Forty-one years ago, a now defunct newspaper – the Anchorage Times – declared the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was created to “commemorate the historic trip made by 25 mushers to deliver serum to diphtheria-stricken Nome.”
The claim was fake news before there was fake news, but it lives on to this day.
The reality was that Joe Redington and others started the race in an effort to preserve the Iditarod Trail, a historic route from Seward to Nome, and provide a new reason for rural Alaskans to keep alive the working Alaska huskies they were abandoning in favor of snowmachines.
No one gave a hoot about the Serum Run of old.
Redington’s dream of saving the trail turned out to be a huge success. His hope of saving the Alaska sled dog less so. Sled dogs are all but gone from Alaska’s villages now.
A snowmachine is a more efficient way to run a trapline or haul firewood, and a musher living in Ruby on the Yukon River with a kennel of 20 dogs has little hope of successfully competing in today’s Iditarod against someone living in Willow with a kennel of 200 and a gang of handlers to help train them.
Not to mention that even 20 dogs are costly to keep in rural Alaska given the high costs of shipping in dog food.
So most working sled dogs have been replaced by machines, and the race dogs that run the Iditarod today are bred to defeat the greatest impediment to canine performance – heat build up.
The dogs of the early Iditarod were solidly built and generally long-haired. They were adapted to pulling heavy loads and curling up in the snow to sleep when they needed rest.
The dogs of today’s Iditarod are lean like marathon runners and often short-haired. They have more in common with greyhounds than the sled dogs of an older Alaska. They have been bred to run fast and pull light loads. They need coats to fend of the cold and straw to sleep on. They are not well-suited to curling up in the snow to rest.
They are little like the dogs that carried life-saving diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925.
But then the Iditarod never had anything to do with the Serum Run.
Fake, fake, fake
Author Katie Mangelsdorf – who eight years ago wrote the official Redington biography, “Champion of Alaskan Huskie – Joe Redington Sr. Father of the Iditarod” – has been trying since the book was published to kill the Iditarod-Serum Run myth.
She has gotten almost nowhere. Myths, like fake news, survive because people like them.
Just last week, the Almogordo (NM) Daily News, a USA Today newspaper in the old hometown of Iditarod contender Nicolas Petit reported that “the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began in 1973 in honor of the 1925 serum run to Nome, when a large diphtheria epidemic threatened the small isolated Alaskan town.”
Redington repeatedly refuted that claim, Mangelsdorf notes, and there is no evidence anywhere to support the idea that any of the organizers ever tried to connect Iditarod to the Serum Run, according to Rod Perry of Chugiak, the author of “TrailBreakers: Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.”
The books provide the definitive history of Alaska’s sled dog trails. Along with being an author, Perry was a top-20 finisher in the very first Iditarod in 1973.
“I have read by the fake-news mavens that the race was created out of a desire to ‘run over the trail of the Serum Run,'” he said in an email, and that is a fabrication.
“All the planning and focus was on a Knik to Iditarod and return race,” Perry wrote. “That route would not have come closer at its nearest point than about 150 miles south of the Serum-Run route.
“…When the race model was revamped to run Anchorage to Nome, it was in no way…(the) intention by planners to run over the Serum-Run Route, but only to go from Someplace to Someplace (Anchorage to Nome) for marketing and promotion purposes, instead of Noplace to Nowhere and back (Knik-Iditarod-Knik).”
Once the first Iditarod reached the Yukon River, which was part of the original Serum-Run route, Perry said he talked to every Serum-Run veteran he could find and none of them associated the two events either.
“There was never the remotest notion in my mind, or that of any other of us pioneers, of the race being inspired or connected in any other way with the Serum Run except that by a last-minute decision of the planners to go to Nome. We just happened to fall in over their runner tracks,” Perry said.
Blame the media
So how did history become so distorted?
Mangelsdorf blames the Times, the state’s then by-far-largest newspaper, for establishing a narrative others have been following ever since. Journalists liked the Serum Run idea, and the Iditarod eventually embraced it as a marketing tool.
Whether the Times was trying to create fake news is unclear. When the story was written, Mangelsdorf said, the honorary musher at the front of the starting field, an Iditarod tradition, was Leonhard Seppala, the true hero of the Serum Run.
The Times might simply have been trying to connect Seppala to the Iditarod. Whatever the case, the die was cast.
“Unfortunately, the Iditarod coverage in 1978 was the year of the most thorough coverage of the race since the Iditarod began five years earlier,” she wrote in an email. All the reporters in Anchorage for the race start raced to embrace the Serum-Run theme.
Reinforcement of the idea soon followed, too.
“And then we had a new race marshal, who was not from Alaska, so didn’t know the history of Alaska,” Mangelsdorf said. “He said, ‘Guys complain early in the race about the trail not being marked and so forth, but my feelings are well, then the race wouldn’t be Iditarod that was taken from Leonard Seppala’s run to Nome. Seppala didn’t have a marked trail when he went.'”
When the Iditarod-Serum Run connection started to gain momentum, the Iditarod decided to embrace it as well.
“No marketing genius could have ever dreamed up anything within light years of the Serum-Run narrative to market the Iditarod race,” Perry said. “It was a case of concocted fiction far distancing fact. As the flood of misinformation took hold and spread like wildfire, the Iditarod Trail Committee decided the marketing magic might as well be taken advantage of without going so far as to agree with the misinformation. So without making any official statement issuing from the governing body that it agreed—or disagreed—with the popular concoctions, it was decided they would henceforth honor the serum run each race.
