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.