The Cruelest Miles

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 461 words.)