Run for your life

I love The cruellest miles by Gay and Laney Salisbury. The story of the Nome serum run is an incredible tale in itself, but the Salisburys' book is far more than just the story of human and dog achievement. It's also a stunning insight into American history, with asides on canine history, the lore of Native Americans and medical advances.

Around Christmas 1924 there was a sudden increase in the number of children suffering from sore throats in Nome, a remote town in Alaska bordering the Bering Sea. Nome was cut off from the rest of the world once its harbour iced up in November. By New year 1925 it was clear that Nome was in the grip of a diptheria epidemic with only a small amount of serum to hand, the race was on to get more serum to Nome before children started dying en masse. The most logical way to get the serum there was by dog-team, the standard way to get the mail through in North West Alaska, and so began a dog-sled relay through blizzards and white-outs, across the frozen sea running the risk of floating out to sea on the ice floes, across frozen rivers, and the bitter tundra.

Nineteen mushers took part in the relay. They were a cross-section of Alaskans; Scandinavians who were working for the mining companies (Nome was a goldrush town), Eskimos and Athabaskans whose families were experts at wilderness survival, professional mushers who competed in dog races, hunters and trappers, mature men and 18 year olds, friends and relatives. It's an astounding story. Although Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto delivered the serum to Nome, it was Leonhard Seppala and his dog team led by 12 year old Togo, who covered the bulk of the cruellest miles, over 250 of them including the dangerous crossing of Norton Sound.

This is an extraordinary tale of an event that became an early press and Hollywood sensation. If you're a dog nut you'll love this (even if you are distressed by the fate of some of the sled dogs), but if you're interested in history or adventure or travel this is compulsive reading too. Beautifully written, and moving at the pace of a prize Iditarod team. I had problems reading this at night, as I just didn't want to put it down. Highly recommended.

Leonhard Seppala and his trusty lead-dog, Togo


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