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Life-Saving Sled Dogs

Sled dogs were a huge part of winter transportation in the snowbound regions of the northern hemisphere until the 1920s. They were transportation animals and during the winter everything moved by dog team. But in the 1920s the use of sled dogs declined drastically, thanks to the invention of the airplane.  The airplane made it possible to travel great distances, over wilderness areas, and do it in a relatively short amount of time.  The first airmail service in Alaska was flown in 1924 and airplane travel immediately became the way to get around.

Alaska went directly from sled dogs to airplanes, without any of the major road and railway building that occurred in other states.  Even today, when Alaska is the largest state in the United States, Alaska has fewer miles of highway than any other state except Rhode Island, the smallest state.

Seemingly overnight sled dogs were no longer needed.  But sled dogs still had one last glory run.  A glory run that saved hundreds of lives.

In early 1925 a diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome – the northernmost, and most isolated, town in Alaska.  The town needed medicine immediately or hundreds of people, most of them children, would die.

But the closest serum, or medicine, was in Anchorage – roughly 1200 miles away.  Normally, an airplane would have delivered the serum, but the weather was horrible.  Airline travel was still a new industry and few pilots had yet developed the skill, or experience, to fly in blizzard conditions.  The only pilot considered capable of flying the route was not available – he was on a trip down in the lower forty-eight states.

To get the serum to Nome, a dog sled relay was organized.  The Alaskan Railway had recently been completed and the serum was placed on a train and rushed to Nenana.  But that was as far as the railroad went.  After that, it was entirely up to the dogs.

From Nenana, the first musher took the serum and raced westward down the frozen Tanana River to the Yukon.  All along the route, every village offered its best dogs and its best musher, and each team raced the serum as fast as they could to the next relay point.  The teams raced day and night, in blizzard conditions where the temperature rarely rose above minus forty degrees Fahrenheit.  The winds were so strong they blew the sleds and dogs over, but the relay teams pushed on.

Blizzard conditions raged the entire time, but the worst stretch came at the end, where the dogs had to cross the treacherous Norton Sound ice and then race along the beaches south of Nome.  Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog, Togo, took the serum over the ice on Norton Sound, and Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog, Balto, finished the last two legs of the relay, bringing the serum into Nome.  During the last legs of the journey, the blizzard was so fierce, eighty mile per hour winds battered the trail.

The serum arrived in time to prevent a full-scale epidemic, and hundreds of lives were saved.  Twenty mushers, and their teams, had covered the distance in roughly six days.

The serum sled dog run was such an amazing feat, it received worldwide press coverage.  All the mushers received special gold medals.  A statue of Balto, the heroic lead dog who ran the final two legs into Nome, was erected in New York City’s Central Park the next year.  It’s still there.

In 1995 an animated featured entitled Balto was produced by Steven Spilberg's Amblimation animation studio and followed with two sequels.

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