the Great Serum Run

Many people equate the Iditarod with the serum run of 1925, which delivered diptheria serum to Nome in the depths of a winter epidemic.

While the Iditarod follows some of the same trail, and ends in Nome, it is not all about the serum run. It’s about keeping the tradition of mushing, the knowledge and skills, and the breeds of northern dogs alive.

The serum run is its own tale.

Many works of fiction have dealt with it, including a fun but somewhat inaccurate cartoon “Balto”…

Image result for cartoon balto

It was fun, and included a few real life moments like when Gunnar Kaasen’s sled flipped in severe winds and the serum cylinder got lost in a snowbank. He got frostbite feeling for it with his bare hands. Balto was his lead dog, and did lead the team through “visibility so poor that Kaasen could not always see the dogs harnessed closest to the sled.”

The real Balto was not part wolf, northern dogs are not part wolf… they are closer to the original model, the wolf, but they are dogs… which are really just a subspecies of wolf anyway.

Image result for balto photo

Image result for balto photo

Image result for balto photo

Today he’s preserved in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History…

Image result for balto photo

and honored (along with all sled dogs) by a statue in NYC…

Image result for balto photo

You’ll note he is not wearing a modern x-back harness, (or any other modern harness) but something that resembles a horse collar. That’s what was used in those days, and can be seen on the photo of his team above.

The working dogs were sturdier, heavier, stronger and fluffier than the racing Alaskan huskies of today.

The serum run had a few obstacles. It wasn’t being run in reasonable weather in March, but in awful weather in January…

The first musher in the relay was “Wild Bill” Shannon, who was handed the 20 pounds (9.1 kg) package at the train station in Nenana on January 27 at 9:00 \{\{nbsp\}\}PMAKST by night. Despite a temperature of −50 °F (−46 °C), Shannon left immediately with his team of 11 inexperienced dogs, led by Blackie. The temperature began to drop, and the team was forced onto the colder ice of the river because the trail had been destroyed by horses.

Today you will occasionally find mushers complaining about the trail being destroyed by snow machines… though they can also break and flatten a trail to make it better.

A sled dog is, pound for pound, stronger than a horse. Also has a lighter footprint. While dogs float over the snow, horses sink and tear up a trail. I know, I have both.

The wiki page gives a neat overview of the Serum Run, its many obstacles and dangers, and the tough dogs and gutsy mushers who braved actual snow, sleet, dark of night, zero visibility, awful windchills, hands frozen to the driving bow, river overflows, and rampant reindeer…

yes… reindeer…

Henry Ivanoff’s team ran into a reindeer and got tangled up just outside Shaktoolik.

Usually it’s moose that are a hazard…

The true unsung hero of the Serum Run was Togo.

Image result for togo dog serum run images

Image result for togo dog serum run images

Image result for togo dog serum run images

Image result for togo dog serum run images

Leonhard Seppala and his team covered the longest and most hazardous part of the run.

Just outside Shaktoolik to Golovin
Lead dogs: Togo and Scotty. Forty-eight-year-old Seppala, with a team of dogs had left Nome with the intent of intercepting the serum at Nulato, unaware that the relays had been faster. Leaving Isaac’s Point on the north side of Norton Bay that morning, traveled the 43 miles to just outside Shaktoolik, meeting Ivanoff. Turned his team around into the wind with a temperature of −30 degrees and darkness. Risked the 20 mile sea ice crossing between Cap Denbigh and Point Dexter in a blinding blizzard. Togo’s sense of smell permitted them to stay on course got them to their stopping point on the North shore of Norton Bay, at an Eskimo sod igloo. Seppala fed the dogs and warmed the serum, hoping the blizzard would lessen. Early Sunday morning with −30 degree temperatures, deadly winds, and the storm not lessening, reached Dexter’s Roadhouse at Golovin with completely exhausted dogs.[2] Serum now 78 miles from Nome.


The sled dog who did the lion’s share of the work was Togo. His journey, fraught with white-out storms, was the longest by 200 miles and included a traverse across perilous Norton Sound — where he saved his team and driver in a courageous swim through ice floes.”[21]

They made a round trip of 261 miles (420 km) from Nome to Shaktoolik and back to Golovin, and delivered the serum a total of 91 miles (146 km), almost double the distance covered by any other team.

In October 1926, Seppala took Togo and his team on a tour from Seattle to California, and then across the Midwest to New England, and consistently drew huge crowds. They were featured at Madison Square Garden in New York City for 10 days, and Togo received a gold medal from Roald Amundsen. In New England Seppala’s team of Siberian huskies ran in many races, easily defeating the local Chinooks. Seppala sold most of his team to a kennel in Poland Spring, Maine, and most huskies in the U.S. are descended from one of these dogs. Seppala visited Togo, until he was euthanised on December 5, 1929. After his death, Seppala had Togo preserved and mounted, and today the dog is on display in a glass case at the Iditarod museum in Wasilla, Alaska.

If you look into the eyes of a Siberian Husky in the US today, you are looking down the decades to Seppala’s serum run team, and Togo…

There are many books out there, here’s one…

The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs…



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