In January 1925, the children of Nome, Alaska, were dying. They were suffering from diphtheria. The town’s only physician, Dr. Curtis Welch, feared the epidemic would spread throughout Nome’s population of 1,400. He set up a quarantine but knew that only an antitoxin serum—that was more than a 1,000 miles away in Anchorage—could ward off the fast-spreading disease.
Sea transport of the much-needed medicine was impossible because of Nome’s ice-choked harbor, and 1920s-era, open-cockpit airplanes could not fly in Alaska’s subzero temperatures. The closest train station was 700 miles away in Nenana. The only hope was conveyance by dogsled. On the night of January 27, 1925, a train arrived in Nenana with a 20-pound package of serum wrapped in protective fur. Musher “Wild Bill” Shannon secured the parcel to his sled, gave the signal to his nine malamutes and drove off on the Iditarod Trail—originally a mail and supply route—on the first leg of a 674-mile race to Nome through rugged wilderness and across frozen waterways.
Now, each March since 1973, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race commemorates that event, the trail itself and the sled-dog culture. But the conditions for the 2016 Iditarod race were certainly a far cry from those in 1925.
Iditarod: an alternative Arctic
On that night in 1925, when a railroad conductor handed Shannon the serum, the temperature was close to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Although he ran next to his sled at times to raise his body temperature, he still developed hypothermia and frostbite on the 52-mile trip to Tolovana, where he handed off the serum to the second dog team. In all, more than 150 dogs and 20 drivers participated in the relay. Four dogs—including three of Shannon’s dogs that perished from frostbitten lungs—died, and the mushers battled temps that sometimes dropped to 85 degrees below zero.
The modern Iditarod course traditionally runs a distance of about 1,150 miles. It starts in Anchorage each year on the first Saturday in March and ends when the last musher reaches Nome. However, the official start to the 2016 Iditarod was moved to Willow, about 50 miles north, due to lack of snow. The National Weather Service reported that the Anchorage area got just 1.8 inches of fresh snowfall in February, far less than the normal 10.9 inches. To make the “ceremonial” start in Anchorage possible, the Alaska Railroad sent a trainload of snow from Fairbanks, which is about 360 miles north. A warmer than average winter also interfered with Iditarod 2015. The official start for that race was moved 225 miles north because of inadequate snow in the Anchorage area.
Just last month, scientists reported that 2015 was the hottest year in the historical record—breaking a mark set the year before, in 2014. Although an El Niño weather pattern, one of the largest in a century, is releasing an immense amount of heat from the Pacific Ocean into the atmosphere and is partly to blame, the bulk of the record-setting heat is a consequence of our planet’s warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases.
Much of that warming has been concentrated in the Arctic; and in Alaska, temperatures are rising twice as fast as the global average. I can’t help but see the most recent Iditarod races as illustrations of this.
American Birkebiner: a warmer Wisconsin
Here, in my home state of Wisconsin, another winter tradition may be going extinct. The annual American Birkebeiner, a cross-country ski race that runs from Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin—and which typically draws internationally-known Olympians—has fallen on hard times in recent years. The average daily temperature in northern Wisconsin in January ranges from 20 to 24 degrees Fahrenheit. The 2016 race was held on January 19, which registered 39 degrees Fahrenheit.
Like most of you, I am happy to see spring coming. But I don’t worry about spring and summer and fall. It’s winter that I fear will disappear, so the end of each one makes me wonder if another will arrive.
I think what is happening with the Iditarod and the American Birkebeiner are harbingers of a future I’m not crazy about. I grew up with the stories from Jack London, novels such as Mrs. Mike and the heroic tale of Balto, the sled dog who carried the diphtheria serum on the “Great Race of Mercy.” I wonder if the stories of such Northern adventures and heroic sled dogs will have any relevance or meaning for children three decades from now.
Meanwhile, my own cross-country skis gather dust in the garage.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,