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The Iditarod: Its Symbolism for All Americans

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Now that the Winter Olympics have ended, the focus of some sports observers will shift farther north to Alaska where another competition will begin on March 6--the annual running of the Iditarod, featuring four-legged athletes, arctic temperatures, and winds that are sometimes strong enough to blow over a sled and team.

The event is held annually to commemorate what has become known as a "race of mercy." In 1925 the children of Nome began falling ill from diphtheria. The only known antidote was an antitoxin serum, and the nearest location of the medicine was in Anchorage. The "race of mercy" was a daring and difficult trip to deliver the medicine, undertaken by mushers with teams of dogs--the only means of conveyance that could get through to Nome at that time.

There are two largely unknown or forgotten facts about the Iditarod, however.

1. In many ways the race symbolizes something even more meaningful than "the race of mercy."

2. When it comes to delivery of the serum delivery, popular lore has anointed the wrong hero.

Route of the Iditarod
The route of the Iditarod actually follows a path that describes another chapter in the story of how our country was settled. The Iditarod Trail is not the route the dog sleds traveled on their way to Nome with the serum; it follows the pathways taken by the miners and settlers who were intent upon reaching the gold fields of Alaska. In many ways, these stories seem equally as compelling as the story of the delivery of the serum.

After gold was discovered in Alaska in the 1870s, men began the arduous trip north, boarding boats along the western U.S. coastline and eventually disembarking in port villages along the southern coast of Alaska. From there they had to travel overland to the gold mines, and one of the frequently used trails was the Iditarod.

For many years, dog sleds were the only way of reaching inland parts of the state during the winter months. The teams generally consisted of twenty or more dogs, and these teams could pull half a ton or more of supplies. (Think of that power.) The sled teams averaged 50-70 miles per day, and a trip to Nome generally took three weeks. On the way in, the sleds carried supplies and an occasional passenger, priests and judges among them. On the way out, gold was the cargo. In 1911, documents show that 2600 pounds of gold was hauled out by four teams.

In the 1930s, the men got a glimpse of the future when they saw that if the weather cooperated, planes could be used to fly inland. For most purposes, however, dog sleds predominated until about forty years ago. Over time snowmobiles began to be used increasingly, and this trend has continued.

Planning an Alaskan Celebration
In the mid-1960s, preparations were underway for the centennial celebration of the purchase of Alaska from Russia. (Add in your own Sarah Palin joke here.) Wasilla resident Dorothy Page feared that between the growing use of airplanes and snowmobiles, the importance of mushers and dogs in settling Alaska would be forgotten.

In 1967 and again in 1969 a 25-mile version of the race was held. By 1973 an increasing amount of the trail had been re-opened, and it was decided to open the race all the way to Nome--over 1,000 miles, most of it through uninhabited wilderness.

The True Serum Hero
Today news stories about the Iditarod focus on the delivery of the serum to ward off diphtheria. Americans today think of this as an event of the far distant past because in industrialized nations, a vaccine against diphtheria has largely eradicated the disease.
At one time, however, diphtheria was a terrible threat in a community, and for many years it was the leading cause of death in young children. Sometimes called the "Strangling Angel," the symptoms were frightening. Wing-shaped patches of white membrane would develop on the tonsils, and as the membrane thickened, it would often block the child's breathing, causing death by suffocation. A sign of hope came in 1913 when German physician Emil von Behring discovered an anti-toxin that could be used to halt the disease.

When the diphtheria outbreak occurred in Nome in 1925, the town was icebound and the only store of serum in the area was in Anchorage. Flying into the area in the height of winter was very new, and the only pilot who might have made the flight successfully was on another assignment and would not be back in time.

Community leaders came up with the concept of a Pony Express-style dog team relay. Each village along the way would make their strongest dog team available for a leg of the trip.
In 127 hours (six days), twenty mushers had covered almost 700 miles in temperatures that hovered around 40 degrees below zero and winds strong enough to blow over dogs and sleds. The serum was delivered to Nome in time to slow the epidemic.

Afterward, one dog was singled out as the hero of the day. Balto traveled the last leg of the journey, and now has a statue in New York's Central Park in his memory. He has been the subject of numerous children's stories and films.

But those who study the race know that the real heroes of the story should be musher Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog, Togo. Seppala and Togo traveled the most treacherous stretch of the trip, and they covered double the distance of other teams.

As a footnote to this story, these dogs require a bit of explanation. They are quite special--much different from our household companions.

The native people of Alaska, primarily the Malemuit people who lived along the Seward Peninsula developed a particularly hardy breed of dog, now known as the Malamute. The average weight of the dogs is about 75 pounds, but they can pull the same weight as much larger horses. When running, the dogs can average speeds of 8-12 miles per hour for hundreds of miles and they can exceed twenty miles an hour for short sprints.

The spirit of the dogs, the athleticism of their build, and their racing prowess are unique and very impressive. For a better understanding of the animals, take a peek at this video of a kennel that maintains sled dog teams today.