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Mushing the Dogs by Robert Holmes
An outbreak of diphtheria in the winter of 1924/25 threatened to wipe out the entire population in and surrounding Nome on the Bering Sea coast of Alaska, just 2° below the Arctic Circle. Most were Alaskan natives who had no resistance to the disease. The only doctor in Nome discovered that the town hospital’s entire batch of diphtheria antitoxin had expired but before a new batch could be delivered by ship, ice closed the port for the winter.
Back in 1925, mail was delivered during the winter by dog sled.
Ports were ice bound and biplanes were ill-equipped to make long flights in freezing temperatures so dogs were the only way to get the serum delivered before it was too late.
Time was of the essence. A relay of dog teams followed the well-established Iditarod Trail for 700 miles. Iditarod, now a ghost town, in 1910 was the center for the Iditarod Mining District at the height of the Alaskan gold rush. The relay made the run in record time saving the lives of up to 10,000 people.
The introduction of snowmobiles resulted in the last US Post Office dog sled route closing in 1963 but a group of enthusiasts’ intent on keeping the tradition of mushing alive started a race in 1967. They called it the Iditarod. The route varies depending on weather but basically covers 1000 miles from Anchorage to Nome.
Global warming has affected snow fall patterns and in recent years the race has started in Fairbanks where there is still significant snowfall, and I happened to be in Fairbanks with my partner, Andrea Johnson, to experience the Arctic winter. The Iditarod is a serious and grueling undertaking but dog mushing has become a popular pastime. If you don’t mind putting up with below zero temperatures and freezing wind, you don’t have to be pulled for 1000 miles to experience the exhilaration of racing across an icy landscape pulled by a team of dogs.
Photo credit: Robert Holmes
We could hear dogs barking excitedly, well before we arrived at the kennels. My first impression was how small the dogs looked. These were Alaskan Huskies and their stature contradicted their power. 14 dogs make up the racing teams in the Iditarod but we only needed a team of 8 to pull our body weight.
Harnessed and anxious to get out on the run, the impatient barking continued as we made ourselves comfortable in the sled. And we were off. Speeding across the frozen landscape it was easy to fantasize about the great dog-sled explorations of the past and imagine being Scott or Amundsen on their legendary Antarctic adventures.
We had the advantage of modern down clothing and Samuel Hubbard winter boots to keep our feet warm and toasty but the thrill was still there.
I have done my fair share of cold weather exploration in the Himalaya but this was as good as it gets. It was an experience I didn’t want to end. But then, my feet were warm! It could have been much different.
Robert Holmes' career as one of the world’s most successful and prolific travel photographers has extended over 35 years. He was the first photographer to be honored twice by the Society of American Travel Writers with their Travel Photographer of the Year Award and he is the only photographer to be given the award 5 times, most recently for 2017.