2020 Serum Run Expedition: Traveling Home from Nenana to Nome
February 24, 2020, Nenana.
I was scurrying around the staging area surrounded by 12 of my sled dogs preparing to embark on the 2020 Serum Run Trail Expedition.
Soon, my dogs and me would travel through a small grove of trees to the Nenana River and follow the tracks of the men and dogs whose courage, knowledge and determination carried lifesaving serum to Nome during the 1925 Diphtheria epidemic. As I glanced sideways, I saw my good friend and training partner Kirsten Bey, calmly and precisely prepare her team for the trip to Nome. Her team included five dogs from my kennel. I smiled with pride at her team and mine as I witnessed this crazy vision that has been running through my mind for years unfold into reality.
The Serum Run began as a non-profit organization in 1997 by Col. Norman Vaughn, a dog musher and Arctic explorer. The organization was formed to commemorate the "Great Race of Mercy" or Serum Run where, in the winter of 1925, 20 musher and 150 sled dogs transported diphtheria antitoxin across nearly 700 miles in a relay of five and a half days to save the town of Nome and surrounding communities from the developing epidemic. The last known Norman Vaughn Serum Run was in 2011.
Robert Forto, a musher and business owner in Willow, wanted to revive the Serum Run, not as a non-profit but as a self funded trip. Forto was nearing the end of his Liberty University Masters Degree program majoring in Outdoor Adventure Sports and used the design, logistics and planning of the Serum Run, renamed the Serum Run Trail Expedition, as the focus of his thesis. He assembled a team of mushers and snow machiners plus a veterinarian and medical doctor to begin this journey on February 22, 2020. So, here we were, five mushers – Kathleen Frederick from Willow, Alaska; Kirsten Bey from Nome, Alaska; Marla BB from West Chesterfied, Massachusetts; Julia DeLoach from Trapper Creek, Alaska and me, also from Nome, Alaska. We were accompanied by snowmachine support: Trail Boss Phil Pryzmont and Frank Carruthers of Nome, Alaska; trip leader Robert Forto of Willow, Alaska; Bill Estelle of Willow, Alaska; Carla Kelly of Willow and Cody Rebholz from Oregon. Veterinarian Gil Van Sciver and medical doctor Lou Packer also accompanied the expedition.
The dogs were enthusiastic as they were being harnessed, bootied and connected to the gangline. They knew they were they were preparing for something bigger than our normal runs. The team could sense my flood of adrenaline but also perceived the uncertainty and insecurities I was carrying. As I moved up and down the line preparing the dogs to depart, they looked to me for reassurance. I was what they recognized. I was what was familiar in this strange environment. I did my best to hide my insecurities as my mind worked through the clutter of “what if’s” and mental checklists. For most of the dogs, there were many firsts. Most had never flown on a plane, ridden in a dog box, traveled through trees, ran more than 200 miles without extended rest or been in such proximity to other teams. Minus flying on the plane and riding in the dog box, these were firsts for me as well.
As we were waiting on our turn to leave, Hero was curling his gums showing nearly every tooth as he looked forward. Most think he is smiling, but I know it is his nervous grin. Drizzle is jumping straight up in the air and her jaws are chattering in anticipation of me pulling the hook. She knows she is the leader and it is evident in her somewhat “cocky” mannerisms that she places herself a little above the rest. Spirit, always a team cheerleader, is barking incessantly in Kirsten’s team. The first run on the expedition was to the Old Minto Recovery Camp, a mere 28 miles.
The hook is pulled and within minutes I was looking back at the Nenana bridge, a scene I have had in my mind for many years. I look onward through the light snow and fog and see my dogs, most of whom I have raised as pups. From my perspective, they are moving perfectly. I breathe in slowly and exhale a beam of pride. Tears of joy flowed, stress released and all the sudden, as if switch flipped in my mind, all was right in my world. I gave thanks to God for my life with these beautiful and loyal dogs, my husband Lance, for supporting and encouraging the sled dog lifestyle and visions without question and for my family in West Virginia for their perpetual love and support. At this moment, I could have not felt more blessed.
What was supposed to be a 28-mile run to Old Minto turned into a run of close to 50 miles. The group was separated and four dog teams and two snow machiners were left behind without a person who knew the way. There were no Serum Run trail stakes to be found. The frontrunners never looked back.
