. 195-196
The overland route was safer than crossing the sound even in the best conditions. Gonangnan considered the fact that the wind had been blowing for several days from the west, pushing the ice against the coast and raising the level of the ice in the sound and weakening it. Had the wind remained from the west, the decision would have been easier. Even if the ice broke into floes, it would be blown toward shore and a sled team could navigate safely along the floes to shore. With the shift in the wind’s direction, though, the ice was being blown out to sea. More disturbing was that the northeast wind was building in strength. A storm was coming and would be there soon. When it came, the ice would be likely to break up. He decided not to risk the shortcut directly across Norton Sound. He turned northeast, toward Shaktoolik.
On the other side of Norton Sound, at about the same time, Leonhard Seppala was facing south and facing the same decision as Myles Gonangnan. Although he had been told not to risk the crossing, he knew that the fastest way to get the serum in the hands of Dr. Welch was to go across that frozen expanse. In two days he had covered about 110 miles, and had 200 more to go before he got to Nulato where he believed the serum would be waiting. Word had not reached him that not only had the number of teams in the relay increased tenfold, but that the serum had passed Nulato 24 hours before and was just on the other side of the sound.
Seppala decided the time saved by crossing the sound was worth the risk. Doubtless he would have hesitated even less had he known that his own daughter, Seigrid, had been admitted to Dr. Welch’s infirmary that very morning with diphtheria. Five more children had died, and twenty-seven were in the hospital, and at least eighty were known to have been exposed. Nome’s epidemic was in full swing. What was worse, one of the diphtheria patients was the daughter of the owner of a roadhouse at Solomon, a small settlement near Nome. The girl had been helping to cook for guests at the roadhouse. The grim fear was that she may have unwittingly spread the disease beyond Nome.
Later that day, Dr. Welch was told that Myles Gonangnan had left Unalakleet. With great relief Welch sent a telegram to the Public Health Service saying that the 300,000 units of serum from Anchorage was expected by noon the following day, February 1. Dr. Welch was unaware that the weather was conspiring against his patients.
The trail between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik is windy even in good weather, but sometimes the winds can blow from the north at more than hurricane force, with temperatures well below zero and chill factors worse than minus one hundred. Winds like that create ground blizzards, white-out conditions in which a sled can flip and men and dogs can freeze trying to find each other.
As the wind rose on the souther side of Norton Sound, snow blew in deeper and deeper drifts. At last Gonangnan had to break trail for his dogs. Breaking trail consisted of walking back and forth across the trail in snowshoes, tamping down the snow until it was firm enough to hold the weight of the dogs. The trail breaking was a slow, laborious effort. In five hours, Gonangnan had made only 12 miles. He stopped at a fishing camp to warm himself and the serum. He knew he was still at least nine hours from Shaktoolik, and had extremely difficult terrain to cross.
Five miles further along the trail were the Blueberry Hills, where the team would have to climb a 1000 foot summit then descend again to the beach. Wind tunnels in this region were brutal enough without the addition of the storm Gonangnan knew was coming. From the fishing village to Shaktoolik there were no shelters, abandoned or otherwise. If the storm hit while he was on this stretch of trail, it would be unpleasant indeed.
The wind was vicious and unrelenting on the way up the Blueberry Hills. By the time the team reached the summit Gonangnan was blinded by whiteout conditions. He had no time to prepare when the team suddenly began its steep descent toward the dunes along the sound. He held on and held his breath for the next three miles, and made it safely down to the beach only to find that the wind was blowing at gale force and and the wind chill was at least -70 degrees. He rode the sled for another four hours, arriving at Shaktoolik at 3:00 p.m.
There was no sign of Leonhard Seppala. Where was the famous musher?
Next: Seppala, Togo, and Balto
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