Vinson: Inspirational Iditarod

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Though they seldom receive their commercial due--often times forgotten, or, yet, totally unknown--true accounts of primal survival, man against nature, do resonate with most walks of life. Adding credence to this stance is Leonardo DiCaprio winning the 2016 Oscar for Best Actor in the 2015 film "The Revenant," based on a true story that took place in the early 1820s.

In "The Revenant," DiCaprio portrays Hugh Glass, a legendary hunter and trapper. Mauled horrifically by a mother grizzly bear, Glass is left for dead by fellow trappers. Driven by pure grit and a venomous need to exact vengeance, Glass braves nature's harsh elements and crawls, stumbles, and drags himself a great distance (for a month, some say) until he catches up with the two men who abandoned him.

That said, have you ever heard of the "Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race"? First, some geographical insight: The "Iditarod Trail" is located in Alaska, and is approximately a 1,000-mile stretch of extremely rough wilderness, beginning in Anchorage, located in the lower southeastern portion of Alaska, and ending in Nome, located diagonally in the upper northwestern portion of Alaska, the coastline of Nome touching on the Bering Sea.

Officially inaugurated in 1973, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an annual long-distance sled dog race run in early March. A human dog driver, a.k.a. "musher," and 16 dogs (mostly Alaskan Huskies) pulling a sled compose each team. Navigating the 1000-mile trek from Anchorage to Nome, competing teams are forced to endure treacherous landscape, acute-angled mountainous turns, and frozen rivers, while also encountering blizzards, white-out conditions, gale-force winds, and threatening wildlife, such as moose.

At least 6 dogs must be on the "gangline," which attaches the dogs to the sled, at the finish line. The teams generally cover the distance in 9-15 days. Common injuries for mushers are frostbite, broken bones, and concussions. As indicated, not all the dogs make it across the finish line in Nome. The winners of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race are hailed as heroes in Alaska ... and understandably so!

However, regarding the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, it is the story behind the story that I find most fascinating.


Late winter of 1925 Curtis Welch was the only medical doctor in Nome, Alaska. Dr. Welch ran a 25-bed hospital, accompanied by a small staff of nurses. His supply of diphtheria antitoxin had expired, and although he had placed an order with the health commissioner in Juneau, capital city of Alaska, the order did not arrive before the waterway port closed for the year.

During January 1925, several people in Nome died from diphtheria. Realizing he had a medical crisis at hand by late January 1925, Dr. Welch telegraphed a message of duress to the governor of Alaska and, also, to the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington, D.C., expressing the urgent need for an immediate supply of antitoxin to battle the diphtheria epidemic.

Health officials and Alaskan governor Scott Bone immediately gathered and held an emergency meeting. Someone suggested flying in the antitoxin to Nome. Though some biplanes were available, the idea was quickly sacked due to minus-50-degree Fahrenheit weather: Neither the available airplanes nor the available pilots had been tested and proven under such hazardous conditions. The only option for delivering the much-needed antitoxin was by "sled dog relay."

January 26, 1925, 300,000 misplaced/forgotten units of the serum were discovered in the Anchorage Railroad Hospital. The first team in the relay--to become known as the "Great race of Mercy"-- was steered by "Wild Bill" Shannon, who was handed some 20 pounds of the antitoxin at the train station in Nenana, northeast of Anchorage, on January 27, 1925, late at night. The distance from Nenana to Nome was approximately 650 miles.

After many handoffs to other sled dog teams, many of the dogs perishing along the way, and many men suffering physical injury, musher Gunnar Kaasen, with lead dog Balto forcing his canine teammates to strive onward, arrived with the antitoxin in Nome, Alaska, early morning February 2, 1925.

The teams of mushers and their sled dogs had made the 650-mile trip--under the most dire of weather conditions, nonetheless--in just a little over 127 hours.

Since some consider it the greatest display of willpower for both man and animal in recent history, it's not a wonder the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is called "The Last Great Race on Earth."

Fittingly enough, a statue of Balto, the lead dog on the last relay team, is located in Central Park in New York City. An inspirational story, indeed!

(NOTE: The town of Iditarod is located between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska, thus the "Iditarod Trail.")

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Mike Vinson
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