Alaska, Dogs; Continent: North America

The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race against an Epidemic by Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury

  • If your A/C is broken, then this is just the book for you
  • 320 pages (243 pages of content, but the Appendix A is also worth reading)

I’d been holding onto this book for the summer, so when the temperatures here reached triple digits, I knew it was time to break out this story about dog sledding in the Alaskan winter. Brr! The main action of the story occurs in Alaska in February, 1925, and the weather is tens of degrees below zero.

As he prepares for winter in Nome, Alaska, Dr. Curtis Welch observes with dismay that the diphtheria antitoxin he ordered has not arrived on the last ferry from the States (Alaska itself is still a territory in those days). He still has a little bit, but it is past its expiration. He’s annoyed, but maybe it won’t be a problem. After all, diphtheria is simply not that common. Months later, when Welch initially sees an Inuit boy with a sore throat and a high fever, he’s able to convince himself that it’s probably just a generic sore throat and fever. Diphtheria crosses his mind, but its incidence compared to other causes of those symptoms makes it seem unlikely.

The Outbreak

Dr. Welch is unable to perform the test that would confirm or eliminate the diphtheria as the diagnosis. Despite heading the most advanced medical facility in the region (because he is the only doctor there), the laboratory equipment and supplies available to him are behind the times compared to stateside facilities in the 1920s. At first he is uneasy, but then he is alarmed when the boy develops the characteristic gray pseudomembranes confirming the diagnosis of diphtheria. Pseudomembranes cover the back of the throat, restricting the patient’s air flow. Removing them may seem like a good idea, but that uncovers the bleeding sores created by the bacteria. Eventually, exhausted, choking patients in those days suffocated when they couldn’t clear the goo blocking their air flow (today we can immunize against diphtheria in the DPT vaccine routinely offered by pediatricians). This is what happens to the boy, and the outbreak is on.

Welch is able to quarantine people with sore throats, but diphtheria is highly contagious. The quarantine doesn’t limit the spread within a household. Furthermore, some people can be contagious for a couple of days before they feel ill, or perhaps they are only carriers. Eventually, enough people fall ill that he feels compelled to use his outdated stock of antitoxin: not dangerous, but not as effective as it had been. He asks any medical facility in Alaska and also in Seattle for fresh stock. Fairbanks has a good supply, but that town is far to the east, and Nome is far to the west (on a clear day, it is said that one can see Russia from there). What is the fastest means to deliver the antitoxin?

Technology v. Tradition

The Fairbanks newspaper editor – who hails from Seattle – wants to see delivery by air, but he has a fascination with flight. Plus, he knows the publicity would further his campaign to bring air mail to Alaska. People who know the Alaskan winter, however, favor delivery by dogsled. In 1925, little overland infrastructure exists apart from the trails used to deliver the mail by dogsled, the roadhouses which dot them, and the odd telegraph or telephone. Dogsled is still the most practical way for most people to get around parts of what is still the Alaska Territory, and the best drivers and dogs earn reputations for themselves. Nome, in fact, has a larger population of dogs than people for part of its history.

However, a successful flight would take substantially less time than delivery by dogsled, and the American public, now seeing news of the Nome epidemic above the fold on the front pages, clamors for it. It’s Governor Bone’s call, but he seems to be dragging his feet. Although he is making himself unpopular with the stateside public, Bone perhaps has a better handle on the Fairbanks aviator and the plane proposed for the trip than people realize. The older model airplane doesn’t have a closed cockpit, and the air temperatures on the ground are tens of degrees below zero. How much worse will the air temperature be for the airborne pilot? Also, it’s February, and daylight is hard to come by: not ideal when all navigation is still visual. Bone will only authorize the dogsled relay of antitoxin for most of the crisis.

The relay is designed to have several experienced dogsled leaders and their teams each tackle a section of the rugged and varied trail from the Nenana train station to Nome. Among mushers, Norwegian-born Leonhard Seppala is a legendary racer. He also has introduced the Siberian husky to Alaska – prior to the Siberian husky, most sled dogs were malamute. Seppala’s connection to his animals and his training techniques feature in the story, but he is not alone. The authors describe the men in the relay and their dog teams thoroughly enough that they shine as individual heroes. Gay and Laney Salisbury also describe each stretch of the route well enough to make clear the treacherous nature of their path: wind, snow blindness, frostbite, groundswells and more challenge these men and dogs.

Conclusion

Sometimes these writers oversell the suspense and danger a little bit – the facts of February 1925 in Alaska speak for themselves – but Gay and Laney Salisbury did their research well and plainly know the story. Despite wandering a little bit for the sake of exposition, the book reads quickly, and you won’t find yourself skimming to get to some action. Plus, the writers have structured the story into short segments, making it easy to pick up and put down. Consequently, I read a fair portion of the text while standing in line at Starbucks or waiting for the water to boil for pasta. One caution, though: if you are a softhearted dog-lover, then you may find parts of this story hard to read. I don’t like to think about my own lazy little mutt having to face any of the conditions awaiting the sled dogs of the relay. That said, I’ll take more of an interest in the Iditarod race this coming March: this race commemorates the relay described in this book.

Image: J. Jeffrey Bragg, 2003. This file is a resource of the Seppala Siberian Sleddog Project, which hereby grants license to Wikipedia to use and distribute this file subject to Wikipedia’s usual terms.

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