Sled Dog Heroes, Iditarod Race

Snow Dogs Are Heroes Too!

The annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race kicks-off the first Saturday each March. For more than a week, mushers and their dog teams race roughly 1,100 miles of frozen terrain along the Iditarod National Historic Trail, competing to be the first sled at the finish line in Nome, Alaska. The race celebrates Alaska’s frontier past, commemorating the courageous men and dogs that braved the merciless wilderness to carry supplies to the northern outposts of America’s last great wilderness.

The Iditarod commemorates the 1925 Serum Run to Nome, a sled-dog relay that saved children's lives

The Great Serum Race

The Iditarod race also memorializes the heroes of the 1925 serum run to Nome, aka the Great Race of Mercy.  An outbreak of diphtheria threatened the lives of several children and set off a panic among Nome residents. Without life-saving medicine, the entire region of 10,000 people could die. Isolated by frozen sea, hundreds of miles of deep snow, and a raging storm that made air flight impossible, Nome residents brainstormed a solution.

For many years dog sleds had been the only way to transport supplies in and out during the winter. But the trek normally required 25 days. Even if the fastest musher matched the record nine days, the serum could only survive the cold about six days.  A brilliant solution came forward — a sled dog relay!  Fresh dog teams would be ready at various checkpoints and the tired dogs would hand-off to the ready team.

Courageous men heeded the call for help. Twenty dog teams were in the relay, all at different stops.  Severe conditions threatened the lives of all involved. Mushers suffered skin-blackening frost-bite. Several dogs froze to death. One musher tied himself to the line and helped the dogs pull the sled. At one point the sled toppled and the medicine nearly lost. This was one of the worst storms in memory, but somehow each dog team made it to the next stop. The serum arrived in just five and half days! The sled dogs were heroes!

Seppala and Togo

Leonhard Seppala (SEP-luh) and his lead dog Togo became famous for conquering the most dangerous terrain. To shorten the route by a day, the team traversed the ice of Norton Sound. In complete darkness against gale-force winds and -85°F windchill, the team pressed forward with Seppala unable to see or hear danger signs from the ice. Out in front, Togo bravely carved the trail, avoiding danger by the inches! Seppala’s team endured grueling conditions as they pressed forward more than 260 miles over 4.5 days.

Leonhard Seppala and Togo -- heroes of the Great Mercy Race (1925 serum run to Nome)

Gunnar and Balto

Another famous team was Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto.  Gunnar’s team ran the last two legs of the relay. Balto forged through conditions that might have stopped other teams. Gunnar and Balto became celebrities.  A statue of Balto stands in New York’s Central Park.

Gunnar Kaasen and Balto -- heroes of the Great Mercy Race (1925 serum run to Nome)

Iditarod National Historic Trail

Over the years, snowmobiles replaced sled dogs. In 1973 Jo Redington and Dorothy Page staged the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, so the world would not forget the important role the sled dog played in America’s history.  In 1978 Congress established the Iditarod as a National Historic Trail.

Snow Dogs Are Heroes Too!

Posted in Flash to the Past