Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run (Part VI)
Leonhard Seppala had gambled with the crossing of Norton Sound and won. He had crossed during the daylight hours of January 31, 1925, and although he could tell a storm was coming, it wasn’t there yet. The northeast wind was at his back as he left the roadhouse at Ungalik and pushed his fast toward Shaktoolik. Seppala had come 170 miles in his three days on the trail and believed he had about 100 miles to go before meeting the serum in Nulato. Togo and the rest of the dogs were making good time, had good energy, and so far had had good trail conditions.
A few minutes out of Shaktoolik Seppala saw another sled stopped ahead of him on the trail. The dogs had apparently started after a reindeer that had run across the trail and were tangled and fighting in their harnesses. Their driver saw Seppala and began waving frantically. Seppala had no intention of stopping to help. Time was of the essence. the wind was blowing at Seppala’s back and he wanted to take advantage of it as long as he could. As he passed the other sled, though, the driver jumped over the morass of agitated dogs and ran at him, screaming, “The serum! The serum! I have it here!”
The stunned Seppala had not gotten word of the change in the plans for the relay and had no idea that the serum could have made the trip from the railhead at Nenana in just three days time. Such speed was unheard of. It was true, though. The other driver, Henry Ivanoff, a Russian Eskimo who captained a ship on Norton sound in the summers, had taken the serum from Myles Gonangnan at Shaktoolik. He had been on the trail only a few minutes when he encountered Seppala. It was mid-afternoon, and the few daylight hours had turned to dusk.
Ivanoff informed Seppala that the epidemic had worsened and that the governor had ordered teams to run with the serum round the clock until it got to Nome. Worried at the news, Seppala wasted no time turning around and heading back toward Ungalik, 23 miles away. He was to take the serum back across Norton Sound if it was safe to do so, or run along the shore to Golovin, where Charlie Olsen waited to take the serum on the next leg of the relay. He was still unaware that his only child, eight year old Sigrid, was now one of Dr. Welch’s patients.
Having crossed the sound in daylight, Seppala knew that the coming storm would wreak havoc on the ice, and now that he was heading into the wind he realized that the storm was coming quickly.He had to cross the sound before the ice broke up or he and the serum, and Nome’s diphtheria victims, might all be lost.
Seppala and Togo had crossed the sound a number of times, but one time in particular had to be preying on Seppala’s mind as he headed toward it. Togo had been leading his sled across the sound during a northeastern gale on another occasion when, a few miles from shore, Seppala heard an ominous crack that let him know the sea ice was breaking up. Togo headed toward shore even before Seppala could give the command, but drew up short so fast he nearly flipped backwards. A yawning chasm of water had opened almost at Togo’s feet, but the dog had reacted quickly enough to avert immediate disaster. Seppala looked around and realized with dismay that he and his team were trapped on an ice floe and headed out to sea.
They spent more than twelve hours on that raft of ice, waiting as it drifted in the icy waters. Finally it neared land, but ran up against another floe that was jammed against the ice still connected to shore. they stopped moving, but there was still a five foot gap of water that Seppala couldn’t hope to cross. He tied a lead onto Togo and heaved the dog across the water. Togo landed on the ice and sensing what Seppala intended, the dog began pulling with all his might, narrowing the gap between the two ice floes. Then the lead rope snapped. Seppala thought he was a dead man. Then Togo, showing himself to be possessed of more intelligence and resourcefulness than most men could expect from even their lead dogs, leaped into the water and grabbed the broken end of the lead rope in his jaws. He clambered back onto the ice and continued pulling until he had narrowed the gap enough for Seppala and the sled to cross safely.
Seppala knew that he would be trusting Togo completely to make a night crossing of Norton Sound in another northeastern gale. In the Arctic darkness, and in a blowing blizzard, Seppala wouldn’t be able to see to color of the ice or hear it creaking. He didn’t hesitate, though. When he reached the Ungalik he put his life, and the lives of Nome’s diphtheria patients, in Togo’s capable paws.
His trust was not misplaced. At 8:00 that evening, Seppala and Togo pulled back onto shore at Isaac’s Point. They had crossed Norton Sound twice in one day, traveling a total of 84 miles. Such a distance was incredible. They would rest at the roadhouse at Isaac’s Point until 1:00 a.m., then head out again. The next driver of the relay was waiting at Glolvin, another 50 miles away. As the dogs and the man slept, the ice in Norton Sound began cracking.
By the time Seppala hitched Togo and the rest of the dogs to the sled again, the wind was howling. An old Eskimo man warned Seppala not to go back out onto the ice of the sound, and Seppala would heed the advice for the most part. But unless he drove across the ice, the trail between Isaac’s Point and Golovin was extremely rugged. In fact, the current path of the Iditarod Race follows a different trail because of the dangers. Seppala’s route from Shaktoolik to Golovin was made even worse by high winds and temperatures of less than -40 degrees.
The ice Seppala and Togo had crossed just hours before had already begun to break up, so they also faced the constant threat of the ice breaking apart beneath them, even just a few yards from shore, and yawning chasms of open water. The howling wind blinded Seppala and, again in the darkness, he trusted Togo entirely. Once they crossed the last bit of frozen sound, Seppala had to be relieved, especially when he learned that by the time the sun rose the entire expanse where they had driven broke up completely.
