Great new fear


An Iditarod dog team heads toward a welcome in Shaktoolik, one of the villages now wanting the Iditarod to stop elsewhere/Iditarod photo

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.

Changing times

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.

The mushers themselvers were still on the Yukon River Friday night. Brent Sass from Eureka led the race out of Galena at about 7:30 p.m.

Ahead of him were 85 miles of trail along the river to Kaltag before the 85 mile jump over the Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet.




25 replies »

  1. Villagers from Shaktoolik have actually rallied together of their own accord in the last day to erect a makeshift checkpoint outside of the village because they care.

    I will link a facebook post from a Shak villager describing their efforts. She says, “We decided we need to do something for them. We can’t just let them go on. So in one day’s work, it all came together by many in Skk… From our youngest Elders to babies were helping. I can’t be any more happier to say I am from a strong lil village of only 250 on the Bering Sea Coast.”

    She also writes “We love Iditarod,” and another Shak villager comments, “This was a huge community effort and it certainly shows. We support this race and wish the best of luck to all the mushers.”

    This author’s representation of village disdain for Iditarod is far from true. Sure, certain individuals don’t like it, and there always have been and will be those individuals. But at least in Shaktoolik, villagers have overwhelmingly shown their support, and that’s incontestable. Check out her posts for yourself:

    • there are people in all villages who like the Iditarod, and people who don’t. and many who are indifferent.

      i do not profess to know which element is in the majority, let alone in control of village politics. but it is good to see the people who like the race rallying to its support.

  2. Shaktoolik actually moved the checkpoint a few miles south to our old village site. Theres a heated house, same amenities, hay, water to heat. It’ll work out.

  3. For years I’ve wanted to hear about the last Last Great Race. Can’t happen soon enough.

  4. It was Herbie’s grandpa George Washington Nuyokpuk who walled off Shishmaref with armed gurards to save the town. In doing so he preserved Shishmaref parents who’d be there to adopt orphaned children from wiped-out villages. The applicable point to the present discussion is that to safeguard he didn’t have to keep anyone from passing on by at a safe distance. In the same way, villagers and race officials could just move the drops and corrals out a little away from the towns and let the race pass. Nome could move the Burled Arch out onto the sea ice if they feel that much need. Villages are not an absolute necessity this year. After all, during the 1970-72 years I attended Joe’s creative planning meetings the race was to be run from Knik to Iditarod and return, a distance of a tad over 800 miles. The only village it would have gone through was McGrath, maybe Takotna. (At first the race route ran far from Nikolai and skimmed past Takotna.)

    Today’s ill feeling in the villages is far from 100% and I think reparable. It is certainly one of the great fixes that MUST be implemented by our novel officials taking Iditarod into its brave new world. It’s a complex problem, but there has to be a way to keep things fair while getting back to the original total open-arms reception of the villagers and the absolute embracing of the race before that heart-warming hospitality element was ruined by musher abuse and administrative lack of analysis and foresight..

    • totally agree, Rod. i think the first thing the race needs to do is get rid of corralling, and if that gives an edge to mushers who go out and train on the trail and while there work to develop relationships with villagers, all the better.

      is this unfair to mushers who can’t afford to visit the villages? sure.

      but life is unfair. the race is also unfair to mushers who can’t afford huge dog yards or the best dogs or the best handlers to help train the dogs or the best drugs to help get the dogs through training or the best food or the best equipment.

      and it’s especially unfair for budding young mushers in rural Alaska who face higher food costs and a harder time finding sponors.

  5. Umm, that was Libby Riddles. She crossed Norton Bay in a storm while all her competitors were playing basketball in Shaktoolik. They figured she was hunkered down and would have to come back but she made it to Koyuk. By the time everyone else figured it out, she had a 12 hour lead and held it all the way to Nome.

    A few years later, Susan Butcher had a narrow lead over Rick Swenson but turned around and went back to White Mountain. Swenson pushed on somehow and made it to Nome and collected his 5th win. No shame in that, I’ve been in that stuff out of WMO and been lost, spent the night curled up behind my machine.

  6. Probably a good strategy for front runners is to fight to be first to the coming checkpoints. Because who knows where the finish line will be. It might not be Nome.

  7. Hope those villages will not have to rely on those sled dogs to ferry the Wuhan Virus vaccine 🙂 Now wouldnt that be irony…

    • Cancel the race, now! it is done!
      Help mitigate the transmission of Covid-19, stop the race!
      In the lower 48, majority of events are being cancelled.
      Any “vaccine” will not be available to general public for at least six months, by that time, the virus will have run its course.
      I agree with the villages, I would not want any possibility of the spread of the virus, on any part of the trail.
      Once POTUS announced the “national emergency’, the committee should have cancelled the race. Shame on them?

  8. Lots of distorted facts and dishonest reporting techniques in this piece. By the way, in any group of people you always have varying opinions. The fact that the author was able to hunt around and find a couple of people who don’t like the Iditarod doesn’t mean much of anything. It is far easier to find many, many pictures and videos of previous years that show bunches of people standing around the checkpoints cheering for each musher as he or she comes in. While it is reasonable for the village of Shaktoolik to be nervous about a lot of people from more heavily populated areas descending on their village while possibly carrying the virus, no other story of this matter that I have read portrays the animosity that this writer tries to imply. Anyone who would like the TRUTH can easily find it on the Anchorage Daily News website and facebook page, the Iditarod Trail Committee website and facebook page, KTUU website and facebook page, the Iditarod 2020 facebook page, facebook pages belonging to individual mushers, and many other honest news outlets.

