YUKON: It was "waist to shoulder deep," official says.
By CRAIG MEDRED
Published: March 2nd, 2009 10:00 PM
Last Modified: March 3rd, 2009 09:30 AM
Nearly 85 years ago, mushers and dog teams rushing vital diphtheria serum to Nome pushed through brutal, 50-degree-below-zero temperatures and Yukon River ice fog so thick they could barely see in order to help save lives.
On Monday, modern-day adventurers snowmachining and mushing from Nenana to Nome in a commemoration of that life-saving event ran into their own weather nightmare and decided they'd best turn back for civilization.
Heavy snows between the villages of Tanana and Ruby made travel on the Yukon River near impossible, said Dr. Brian Trimble of Eagle River, the head of the medical team for the Norman Vaughan '25 Serum Run.
Reached by phone in Manley Hot Springs on Monday afternoon, Trimble reported that the eight dog teams and about a dozen snowmachines taking part in the annual commemoration of the 750-mile serum run had encountered snow "waist to shoulder deep" atop the Yukon ice west of Tanana.
Over the course of two days, he said, Serum Run participants managed to advance only 17 miles out of Tanana. They hired local snowmachiners to help break trail, but not even that worked.
For about 30 miles between the two villages, travel was stalled by impassable snows. An aerial search was under way Monday to locate a snowmachiner who left Ruby on Sunday trying to make it upriver to Tanana. Troopers said the 33-year-old man, who was not part of the Serum Run, was not thought to be in any serious danger. He was a regular and well-equipped river traveler, they reported.
But people wanted to check on his whereabouts, given nighttime temperatures dropping to 40 degrees below zero.
Speculation was that he had taken shelter in one of several cabins along the river between Ruby and Tanana to wait for the snow to settle and consolidate before moving on. Trimble said the Serum Run did not have the choice of waiting.
With the event already behind schedule and falling further behind by the day, a decision was made over the weekend to fly the dog teams from Tanana to Ruby. The plan was that the snowmachines and the sleds full of gear they were towing would catch up, Trimble said.
The flight was an ironic twist on history. The only reason dog teams carried serum north in 1925 was because the weather was too severe to allow for flight in the aircraft of the day, and the horses -- teams of which were normally used to transport mail along the Interior rivers -- were stabled because of extreme cold.
Horses, which sweat through their skin, are not well adapted to strenuous work in 40- to 50-degree-below-zero weather. Dogs, which sweat only through their tongues and paws, can, however, safely travel in such conditions, and they did, rushing life-saving serum to the lonely Gold Rush city on the Bering Sea coast.
But dogs, then as now, can't plow through snow three or four feet deep. They need a trail set for them. In the old days, people broke the trail on snowshoes. Now the snowmachine is usually employed, be it to break trail for the commemorative Serum Run or for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which leaves Anchorage for Nome on Saturday.
The Iditarod is another celebration of the Alaska sled dog, and though the race has sometimes been stalled by weather, it has never been stopped.
Trimble noted it wasn't just weather that stopped the Serum Run, either. He said that when organizers sat down and started figuring out what they'd paid Bush residents to break trail, what they'd paid to fly the dogs to Ruby, and what they were expecting to pay to hire more villagers to help break trail on down the Yukon River and across the Kaltag Portage to the Bering Sea coast, the numbers didn't add up.
"We were going to run out of money," he said.
The decision to turn back followed.
The Serum Run officially announced its end on the event Web site (http://www.serumrun.org/index.html) Monday, saying that "due to bad trail conditions" it was going "to pull the plug on this year's trip. The decision was made today for the machiners to head back to Nenana and the mushers to be flown back to Anchorage. As Norman Vaughan used to say 'Dream big, dare to fail.' "
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