How Diptheria Gave Birth to the Iditarod: History of the Biggest Sled Dog Race

Only the dogs could save the people.

The city of Nome had been hit with a deadly epidemic – diptheria. Without lifesaving vacine, many, if not all, would die.

It was 1925. Anchorage had a supply, but it was nearly 1200-miles away. What could Nome do? It was winter, the ports were blocked by sea ice. Primitive airplanes were no match for the vastness of Alaska. Train tracks hadn’t even been laid yet.

That left only one possibility – sled dogs. Huskies would pull a sled guided by a man (known as a “musher”) and in relay fashion – one team to the next – speed the medicine across the frozen tundra to the people of Nome.

Would it work? Mail and supplies were brought in that way, but never from such a distance. However, as someone once said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” There was no other choice but to give it a try.

People watched as the musher and his team of huskies raced off into the bitter cold night, their silhouettes growing smaller, then vanishing into a low-hanging full platinum moon. Everyone held his breath.

Plumes of snow flew behind the hissing sled as the team sped across the vast dangerous expanse. What was that ahead? Tracks. Huge ones! The musher knew that if the moose that left them was still around, then danger was very close. Moose mistook sled dogs for wolves and would charge them, causing horrible injury and maybe even death. Curious pairs of glowing eyes watched from the deep woods.

Knowing that lives depended on the mission, the driver yelled “MUSH,” cracking the long whip at the same time. The dogs never hesitated. The team sped on.

Tree shadows fell, like bodies , across the trail. There, across the frozen lake, what was that? It was big, and it was dark, and it was waiting. What a relief the musher felt when he was close enough to see it was one of the relay teams. The transfer of the precious vaccine was quickly made.

All across Alaska this scene was repeated. At last, the lights of Nome came into view. The cheers and applause of the waiting townspeople grew louder as the dogs, icicles hanging from their mouths, brought the medicine in. Those good and brave dogs had saved their lives.

Even the bright North Star seemed to twinkle its approval.

Sadly, these courageous dogs would be all but forgotten until 1973, when their memories were honored with a yearly event called the Iditarod (pronounced Eye-dit-a-rod). Each year in March, teams race along the same route as the original.

In Alaska, the Iditarod is the equivalent of the World Series or the Super Bowl. In 1988, Susan Butcher became the first person ever to win this punishing event three years in a row.

How proudly the Alaskan flag flew the day Susan accomplished this incredible feat! The dark blue flag, depicting the North Star above the Big Dipper, was designed by a thirteen-year-old Native American boy for a contest in 1926. The North Star represents Alaska as being our northernmost state.

Alaska, our largest state, was in 1959 the next-to-last to be admitted to the Union, ahead of only Hawaii.

The coastline alone of this giant measures 33,904 miles – 11 times the distance between New York and California. Although the state has an area of 615,230 square miles, only half a million people live there.

Also, Alaska is the only state in the Union that does not have house flies.

Would this be reason enough to make you move there?

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