18 April 2015 3.00 PM 52 F Overcast
Usually about this time of year, I sit back and reflect on how our season went, how much fun we had and whether we got close to the goals that were set all those months ago. However, if everything had gone according to plan, I wouldn’t actually be sitting here at all – because I should still be out on the trail, somewhere between Nenana and Nome.
Like many of my great adventures, this one was born out of idle conversation around the dinner table. I’m beginning to think I either need to stop eating dinner, stop talking at meal times or just not have such a supportive wife. I’ve long expressed a liking for the idea of travelling a great distance with my dog team. I should stress at this point that “liking the idea” of it and actually doing it are two very different things. The idea always seems so much easier when discussed around a table with beer and a fire, rather than the reality of being lost, cold and hungry. I’m pretty sure when Meatloaf sang 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, he wasn’t referring to those kind of options. As we sat around (friends and neighbours, not Meatloaf) and discussed the coming winter, the subject drifted around to the Serum Run. The Serum Run refers to a mercy mission to bring diphtheria anti-toxin to the City of Nome in the winter of 1925 to prevent a catastrophic outbreak of the disease. As it was winter, there was no way of getting the medicine to Nome, other than by dog team. But the usual time scale for the mail sleds making the trip was several weeks – and the Nome doctor was adamant that he could not possibly wait that long. In the end, a group of 20 dog drivers managed to get the serum from Nenana to Nome, a distance of 675 miles in just 5 and a half days, through the worst of a terrible Alaskan winter. If you want to read the whole story, I recommend The Cruellest Miles By G & L Salisbury
In 1997, the late Col Norman Vaughan organised the first Serum Run 25, to commemorate the original dog drivers, to teach the importance of wellness and health to local communities and the value of working together. Over the intervening years, the Serum Run ran annually, and then latterly every second year. 2011 was the last time the Run took place. As 2015 is the 90th anniversary of the original run, there was some talk of an effort to resurrect the SR and to keep its memory alive. Sadly, this didn’t come to fruition, but the remnants of that conversation ended up bouncing around our dinner table on that fateful night.
One of the great advantages of Serum Run is that it is not a race, but an expedition. It was always structured around visiting as many communities on the trail as possible and so it seemed an ideal trip for me and my dogs. I was also thrilled at the thought of our dogs, who had ancestors on the 1925 run, following in their footsteps.
The logistics involved in organising such an event are quite daunting – but fortunately, one of the parties involved in our dinner happens to do such things almost every year. She runs an organisation that utilises her sled dogs as part of an adventure learning curriculum for schools, using long trans Arctic expeditions to generate interest in science, the environment and awareness of other cultures.
And so, over the course of a few weeks, the bones of a trip were laid out and we set about getting ready for winter, with one eye very firmly on a start date at the end of March. This of course explains why we were so much more structured in our training this winter, why I actually continued to take the team out when conditions were such that normally I would have opted for coffee and cake instead. It was interesting to be a part of, to get some small idea of the demands that preparing for races entails. I thoroughly enjoyed the longer training runs, the extra dog care required and trying to work out a suitable feeding/snack schedule. Not so sure that my wife was so enamoured with all the additional chores she got lumbered with, due to my increased hours on the trail.
Of course, it almost goes without saying that where a winter filled with plenty of snow would have been ideal, we barely got any. There was a lot of running done on very hard, icy trails and the snow depth was depressingly low. I believe this year’s snowpack was one of the lowest on record. It did work to our advantage in one respect. The Iditarod race had to move their start from Willow up to Fairbanks – meaning they were running on exactly the same trail we were planning on using just a couple of weeks later. This guaranteed us a fairly obvious trail to follow.
As the middle of March loomed, final preparations were getting made and we were still attempting to keep the dogs running and in tune. The conditions on the main trail systems were actually holding up fairly well, my biggest problem was the couple of miles to get onto those trails – exposed to bright sunshine, they continually thawed each day and then refroze at night, leaving us with a pretty hair-raising ride on glare ice with fresh dogs. And then it sadly all came crashing (literally) to an end for me.
Whilst out running with a small team of 8 dogs, I missed my intended turn, and tried to remedy the situation by getting the dogs to take the next turn, which unfortunately was already behind us and at a 120 degree angle. I managed to get the team onto my desired trail, but obviously it wasn’t their desired one. Somehow, I ended up under the sled , with my foot trapped by the runner and the gangline twisting my leg in the opposite direction, as the dogs attempted to continue in their original travel direction.The loud pop from my knee and the subsequent pain indicated that all might not be well. Eventually, I manged to extricate myself, sort the dogs out and get the sled upright. 15 miles from home and doing my best to steer a sled with one leg, it was a rather interesting run home. The only thought that was going through my head was that I was supposed to be going on the Serum Run trip in 10 days. By the time I got home and started to put dogs away, I faced the fact that a. I couldn’t actually stand or bend my knee and b. it was highly unlikely I was going on the trip.
The official medical diagnosis was an avulsion fracture of my fibula. It seems that I won’t need surgery and now, 5 weeks later, I am fairly mobile and my knee brace seems to be providing plenty of moral and physical support.
However, as I suspected, there was just no way that I was going to be able to drive a sled for 700 miles with just 10 days of healing. And so, with a very heavy heart, I watched as my friends made their final preparations, packed the last of their supplies and a few days later than originally planned, loaded up the dogs and set off.
The plan had been to run the dogs from Nenana to Nome, following in the paw prints of the original Serum Run. However, the low snow and mild winter meant that it just wasn’t practical to leave from Nenana this late in the season. Accordingly, the gang drove as far as Manley Hot Springs in the truck, before unloading everything and then setting up their sleds and teams.
I’ve been tracking their trip, via a two way GPS Communicator, and the occasional phone call. They phoned on my birthday from the trail and all sounded very happy. Today, they left Koyuk and have travelled to Elim, which leaves them with just around 125 miles to go before they arrive at their destination of Nome. Trail conditions have been good, colder than expected, but not anything like as cold as experienced by the racers on the Iditarod. It sounds by all accounts to have been a wonderful trip so far, the dogs have all been doing well, and there have been no nasty surprises. All in all, it seems like it would have been everything I was hoping it would be, and would doubtless have helped greatly broaden my experience in long distance dog driving and dog care.