We were later found and guided back to Old Minto. As I was feeding and later bedding the dogs, it was easy to feel frustrated with the debacles of day one, but I thought back to the start of the expedition earlier in the day and pondered on the words of two of my mushing mentors, Aaron Burmeister and Barb Moore. They both met me at the start of the expedition to wish me well on my journey. Maybe they sensed potential issues within the group or maybe the advice stemmed from their own experiences with traveling with dogs over long distances, I am not sure, but both advised me to stay true to my training, to myself and my dogs. In similar words, they said if I allowed myself to get caught in negativity, I would lose sight of my ultimate goal of traveling the Serum Run Trail. With this thought, I shrugged the negativity, fed my dogs and found a corner in an old cabin to sleep.
I woke to temperatures of around 30°F below zero. Having lived in Nome for 15 years, it did not seem that cold. I realized the difference was that it was a motionless cold, not the windblown cold of Nome that creeps into every seam of your clothing and freezes exposed skin in a matter of minutes. The sky was sapphire blue. As I walked toward the dogs, they stood from their circled position and shook the cold each in their own time. They were covered in two coats: one of fleece and one layer of Thinsulate. They still had the excited but somewhat bewildered look on their faces. They ate a hot meal of kibble and meat and then settled back on their straw while I prepared the meal for the day and packed the sled. As we left Old Minto Recovery Camp, I was assisted by a few of the residents. Their smiles and positive comments, mainly about the dogs, were so welcomed. I wished I could have stayed a little longer and learn their stories. As I pulled away from Old Minto, I thought about how not too long ago they or their family members relied on dogs to travel, run traplines to feed their families and to haul wood and water to their homes.
As we traveled to Beaver Point Lodge, I found my skills of traveling through the trees needed some work. At times, it was like we were inside of pinball machine as the brushbow of the sled bounced from one tree to another. Fortunately, we (dogs, sled and me) remained in one piece. The dogs seemed be more invigorated than ever going through these trees. It was new and stimulating for them.
Beaver Point Lodge was nestled on the shore of a large frozen lake with breathtaking surroundings. We were treated as royalty by our hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Myles Thomas. The smorgasbord of food they prepared for both dinner and breakfast was incredible and definitely provided the fuel we needed in these cold temperatures.
Our next stop, Manly Hot Springs was absolutely beautiful. The cold continued and hovered around 35°F below during our stay. We parked the dogs in a clearing bordered by a stand of trees which services as the town park in the summer months. Pam Redington came to introduce herself and I was delighted her smile and bubbly personality.
Due to an injury with one of the snow machiners, we would stay an extra day in Manly while a replacement team member arrived.
What was supposed to be a 50-mile overland trail to the Village of Tanana turned in to a 68- mile run. We learned while staying in Manley that the snow was very deep and there was no known successful attempt of the overland trail this season. After a group meeting, we decided to instead travel the Yukon River, which would add about 18 miles to the day. Learning the extended distance, I was thankful for the extra day of rest for the dogs. Due to the lack of snow in Nome this past winter, Kirsten and I struggled with adding mileage. I prayed the extended mileage to Tanana would not sour the dogs.
After the extra day of rest, the dogs were slamming their harnesses and were more than ready to run. I, however, was apprehensive for this longer run. The jitters seemed to disperse as we traveled this beautiful trail. The quiet, the dogs, the peace is indescribable. To this day, I struggle with really re-counting to others what was truly like traveling the trail to Nome. It was not just one or two special things; it was a perfect package.
At times, this package would begin to unfold at inopportune times. The last few miles of the trip to Tanana were tough. There was glare ice, jumble ice and cracks in the ice. I noticed the stoic Marlow had slight limp and I wanted to move him out of lead to lessen his responsibilities and, hopefully, his intense drive. Once I disrupted the layout of the team, problems ensued. I was moving every dog one at a time to the lead position and none of them seemed to want the job. At this point, I could not blame them. It was cold, dark and they were tired. Our trail sweep for the day, trail boss Phil Pryzmont, reached me as I was snacking dogs and contemplating the next arrangement for a leader. Phil is my neighbor in Nome and has been instrumental in the planning and execution of this journey. In a gruff but encouraging manner, Phil reminded me that we were almost to Tanana, the dogs devoured their snack, and, to him, they seemed ready to go. Phil was right. The short break proved beneficial and soon after the challenging standstill, we arrived in Tanana.
I loved Tanana. The people, the sunrise on the mighty Yukon River, the carefully erected fishwheels and a store where I splurged on a candy bar, potato chips and a diet Dr. Pepper. Even in the -35°F temperatures, the dogs seemed to recover well from the long run the previous day. They ate well, slept well and Marlow’s limp seemed nonexistent after rest and a couple of massages using great smelling essential oils.
Leaving the lines of houses in the village, the dogs and I dropped sharply onto the Yukon River. I would not see another house of this type until we reached the Village of Ruby more than 125 miles away. The next two nights we would camp in tents.
