Much of the time, there are parallels in history. And sometimes, not only one; yes, history does repeat itself if you wait long enough. Let’s look at our current COVID-19 pandemic and 1925 Nome, Alaska.
A fast moving highly contagious respiratory disease ravages the populous. There is a ‘cure’ or treatment, but it’s far away in distance or the future. People are quarantined (Shelter in Place orders); rules are put in place to arrest the spread of the disease. Society descends into chaos as simple actions- like grocery shopping - are disrupted. Are youth affected easily or is it the elderly? How is it spread? What do we do?
In Nome, Alaska – 95 years ago – diphtheria hit the small mining town at the beginning of the winter. The local hospital knew to have the anti-toxin on hand in case of an outbreak, but there hadn’t been a case in years. The supply was allowed to expire. And just when the townsfolk had some hope, the annual FINAL supply ship (before winter) didn’t include another batch. The first case hit just days after the ship left; the harbor and waterways, just miles from the Arctic Circle, were already freezing over.
No more ships would be able to get to Nome until spring. The newest travel invention, the airplane, wasn’t able to fly in such wintry conditions at that early stage of its infancy. Trains could only go so far; the only avenue left was dog sled. And the situation would call upon those musters and dogs to make the long trek during the first major storm (literal blizzard) of the season. Cases were increasing; children were dying. Getting the anti-toxin to the mining town was paramount. The flu epidemic of seven years before had wiped out a generation; and now another one was being threatened.
In 2020, healthcare workers brave the hospital wards and COVID-19 patients just like those mushers and canine heroes are the only and last line of defense until the cure (vaccine) can come. But, when will that be? There were others who ignored quarantine rules and the spread of the disease – another respiratory failure type condition. It is like a storm that the healthcare workers have to endure in their work to save the populous. Would those tasked with a cure make it in time? Would the workers make it through the storm?
The train could only get the anti-toxin so far; there were 674 miles left to Nome. The ‘Cruelest Miles’ that the dog teams had to traverse; hazardous in the best of times, but that early storm would plunge the temperature to 80 below zero (-80 degrees). The shipment had to be heated up at each stop, so it wouldn’t ruin. The dogs and mushers had to make it to each stop without dying or losing the drug.
The mail route was used as it was the most well-known way to Nome; although it wasn’t used in the winter for obvious reasons – it was impassable. There were specific stops along the route; some 50 miles apart, some 80 miles between stops. Champion musher, Leonhold Seppala, took the longest stretch -350 miles; more than half the trip. His lead dog, the ancient Togo (in dog terms; he was 12 years old) didn’t let his master down. The bond between the two saved the team on more than one occasion. Over frozen sea, into valleys and over mountains, the two worked as one.
It was Balto who has the statue in NYC’s Central Park due to his part of the trek – he had the last leg as lead dog and brought the serum into Nome at the end of the five and a half day 674 mile ordeal. But it was Togo who brought the precious cargo through a blinding snowstorm by what many think was sense of smell alone. Seppala told of the experience as one he couldn’t understand how they made it. He couldn’t see and didn’t know where they were going, but his longtime companion did. Disaster could have struck at any moment for hours on end, but the animal never wavered. He even helped pull the sled out of a crevice at one point. Togo would have died attempting to get the ‘cure’ to its destination because he knew that his master and friend would do the same.
The circumstances in 2020 are a little different, but the concepts are the same. People (and some animals-Covid-19 sensing canines) are working around the clock to keep the epidemic in check; to save as many as possible. All are working tirelessly to make it to the point where a ‘cure’ is available for those afflicted; and those who might contract the disease. Some of these heroes have died fighting this disease because the time element is much longer. Less than a week compared to 12-18 months is a lifetime for all involved.
That five and a half days was a journey that normally took the mail 25 days at that time on the Alaskan frontier. Perhaps, those scientists and virologists can speed up the 12-18 month estimate for a cure (vaccine) in the 2020 version of history. Who knows? If everyone does their part including following quarantine and social distancing rules; maybe, just maybe, the sled will arrive just in time.
But it will take all of us, just like it took Togo and Balto and all the other dogs with their mushers, to accomplish the impossible; to beat the crisis back and save our lives. If we care like those animals and people did in 1925, I see history repeating itself again in 2020.
There is an excellent book about the 1925 crisis, “The Cruelest Miles” and there have been numerous documentaries and movies made about that trek across Alaska, which is immortalized in the annual Iditarod Dog Sled Race; specifically in 2018; and recently on a streaming service highlighting Togo, the famous Siberian Husky.
Dwayne Wilder is a Sherman native who currently lives in Denison. Wilder’s Whole World is his commentary about life in Texoma and the world. Wilder can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.