    • Vicki: You’ve spent how much time in these villages actually talking to people? You’re directing readers to websites and Facebook pages that treat the villages as little more than props for the Iditarod race would appear to indicate a fundamental lack of knowledge.

      The relationship between the villages and Iditarod is a complicated and sometimes difficult one. The race shows up once a year in the villages. In many of them it brings in its own personnel to staff the checkpoints because the locals aren’t really trusted or not that many want to get involved.

      Imagine how you’d feel if you even had relatives that arrived from Outside, took over your house, and said, “Hey, Vicki, honey. You just go over there, sit your butt down on the sofa, and stay out of the way. We’ve got this covered.”

      • I live in Unalakleet, and I agree with Vicki. I know many people up and down the coast who enjoy the Iditarod. Craig, you’re a nothing but cocky, full of yourself reporter telling Vicki to sit down and stay out of the way. How about you stay out of the villages you say you know so well.

    • I’m from Unalakleet, and I totally agree with Vickie. I also know that many people up and down the coast support the Iditarod and appreciate it. Craig, you are way off and you think you have fundamental knowledge of us out here…get real! You’re distorted reporting is pathetic.

      • Paul: I know people on the coast, too; and I’ve talked to a lot of people there over the years who I don’t know, who didn’t know me, and who were very candid with their thoughts.

        There are Iditarod supporters. There are people who don’t much like the race. There are people who are indifferent. And there seem to be a lot of people who wish that it would just be over and done with in a few days so they don’t have to deal with it.

        I might sympathize too much with the people out your way who see Iditarod as an invasion of Outsiders who come in and take over. I grew up in a small town and was conditioned to small town views of self important people from the big city.

        Village views often don’t seem much different from those. I’m perfectly happy to accept your opinion that my summary of the situation might be off. But let’s not kid each others. It’s by no means “way off,” and how far off versus how far on varies from year to year as it does with everything.

        I don’t know how old you are, but I go back to the days of Herbie and Emmett and Don Honea and Alex Sheldon and Ken Chase, Roger Nordlum, Ernie Baumgartner, the Anderson brothers, and not much later Joe Garnie and Howard Albert and Joe Runyan (then very much a village guy) and Roxy.

        There was no doubt a different feeling toward Iditarod when there were a lot of village people running the race, and when mushers were staying with villagers instead of corralling.

        We have how many mushers from off the road system running now? Two maybe. And how many with roots in the Alaska Native community?

  9. Craig,
    Good reporting and very refreshing to hear actual “sources” from the people in the villages, something that other media sites seem to avoid.
    One paragraph in particular really stood out:
    “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.”
    These first person accounts counter the argument that to support native culture in Alaska, you must somehow support the Iditarod….clearly the two are “culturally” apart.

    • Steve: I don’t know that the cultural separation is unique to Iditarod.

      There is a growing cultural divide between rural and urban Alaska in general and rural and urban America. The dominant culture – ie. urban – tends to look down its nose at most rural cultures.

      • Craig,
        I think the cost of having a dog lot and travel expenses involved in training and flying dogs home off the trail is prohibiting enough for most folks in Alaska (regardless of culture).
        The long distance dog racing circuit that has grown into what we now have today is more like Nascar for dogs than any type of historical “mushing” in AK.
        Just like in Nascar there are about 40 “drivers” who return year after year.
        These 3 dozen plus mushers have corporate sponsors and financial support…the rest of the pack is filled with rookies and “one hit wonders”.
        Looking at the roster this year, 25 percent of the dog drivers list a hometown outside of Alaska…this is a sign of the growing divide from the sport in state (as is the snowmachines and basketball courts in modern village life).
        As sponsors like Alaska Airlines drop the Iditarod from it’s list of charitable causes, this cultural divide will only further grow.
        We are seeing this today with Norwegian sponsors like “Qrill” who are some of the few companies recently jumping onboard.
        As less and less Native Alaskans get into the sport of “dog lot” Iditarod racing, it will be tougher and tougher to get the support of villagers in the future for the corporate ITC.

  10. If the entire coast is truly shut down to the Iditarod and any bad weather is on the horizon I’ll be looking for the organizers to call the race sometime today and start making plans for folding the tent and getting everyone off of the trail safely.

    • Jason,
      A thousand miles across the wilderness, and your going to shut down because of wx?
      Thats precisely how Susan Butcher won one year, she leaned into the storm and believed in her dogs.

      • Jason,you didn’t offer up much except for Debbie Downer “it’ll never work.”
        And why does the race need the villages?Vollunteers can palletize and shrink wrap supplies, little bit of spray paint,move said pallets out of villages.
        Wall tents for volunteers with small gensets to keep water heaters going..done.Everyones happy enough.

      • Give it a rest Dave. I know the mushers, the area, the logistics and the work it takes quite well. The early info looked like the possibility of ALL checkpoints from Unk to Nome being shut to the Iditarod, and that’s a whole different prospect than dealing with only Shaktoolik being closed off which now seems to be the case. I know the capabilities of the mushers, but if there were no infrastructure in place, there’s no way the race could safely be run for almost 400 miles with no officials or support and only pallets of supplies. You think no dogs are going to need to be dropped on the entire coast, for instance?

        Thankfully it seems like the early take was a bit premature and the villages are still supporting the race, despite a legitimate scare, and if that was obvious at the time the article was written I wouldn’t have suggested that the race stop.

        Lastly, I know how important this is to the mushers, but the concerns over the pandemic are far and away bigger than the Iditarod and I actually consider it somewhat irresponsible of the race organizers to not put the race off from the beginning.

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