Sled dogs embody tenacity, courage and determination
The bad winter weather this year gave us the opportunity to have our own impromptu Olympics. My morning walk with the dogs turned into speed skating in what was once our backyard, but more recently resembled a skating rink.
My boys chose the scariest event to imitate, the skeleton. The mighty toboggan hill was frozen so sleds were not needed. They threw themselves over and slid down.
I managed a few spins in the woods that lacked both speed and artistry; basically, I was falling on the ice. True Olympic athletes defy gravity and ignore the rules of nature.
Climbing a hill, I caught a glimpse of my dogs, still as agile as ever, sprinting across the frozen terrain. I wish they could pull me, I thought as I plodded forward.
Through arctic terrain
Sled dog racing has been around since the early 1900s. Prior to racing, sled dogs played a vital role in communication and transportation over the rugged Arctic terrain.
During the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon between 1896 and 1899, sled dogs helped transport 100,000 prospectors and their supplies to remote areas.
Famous explorer Roald Amundsen used sled dogs during his exploration of the South Pole in 1911, beating his competitors by 33 days to the South Pole. His knowledge and use of sled dogs was inspired by the native Inuit.
The first major sled dog race was the All Alaska Sweepstakes. It was organized by the Nome Kennel Club and ran between 1908 and 1917. The 408-mile race had a surprisingly large purse between $3,000 and $10,000.
The most famous winner of the event was Leonhard Seppala. Leonhard Seppala’s career began when an expedition failed. He worked for the Pioneer Mining Company as a musher, hauling supplies 50 to 100 miles a day. He was asked to form a team of Siberian huskies for Roald Amundsen.
When the expedition was called off, he was able to keep the team. Seppala is best known for the expert care and attention he gave his dogs. He and his dogs were a team; together they were part of nature and they conquered nature.
Their survival in the worst of the elements defined them. The ability to thrive in the worst conditions has led to their greatest success. At the time, their victory was not on a racetrack.
In 2020, a global pandemic brought the modern world to a screeching halt. In 1925, another medical crisis gripped the remote town of Nome, Alaska.
The city of Nome is located approximately two degrees south of the Arctic Circle. With just over 1,400 people inhabiting Nome in 1925, it was the largest city in northern Alaska. About 10,000 people lived in the surrounding area outside the city.
During the winter months it was cut off from the rest of the world except for the frozen Iditarod trail. The word Iditarod means “remote place”. The trail was 938 miles long and went from Seaward Harbor south to Nome, crossing massive mountain ranges.
Nome had a doctor, Curtis Welch. In December 1924, he treated several children for what he thought was tonsillitis. Catastrophically, after several deaths, he became concerned that he was facing an epidemic of diphtheria.
Unfortunately, the city’s antitoxin supply had run out. Replacement cargo did not reach Nome before the port was frozen. The only planes available were unreliable vintage biplanes.
The decision was made to transport the antitoxin serum via a dog sled relay. The serum has passed through the hands of many brave mushers who have faced freezing temperatures as low as -62°F and 25mph winds as well as 10ft high snowdrifts.
Seppala and his team were chosen for the toughest part of the trip, crossing Norton Sound. Led by his lead dog Togo, Seppala traveled 170 miles in high winds and darkness to retrieve the serum. He had to cross the Norton Sound to reach the next transfer.
At one point, he and his team got stuck on an ice floe. He threw his lead dog Togo across open water. When the rope broke, Togo grabbed her out of the freezing water and pulled Seppala and the other dogs to safety.
They miraculously reached the next relay point where the serum was delivered to Gunnar Kaasen who successfully brought it to Nome. Thousands of lives have been saved thanks to the courage of the mushers and their faithful sled dogs.
Sled dog racing never became an official Olympic sport, but was instead demonstrated at several games. These true heroes didn’t need medals; it was in their nature to excel in the most extreme circumstances, regardless of accolades.
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is a 1,049 mile race commemorating Nome’s historic Serum Relay. The 50th edition of the Iditarod will take place in March 2022 after a modified route in 2021.
Tenacity, courage and determination will be on display amidst the breathtaking terrain of Alaska to a “far away place”.
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