“‘The serum run had no part in our inspiration for the race,’ Perry quotes Vi Redington, Joe’s wife, saying in Trailbreakers. ‘However, today our event purpose has been expanded to memorialize that wonderful, life-saving relay.'”
It was all hooey, but people loved the myth more than reality, and so it continues even if the Serum Run never touched the Iditarod Trail. The serum was taken from Anchorage by train to Nenana and then relayed team-to-team down the frozen rivers of the Interior to the Bering Sea Coast and on to Nome.
Along with being a relay involving two dozen teams instead of an endurance test of teams from start-to-finish over a 1,000-mile course, the Serum Run never actually used the Iditarod Trail, though it did come close.
“The Iditarod Trail ‘T’d’ into the Yukon River Trail at Ruby and several other places,” Perry said. The Serum Run used the Yukon River Trail, the Kaltag Portage Trail, and the Coastal Trail to get to Nome.
All of those, Perry added, were “in very heavy use a decade before the Iditarod (gold) strike and all Iditarod needed was to run connecting trails out to the main well-beaten trunk line.”
Most of the trails are now part of the Iditarod Historic Trail system, which encompasses 2,400 miles of trail in Alaska – 1,400 more than the Iditarod race route, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Or something like that. The exact length of the Iditarod race route year-to-year is an unknown but it has acquired a length all its own for marketing purposes.
“You will often hear that The Last Great Race® is 1,049 miles,” the Iditarod says on it website for teachers. “The number 49 (is) to represents Alaska being the 49th state. 1,049 is considered the traditional or historical length of the race. In reality, it is about 1,049 from Anchorage to Nome. View this chart which provides information on distances from checkpoint to checkpoint.”
The chart, which uses real math instead of Iditarod math, puts the trail length at 975 miles on the northern route run in even years and 998 miles on the southern route run in odd years, but admits both are estimates because the trail moves around a lot.
On the frozen Yentna, Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers, on Norton and Golovin bays, out in some of the swamps and brush lands the route crosses from Willow to Nome, the race trail is a snowmachine track that can from year to year move feet or yards or sometimes miles in any direction.
The reality is no one knows exactly how long the trail, and if someone was to measure it precisely every year they would likely discover every race covered a different distance.
But facts only matter to those interested in facts, and these days many aren’t.
“I have talked to some news folks and even the mayor of Nome to help get the story straight, but there was no interest in correct history,” Mangelsdorf said. “Just the drama of the Serum Run.”
Sometimes we like our fictions too much to let go. As Ernest Hemingway once observed of the stories told in novels:
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”
Truer than if they had really happened, indeed.
Craig, Thanks for setting the record straight on this–it makes up for all the times you called the current Rohn cabin a ‘roadhouse’! BTW, the mts north of Rohn up toward Egypt Mt. are now looking a lot like the pix in your recent article on climate. I was out there on Monday; that valley from Rohn north should be called a blowhole. But fortunately there’s plenty of snow in Rainy Pass and all the way to the Big Su (at least as viewed from 2,000′ AGL)
Could you see if the Rohn outhouse was full from up there
“But facts only matter to those interested in facts, and these days many aren’t.”
Damned if that ain’t the truth.
Dog teams are stupid, snow machines are vastly superior and they don’t require chaining a bunch animals up 20+ hours a day while they yap, and yap and yap.
Here’s a little bit about the last dog team in Utqiagvik: https://www.ktoo.org/2019/03/01/taking-a-ride-with-the-last-dog-team-left-in-utqiagvik/
Here’s a webpage that references both the serum run AND the “1,049” distance of the race: http://www.alaska.org/detail/historic-iditarod-trail
I’ve always heard that there was no diptheria epidemic, a few cases were found but the worst was over by the time the relay arrived. Good thing because the serum had been frozen and thawed so many times it was useless. No matter, there is a statue of Balto in Central Park.
“This is the West, sir, ” the reporter explains quietly. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Great job on our story, Craig! About the trails of old, they were better than any of the early race trails, although maybe not so plush as today’s manicured surfaces that in the words Ramie Redington once expressed, “Rod, the trail out there now is buffed like a danged danceroom floor!”
In the old days, the Alaska Road Commission, a division of the U.S. Army, which cut and marked the Iditarod Trail, placed tripods close enough together over the open stretches mushers could see from one to the other in the worst blizzards. And with so much foot and dog team traffic going roadhouse to roadhouse, a snowflake couldn’t settle long on the ground before being packed when it is new and at its highest moisture content, before being packed by a mukluk, snowshoe, runner or dog paw. Today’s trails packed from the top down can never equal the quality of the old trails packed from the bottom up. Those old trails would last into May, and were in use as long as water crossings remained safe.
I’ll be down at my usual 4th and E St. kiosk all day today engaging our visitors and selling my books. This article gives me the idea of running copies for handouts. Again, Thanks, Craig!
Nice read Craig. Ok, I admit, I bit on the whole “Serum-Run” myth. Thanks for the clarity. Interesting evolution on the dogs of today compared to yester-year.
Have to say I really liked this Quote however misinformed, “‘Guys complain early in the race about the trail not being marked and so forth, but my feelings are well, then the race wouldn’t be Iditarod that was taken from Leonard Seppala’s run to Nome. Seppala didn’t have a marked trail when he went.’”
i did, too, but you know as well as i that there was a difference then.
those old serum mushers who ran the trail between their villages new the route as well as old men know the way from the bedroom to the bathroom.
Well said, Craig.
However us old men usually have our paths to the bathroom well-cleared (even after a snowstorm). Outhouses are another story, though.