Despite the potential hazards of the open ice, the most grueling portion of Seppala’s leg of the relay was about to begin. The team would have to climb eight miles along a series of ridges, including the 1,200 foot summit of a mountain called Little McKinley. Seppala’s hardy team was exhausted, but never stopped. They reached Little McKinley’s peak then descended three miles to the Golovin roadhouse, arriving thirteen hours after they had set out from Isaac’s point with only five hours of rest. Seppala and Togo and brought the serum 135 miles, and now, with the northeastern gale threatening even more, the serum was 78 miles from Nome and the dying children.
Charlie Olson took the Serum from Golovin to Bluff, where Seppala’s colleague, Gunnar Kaasen, was waiting with another team from Seppala’s kennels. Kaasen was to take the serum from Bluff to Port Safety after stopping to warm the serum at the Solomon Roadhouse. From Bluff, Ed Rohn was to take the serum into Nome.
None of these drivers knew how bad the storm was, though. Back in Nome, Dr. Welch was in worried conference with the public health officials. The mushers were carrying enough serum to treat 30 people, and 28 were already in Dr. Welch’s hospital. If the storm worsened and the serum was lost or frozen, all of those people would probably die. With the worsening storm threatening more than just the men on the trial, the decision was made to halt the relay until the storm had passed. Nome’s mayor could only guess where the serum was at this point, but it was almost a moot point since the telephone line only reached as far as Solomon. The mayor called the roadhouse at Solomon, where Kaasen was to rest and warm the serum, and gave the order that Kaasen should stop there until the storm passed. Word was also sent to Ed Rohn who was waiting at Port Safety, just 21 miles from Nome.
Kaasen hadn’t yet gotten the serum when the call went out, though. Charlie Olson had been hit with hurricane force winds on his leg of the relay and was making very slow time. At one point he was blown into a drift and had to dig his way out with his bare hands and then free the dogs. The fight against the wind and the blowing snow had exhausted him and he had not been able to warm himself up after digging out of the snow. When he arrived at the roadhouse at Bluff, Olson’s hands were so stiff with the cold that he couldn’t get the serum off the sled by himself. His dogs were nearly frozen, too. Their vulnerable groins were stiff with the ice and cold and the dogs limped into the roadhouse to get warm themselves. As they waited for the serum to thaw, Olson pleaded with Kaasen to wait for the storm to pass before heading out.
Kaasen was reluctant to wait. He had put together a team from Leonhard Seppala’s kennels, and believed that with the steady, strong Balto in the lead position he could make it. Balto was inexperienced as a lead dog on a run like this, and Seppala had left instructions that if another team needed to be put together his choice for the lead was a dog named Fox. Kaasen preferred Balto, though. He waited with Olson for a couple of hours. The storm showed no sign of abating. Kaasen went out at one point wearing sealskin mukluks, sealskin pants, a reindeer parka, and a second parks over that one. The wind pierced the furs, but Kaasen decided to head out anyway. He was afraid that if he waited the trail to Solomon and Port Safety would be blocked by drifts.
Just five miles from the Bluff roadhouse, Kaasen met his first drift. Balto tried to go though it but got mired in the snow. Kaassen couldn’t punch through the drift, either. Balto would have to find a way around. The dog was on an unfamiliar trail in the dark of night during a raging blizzard. He put his nose to the ground, though, and within a few minutes the team was running down the trail toward Solomon. A few miles further on the trail followed the frozen surface of the Topkok River. Kaasen was startled when Balto suddenly stopped and refused to go again. He realized that the dog had stepped into the water of a spot of overflow. Kaasen steered the team off the river and dried Balto’s paws, then ran them along the ridges toward Topkok mountain.
The storm was so bad by this point that Kaasen had no choice but to trust Balto to find his way along the trail. The man just held onto the sled and let the dogs do the work. It wasn’t until he recognized Bonanza Slough that he realized that he had completely missed the Solomon Roadhouse in the dark and the blowing snow. He was at least two miles past it. Rather than turn back, though, Kaasen decided to keep pushing toward Port Safety and the next leg of the relay. Because he missed the roadhouse, he never got the message that the health officials had ordered the relay halted to let the storm pass.
He started the dogs back on the trail through Bonanza Slough. The slough created a wind tunnel for the hurricane force winds of the storm. More than once the sled was literally picked up by the wind and the dogs became tangled in their harnesses. Each time Kaasen had to remove his gloves to right the sled and untangle the dogs. Then a particularly mighty gust picked up the team and tossed them all into a drift. Kaasen had to dig himself and the dogs out. He felt the bed of the sled for the serum. The box was gone! Panicked, Kaasen floundered around in the drift, finally locating it. He lashed it to the sled with extra straps this time and without further incident made it to Port Safety.
Believing that Kaasen would stay at Solomon, Ed Rohn had gone to bed at the Port Safety roadhouse. Kaasen considered waking him, but rejected the idea since Rohn’s dogs would have to be fed and then hitched to the sled for the continuing trip. It was about 3:00 in the morning, and Nome was about 20 miles away. Since leaving Bonanza Slough the storm appeared to be abating somewhat, so Kaasen decided to press on.
At 5:30 a.m. Gunnar Kaasen pulled into Nome with the serum. “Witnesses … said they saw Kaasen stagger off the sled and stumble up to Balto, where he collapsed, muttering: “Damn fine dog.”
Leonhard Seppala with Togo, and Gunnar Kaasen with Balto
Next: the Conclusion
No comments yet.