In 1925, the dog Togo led a sled team more than 350 miles to transport life-saving diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska. In a village called Golovin, they handed over the serum to a relay team that would transport it from there. Togo's team ran far more than any other team, but a dog named Balto got most of the credit because he was the lead dog of the final relay team- a team that only carried the serum 53 miles. On my trip to Alaska to research this, my plan was to go to the villages that Togo and his team ran through. Maybe I could find a person who was around when Togo’s team ran through.
My first stop was Nome.
In Nome I met some young men riding snow mobiles who said they would guide me to Togo’s first village stop- that was now a ghost town called Solomon. So we gathered up some safety gear and we took off.
After about 3 hours, I was inside the abandoned spooky Solomon Roadhouse- where musher Leonard Sepplala spent the first night. Togo’s team slept outside burrowed under the snow.
The temperature was -15 below zero, so I expected that my companions would join me inside the building.
“No-ooo, that’s okay,” they said.
Inside, it was not windy, but it was so cold that the ink in my drawing pen froze. So I put five wool socks over my drawing hand, cut a hole through the end, inserted a pencil, and made drawings in my sketchbook.
After about an hour, I jumped- there was a loud CRASH upstairs.
l was puzzled, because nothing could have stayed still hiding up there in that kind of cold. They’d freeze solid.
I quickly finished my drawing and left the building.
Outside the Solomon Roadhouse, the men on the snow machines were waiting.
“See anything interesting in there?” they asked.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like ghosts or anything?”
“Uh, you can’t see ghosts.”
We jumped onto our snow machines and sped back to Nome.
Now I knew why they didn’t want to come inside the Solomon Roadhouse.
The next village to visit was called Unalakleet, which I think means “from the southern side”.
I was now in my first inhabited native Alaskan village. I was told that I would be housed at the local school and so, set out to find it. The snow was deep and the wind howled. The village was quiet.
I walked by a fishing shack that was mounted to a sled. I knocked on the door and a man opened it. “Can you tell me where the school is?” I asked him.
“That way,” he pointed off into the snow.
“Oh,” I asked him, “Do you know who Leonhard Seppala was?”
He nodded his head, “Yes.”
“Do you know of anyone in the village that might have been here at the time he passed through on the serum run- 1925?”
“They would be very old,” he answered.
“Okay, thanks.” I left the road and pushed through the snow.
Inside the school, I met several teachers, who introduced me to the students.
“May I take your photograph?” I asked the teachers and students.
“Sure!” they all said. Everybody posed nicely.
Then I said, Let’s do a fun picture.”
And they all went like this.
I had a fine visit at Unalakleet. The next day I met the postal plane- Boo-Boo again- and flew off to a village called Shaktoolik.
I’d heard two meanings for the word Shaktoolik-
1) A Unaliq word meaning “scattered things”;
2) “Where the west wind blows.”
I’m not certain which is correct, but I will say this- the howling wind never stopped. And it was maddening.
As I headed out at dusk to draw, a native woman told me to put animal fat in my pockets.
“Why?” I asked.
“If you see a polar bear, you will already be too close to it. If it attacks you, throw the fat towards him. That will give you a few seconds to get away.” She showed me the fat in her pockets.
I filled my parka pocket from a bucket of fat by the door. And luckily did not encounter a polar bear that day.
The next village was called Koyuk.
Boo-Boo landed the plane and unloaded the mail. I trudged off to find the school. On the way I met some kids standing by a snow mobile.
“Can you tell me where the school is?” I asked.
“Are you the author?” one asked me.
“Yes, I am,” I answered.
“What’s an author?” another asked.
“I write books.”
“Oh, we thought Author was your name.”
“No, that’s Arthur,” I said.
“Oooooh,” they all answered, “Arthur the author, the school is over there,” and they all pointed.
Inside the school it was very hot. The principal took me to an empty classroom, pointed to a cot and said, “You can sleep here tonight.”
And I did.
You know something? Schools are really spooky when you are alone in the middle of the night.
I spoke to an assembly of students the next day. When I was done, they had a lot of questions for me and I had a lot of questions for them. Especially one:
“Does anyone know of anybody who might have been in the village in 1925 when Seppala came through on the serum run?
No one did.
I met the postal airplane around dusk in a flat area outside the village. Boo-Boo was not flying.
“He landed on a snow covered pond. Ice wasn’t good. Plane sank. He’s grounded for a while,” the new pilot told me.
Next up- the village of Elim.
Elim was full of people zipping around on snow mobiles. And kids were sledding- I always wondered if kids might get bored with sledding when there is always so much snow.