After two and a half weeks of traveling, the 2020 Serum Run Expedition expects to arrive in Nome today.
The 2020 Serum Run Expedition pulled on to the riverbank in White Mountain on Tuesday evening. The late orange sunset silhouetted the teams as they pulled ashore.
Musher Kathleen Frederick of Palmer set about feeding her dogs while children from the community came down to see the team.
At the same time, Julia DeLoach and her team pulled in. It was a long run in from Elim, the tired dogs were happy to curl up as soon as the straw was laid down. DeLoach immediately got hot water and pulled out frozen food to make a “stew” for the dogs.
“This is salmon from Nome… lately I’ve been giving them a little bit of everything.”
They’d been running for 11 days straight. DeLoach seemed worn out by the 48 miles from Elim that her team had just conquered, especially climbing hills after traveling by sea ice.
“It was a big climb, but they did well. Everyday has been something different as far as challenges. Like today my leaders kind of balked a little bit, so I kept trying other dogs to cheer them up, you know putting new dogs up front. The new dogs I would pick the real enthusiastic dogs and then they wanted to play instead of pull. That’s right. You just wanted to play?”
By this point, the team has seen several members withdraw from the adventure, including the expedition leader Robert Forto. Forto planned the expedition in part for a master’s thesis project and also to see if the expedition could be turned into a commercially viable operation. Musher Kathleen Frederick has not been pleased with Forto’s preparation and leadership.
“[But] Robert does not have the wilderness skills to lead an outdoors trip of this magnitude with all the risks involved and the remote locations. I am making this statement because I have grave concerns when he says he wants to market this as a commercial tour because it could put people’s life and safety at risk.”
Forto told KNOM by phone that he had never been down the whole trail before. He says that when they organized the expedition they spent lots of time discussing the logistics and lodging, but not the challenges of the actual trail.
“I will freely admit that I was not prepared to go as a snowmachiner. I am a dog-musher and that’s what I do. I was encouraged to go as a snowmachiner on the expedition at the last minute.”
Forto left in Galena after having snowmachine issues and, although he says he thought the whole group should have withdrawn after Kirsten Bey was hit by a snowmachine, he did not call off the expedition.
Those that are still on the trail only have increased respect for the dangers, challenges, and beauty of the great Alaskan wilderness.
Dr. Gil Van Sciver is the expedition vet who helps monitor the dog teams. He bustled around the tribal hall in White Mountain, getting his veterinarian kit ready. One of his fingers is carefully wrapped in a bandage, but it still shows exposed sections that are visibly black from severe frostbite.
“I’ll sacrifice part of my finger if I have to. It something that I’ve wanted to do for a long-time.”
Van Sciver estimated he’s been able to vaccinate about 140 dogs on their travel. Though it’s been a difficult trip, his attitude remains upbeat and energetic.
“I saw a wolf yesterday that was one of the most amazing things… real neat experience. Really warm communities….”
Nome musher Stephanie Johnson tries not to get emotional when she talks about how much her dogs have worked, some of whom she has raised from puppies. It’s been an incredible trip for her and she realizes that there are still challenges in the stretch from White Mountain to Nome.
“Hopefully today will be good, mainly getting through those hills… I’m not running as I was either.”
Just on the other side of the Golovin Bay from White Mountain is the village of Golovin, where, in 1925, Leonhard Seppala ended his section of the relay and passed the serum off to Charlie Olson who then passed it to Gunnar Kaasen. The blizzards were so bad that all communication to Nome was completely cut off. Nome officials didn’t even know if Leonhard Seppala had received the serum, let alone did they know that the serum was only a few miles away.
The 2020 Serum Run Expedition is also racing to beat a winter storm that is coming across the Norton Sound. They plan on hitting Front Street early afternoon on Thursday.
KNOM will be working to bring you live coverage of their finish, as well as one last historical update from the 1925 Serum Run.
Image at top: Musher Julia DeLoach cares for her team leaders in White Mountain. Photo shared by Serum Expedition, 2020.