At a glance:
- Author: Gay Salisbury, Laney Salisbury
- First Published: 2003
- Type of Work: History/Nature
- Genres: Nonfiction, History, Nature writing
By early November every year, the Bering Sea froze over until the following spring, leaving remote Nome, Alaska isolated and inaccessible by water. When the last ship of the season left in the Fall of 1924 before the ice closed in, Dr. Thomas Welch was unconcerned that his supply of diphtheria antitoxin had expired, and his request for a resupply had been ignored. After all, there had been no cases of diphtheria in the area in his eighteen years experience there.
But then an Eskimo child died of a throat inflammation, which was soon diagnosed as diphtheria, a particularly horrible, highly contagious disease often called “The Strangler,” because of the spreading ulcers in the throat which form crusty membranes that eventually suffocate the victim. When several more children died of the disease, an epidemic was underway.
A supply of diphtheria vaccine was located in Anchorage, which could be transported by train to the town of Nenana, but after that the only options were sled-dogs and airplanes to transport the serum on the remaining 674 miles to Nome. Because of their unreliability in severe winter conditions, airplanes were ruled out by the Governor, so that left the task to sled-dogs. A relay team of the region’s best mushers was formed, and when the serum reached Nenana, their arduous journeys began.
The ensuing narrative of the five-day ordeal of men and dog teams bravely fighting blizzards, ice-floes, frostbite, and 60-below temperatures to get the desperately needed serum to Nome is an exciting and uplifting story of courage against overwhelming odds. Nome’s plight and the heroic rescue attracted national attention, with dramatic newspaper headlines such as “Dogs Winning Race with Death to Nome” reflecting the widespread fascination. When Gunnar Kaasen, the last musher in the relay, arrived with the serum in Nome on February 2, 1925, there was a national celebration. President Coolidge sent letters of commendation, a statue of Kaasen’s lead dog Balto was erected in New York City’s Central Park, and on the steps of Los Angeles’ City Hall the mayor presented the key to the city (in the shape of a dog bone) to Balto, while silent-film actress Mary Pickford put a wreath of flowers around the now famous dog’s neck.
Gay and Laney Salisbury, both journalism and publishing professionals, have taken this compelling story and embellished it with fascinating background material about the Alaskan Gold Rush, the growth of commercial aviation in Alaska, Eskimo culture, the eventual replacement of dogsled runs by airplanes, and the Iditarod dog race from Anchorage to Nome. The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic is a truly inspirational story, written with zest and admiration, vividly portraying the rigors of life in the frozen Alaskan wilderness.
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