Alaska’s Last Great Race appeared headed toward a confrontation with America’s Great New Fear as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race moved toward the Bering Sea coast on Friday.
Worried about the pandemic coronavirus COVID-19, the wind-pounded, 250-strong, coastal village of Shaktoolik – a historically pivotal checkpoint in many an Iditarod – announced the race unwelcome this year.
Forty miles to the south in the regional hub of Unalakleet, population 700, city officials were restricting checkpoint access to Iditarod mushers, officials and media.
Fifty miles to the north on the shore of Norton Bay, the community of Koyuk, population 330,was thinking about following Shaktoolik’s lead and asking Iditarod to avoid the village.
“We don’t want them in the village,” Charles Swanson messaged from there. “Most of our leaders on different entities want them down on the beach a little bit away from town….I heard Shaktoolik is letting them bypass Shaktoolik. I hope it’s the same here.”
Small and remote though these villages might be, they are well aware of what is going on in the rest of the world and the country where President Donald Trump Thursday declared a national emergency.
“…It wouldn’t surprise me if more villages do the same (as Shaktoolik),” Nome reporter James Mason messaged late Friday night. “I keep hearing people talking about Shishmaref in the Spanish flu epidemic. They posted armed guards at every trail in and didn’t get the flu. Other villages were wiped out. So I think there’s some sympathy for that approach.”
The history of the Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people worldwide in 1917 and 1918, is well remembered in Northwest Alaska.
“The first wave of the pandemic skipped Alaska, but the second wave devastated Alaskans after infected steamship passengers arrived in Nome on Oct. 20, 1918,” the state Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) noted on the 100th anniversary of the disaster. “From Nome, the virus spread rapidly across the Seward Peninsula and then throughout Alaska, killing large numbers of people and in some cases wiping out entire villages. According to the new DHSS report, over 80 percent of all pandemic deaths were Alaska Natives.
“This DHSS analysis also predicts, based on 2016 population data, how many people would die in Alaska if a similar pandemic were to occur today. If we had a flu season with the same rate of death as the epidemic wave in the late fall of 1918, the estimated number of deaths would be 11,970 Alaskans.”
The new pathogen is not the flu, but the dire, two-year-old warning from the DHSS is now echoing across the state. It was two years ago a pitch for the development of flu vaccines.
COVID-19 was then an unknown. It only months ago emerged in Wuhan, China, and a vaccine is thought to be a year or more away.
Nome hit hard
“During the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, nearly two-thirds of influenza-related deaths occurred in the Nome census area,” DHSS reported.
This catastrophe might have faded into history but for later scientific investigations. Flu researchers in 1997 exhumed bodies in the village of Brevig Mission where the flu “killed 72 residents within five days, leaving alive only eight children and teenagers,” American History reported.
From the body of a woman named Lucy, the scientists were able to recover a Spanish flu virus and decode its genetic sequence as part of an effort to decipher how the virus operated and open insights into “how they grow, mutate, jump from animal to animal, and attack their hosts,” the magazine reported in 2013.
Along with helping advance flu research, the project for better or worse also heightened the awareness of coastal residents to their own vulnerability. Swanson readily admitted to sharing the COVID-19 fear sweeping the nation.
“I have a feeling it’ll be soon that the virus will be in the villages,” he said. “Once it is, we are fucked.
“I believe it is far more wide spread in Alaska than is claimed. Anchorage is the heart for all of Alaska’s travel, food, mail-orders, mainline shipping lane.”
The Anchorage fears are well founded. The international airport in the state’s largest city has long pitched itself as the “Air Crossroads of the World.”
Not only is it a major port of entry for the state, it is also a refueling stop for many major cargo carriers traveling from Asia to the Lower 49.
The state on Thursday confirmed its first case of COVID-19 and reported “the patient is a foreign national who developed a fever and respiratory symptoms shortly after arriving in Anchorage on March 11.
“DHSS is coordinating closely with Alaska Regional Hospital where this individual was tested; strict infection control protocols were followed. This is a travel-associated case of COVID-19, not a case of community-acquired infection.”
The airport usually sees an uptick in passenger traffic arriving for the start of the Iditarod in Anchorage in early March and the finish in Nome a couple weeks later. The Iditarod is the biggest winter tourism draw for both cities, but other than the mushers and media few people venture to the state’s remote, rural communities.
That is both a good thing and a bad thing. It helps to minimize possible COVID-19 exposure for rural residents, but underlines the fading connection between the state’s biggest sporting event and the people who were once a big part of it.
Dogs teams are now rare in the villages. High school basketball and the Iron Dog snowmachine race are more popular than the 1,000-mile dog race from Willow to Nome.
Iditarod entrants from rural areas are rare, and Alaska Native mushers – once key players in The Last Great Race – are even rarer.
Some villagers resent what they see as an Iditarod takeover of their communities in March with the ensuing parade of Iditalebrities and doting media that come and are gone with the villages getting little attention.
“Personally, I’ve never cared too much for Iditarod,” as one village resident put it Friday. “As a young kid growing up in Nome in the spring time, I used to have to clean up hay and dog shit left behind by (the late) Susan Butcher. She used to stay with our neighbor back then. Even now, they leave a mess.”
Butcher became a sled-dog-sport legend by winning four Iditarods before her untimely death from cancer. She also helped change the Iditarod’s connection to the villages forever.
She and husband David Monson, shrewd competitors both, early on recognized the value of cultivating village contacts in the early days of the race when villagers vied for the opportunities to host mushers.
Butcher-Monson connections in the villages became so good and so helpful that other mushers began to complain that Butcher had gained an unfair, competitive advantage in the race. As a result, with the best of intentions, the Iditarod instituted a “corralling policy” that provided all the mushers the same accommodations – often a school – in every village.
Though the rule might have leveled the playing field, it increased the separation between villagers and mushers, and set the stage for the sort of large, rather than small, gatherings of people being specifically warned against with COVID-19 sweeping the world.
There is now little reason for villagers to take any risks to support the race.
Where the mushers will end up housed when they hit the coast this year remains at this point unclear. Iditarod is reported to be planning to set up tents to shelter mushers at “Old Shaktoolik,” an abandoned community site about five miles from the current village.
What exactly the plan for other villages is unclear. The village of Golovin, home to about 155 people about 100 miles east of Nome, is reported to have asked Iditarod to reroute its trail around the town.
The plan for White Mountain, a community of 190 some 80 trail miles from Nome, is unknown, but it is a pivotal stop. Mushers are required to rest their teams for eight hours there before making the last push to Nome.
Mason said the Nome city council on Thursday considered stopping the race at the Safety checkpoint about 20 miles east of the city, but rejected that idea. The race will finish in Nome, but the council did eliminate the major post-race celebrations normally held after the race.
Ahead of him were 85 miles of trail along the river to Kaltag before the 85 mile jump over the Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet.