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The Cruelest Miles

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As the great Iditarod sled-dog race draws to a close many people will quickly move on to other sports or interests. Most people look at the race as an opportunity to watch men and women and dogs compete against the elements in a race across Alaska. Few people seem to remember the panicked and desperate origins of the race.

The Cruelest Miles by Gay and Laney Salisbury digs deep into the history of Alaska to show the brave men and beasts that came to the rescue of a small town on the Seward Peninsula of Alaska.

In 1925, just scant few years after the Influenza pandemic of 1918, Nome was the center of a fearsome diphtheria epidemic. Diphtheria was not uncommon, but during this unfortunate winter, a shortage of the serum left the town in a desperate struggle for survival.

The book follows from the cries for assistance to the battle with technology. Will the new airplane services deliver the serum? Could they possibly make the flight in bone chilling weather better then the more accustomed to teams of dogs used to deliver the mail? The Salisbury’s show the political and emotional battles taking place as decisions had to be quickly made to save the ill.

Out of these decisions came the epic journey pitting man and beast against the harsh environment of the Alaskan wilderness. During one of the coldest winters on record, twenty teams of mushers fought wind, snow, and temperatures lower than 60 degrees below zero. From frostbite to hallucinations, they kept on, knowing the price that would be paid if they failed.

The stories show the deep connectedness between the men and their dogs. The intelligence of the dog keeping both alive when it seems there is little hope. Whether through deep drifted snow, or the shifting ice of the sea, The Cruelest Miles follows the teams as they drive hard from Nenana to the coast.

Between the stories of the dog teams, the Salisbury’s provide a rich historical and cultural text explaining the relationships between the native groups and the sourdoughs of Alaska. The entrepreneurial spirit of early Alaskan aviators who looked upon the challenge of the serum run as an opportunity to show their usefulness is examined, as well.

The life saving run is recognized every year in the Iditarod sled dog race, which covers much of the same trail as the original dog teams. To watch, or participate, in the race should also be a moment to reflect on the many events that shaped the states history.

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  • I did not know this origin for the Iditarod – thanks for the review. Sounds like the kind of book I need to buy, read – and then gift to my brother-in-law!

  • SFC Ski

    Very interesting and informative post, I had no idea of the history behind Itarod, either. You should have linked to the film “Iron Will” a great sled-dog movie set in that same time period.

  • I will have to hunt down Iron Will. I’m afraid I haven’t heard about it before. I think you just added something to my shopping list. 🙂

  • To watch the Iditarod is so much fun. Fly out to checkpoints, getting to know the mushers and sled dogs. This is a great experience.

  • The Iditarod is terribly cruel to dogs. For the facts, visit the Sled Dog Action Coalition website.

    Here’s a short list of what happens to the dogs during the Iditarod: death, paralysis, penile frostbite, bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons, vomiting, hypothermia, sprains, fur loss, broken teeth, torn footpads and anemia.

    At least 133 dogs have died in the Iditarod. There is no official count of dog deaths available for the race’s early years. In “WinterDance: the Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod,” a nonfiction book, Gary Paulsen describes witnessing an Iditarod musher brutally kicking a dog to death during the race. He wrote, “All the time he was kicking the dog. Not with the imprecision of anger, the kicks, not kicks to match his rage but aimed, clinical vicious kicks. Kicks meant to hurt deeply, to cause serious injury. Kicks meant to kill.”

    Causes of death have also included strangulation in towlines, internal hemorrhaging after being gouged by a sled, liver injury, heart failure, and pneumonia. “Sudden death” and “external myopathy,” a fatal condition in which a dog’s muscles and organs deteriorate during extreme or prolonged exercise, have also occurred. The 1976 Iditarod winner, Jerry Riley, was accused of striking his dog with a snow hook (a large, sharp and heavy metal claw). In 1996, one of Rick Swenson’s dogs died while he mushed his team through waist-deep water and ice. The Iditarod Trail Committee banned both mushers from the race but later reinstated them. In many states these incidents would be considered animal cruelty. Swenson is now on the Iditarod Board of Directors.

    In the 2001 Iditarod, a sick dog was sent to a prison to be cared for by inmates and received no veterinary care. He was chained up in the cold and died. Another dog died by suffocating on his own vomit.

    No one knows how many dogs die in training or after the race each year.

    On average, 53 percent of the dogs who start the race do not make it across the finish line. According to a report published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, of those who do cross, 81 percent have lung damage. A report published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine said that 61 percent of the dogs who finish the Iditarod have ulcers versus zero percent pre-race.

    Tom Classen, retired Air Force colonel and Alaskan resident for over 40 years, tells us that the dogs are beaten into submission:

    “They’ve had the hell beaten out of them.” “You don’t just whisper into their ears, ‘OK, stand there until I tell you to run like the devil.’ They understand one thing: a beating. These dogs are beaten into submission the same way elephants are trained for a circus. The mushers will deny it. And you know what? They are all lying.” -USA Today, March 3, 2000 in Jon Saraceno’s column

    Beatings and whippings are common. Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing Manual, “I heard one highly respected [sled dog] driver once state that “‘Alaskans like the kind of dog they can beat on.'” “Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective…A training device such as a whip is not cruel at all but is effective.” “It is a common training device in use among dog mushers…A whip is a very humane training tool.”

    During the 2007 Iditarod, eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs with a ski pole and a chain. Brooks admitted to hitting his dogs with a wooden trail marker when they refused to run. The Iditarod Trail Committee suspended Brooks for two years, but only for the actions he admitted. By ignoring eyewitness accounts, the Iditarod encouraged animal abuse. When mushers know that eyewitness accounts will be disregarded, they are more likely to hurt their dogs and lie about it later.

    Mushers believe in “culling” or killing unwanted dogs, including puppies. Many dogs who are permanently disabled in the Iditarod, or who are unwanted for any reason, are killed with a shot to the head, dragged or clubbed to death. “On-going cruelty is the law of many dog lots. Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don’t pull are dragged to death in harnesses…..” wrote Alaskan Mike Cranford in an article for Alaska’s Bush Blade Newspaper (March, 2000).

    Jon Saraceno wrote in his March 3, 2000 column in USA Today, “He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens. Or dragging them to their death.”

    The Iditarod, with its history of abuse, could not be legally held in many states, because doing so would violate animal cruelty laws.

    Iditarod administrators promote the race as a commemoration of sled dogs saving the children of Nome by bringing diphtheria serum from Anchorage in 1925. However, the co-founder of the Iditarod, Dorothy Page, said the race was not established to honor the sled drivers and dogs who carried the serum. In fact, 600 miles of this serum delivery was done by train and the other half was done by dogs running in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles. This isn’t anything like the Iditarod.

    The race has led to the proliferation of horrific dog kennels in which the dogs are treated very cruelly. Many kennels have over 100 dogs and some have as many as 200. It is standard for the dogs to spend their entire lives outside tethered to metal chains that can be as short as four feet long. In 1997 the United States Department of Agriculture determined that the tethering of dogs was inhumane and not in the animals’ best interests. The chaining of dogs as a primary means of enclosure is prohibited in all cases where federal law applies. A dog who is permanently tethered is forced to urinate and defecate where he sleeps, which conflicts with his natural instinct to eliminate away from his living area.

    Iditarod dogs are prisoners of abuse.