I have dreamed for many years of running dogs on the Yukon River and the trail was all that I imagined. Again, my package seemed perfect. My mind wondered as I thought about the mushing history in the Village of Tanana and the dogs and drivers from this region who helped pave the future for this amazing sport. I turned to my right and noticed fish wheels of all shapes and sizes that lined the bank of the river above the shoreline. The sight was humbling knowing these wheels were a lifeline for the humans and dogs in this region. I wished one day I could witness seeing the wheels turn in the current of the river to provide food.
From Tanana, we traveled about 45 miles to our camp. The cold was penetrating but I was driven to provide warmth and nourishment for the dogs. In this cold, even the slightest chore takes extra effort and forethought. The tips of my fingers stung with pain as I attempted any task requiring dexterity. The only thermometer on the trip bottomed out at negative 40°F so the actual temperature was anyone’s guess.
Thankfully, most of my dogs had thick coats of fur, which is characteristic of the more coastal dogs in Alaska. They did not seem to be bothered much by the cold but they did welcome their straw beds. They ate a mixture of water, kibble, meat and fat. Some ate well, some were more finicky.
Sleep was interrupted several times with the fire going out. Snuggled tightly in my extreme cold weather sleeping bag, wearing most of my winter gear and placing chemical hand, foot and body warmers strategically placed, I stayed relatively warm. I understood the concept of sleeping in a tight compressed ball, like the dogs do in cold weather. The second night was a little warmer due to few other bodies migrated in our tent seeking the warmth. I thought about how close I was to putting the second set of dog coats back in the truck to save space in the sleds prior to leaving. I am thankful I did not. The dogs wore double coats on most nights of the trip.
After two nights sleeping in tents on the Yukon River, we were on our way to the Village of Ruby. Thirty-five river miles went by quickly. The dogs kicked their pace into high gear and their noses stretched upward as they smelled civilization. We were treated royally in Ruby with food, fellowship, hot showers and a warm place to rest our cots. Billy Honea and team were super hosts.
As I was preparing dog food and snacks for the trip to Galena, I was greeted by a local dog musher. We chatted dogs and I gave him some dog food that had become extra weight in the sled. He was thankful. I asked if he would like some used booties. He replied with a wink and a chuckle, “Well…. if I have a dog that needs booties, I won’t have that dog long.” I grinned and packed the booties.
I continued to be impressed with the stamina of the dogs on the way to Galena. Blinky and Finnegan had become best buddies and would gently and nudge one another as they ran (probably) to lighten the monotony of the Yukon. They were so jovial and I chuckled at their humor.
The sunset, splattered by shades of red and orange, as was breathtaking. The light made the snow appear pink. I remembered today was my 54th birthday. I could not think of a greater gift than what my dogs and my surroundings were providing for me. A strange and eerie ice fog followed the sunset.
I could see lights of the Galena or did I? This “lights, no lights” game went on for several miles. I started to question my vision and my mind. I thought we would never leave the river but soon approached a steep bank that led to the road. Yes, the road. With both feet perched on the bar break I used every ounce of my weight to slow the sled. A solid sheet of icy snow was below the runners and the dogs speed increased with excitement of new surroundings and knowing they were close food and rest. I quickly traveled through town along the side of the road, passing a few cars and seeing no one or nothing familiar. Finally, I noticed a couple of other dog teams parked. Robert Forto greeted me with a solemn, almost frantic look, “Stephanie, there has been accident.” What? Who? What happened? My heart dropped in my boots when I learned my friend Kirsten was hit from behind by a snow machine a few miles out of Galena and was being medivaced to Fairbanks. She had a broken leg and a concussion. What about the dogs? Robert said the dogs were checked by the veterinarian and they were fine. I told Robert to hold my team and I rushed over to Kirsten’s parked dogs to see for myself. I knew it had to me traumatic for all of them. I quickly gave my own team a hefty snack and some straw. I would give them a full feeding after I saw Kirsten.
Kirsten was lying on a gurney with loads of blankets and a large orange brace stabilizing her leg. She is so stoic, and I really admire her strength. She said, “You keep going and take Molly and your young dogs with you.” Molly was her amazing leader and she was running three of my youngsters. My heart was hurting for her and my mind was racing. A few minutes later, she was transported to the plane.
I made my way from the clinic back to the dogs. They were sleeping but quickly rose as I approached. I hoped no one came out to talk. I needed to be alone, with my dogs. I fed in slow motion. It was -38°F. I sat down sled because I was not quite ready to go inside. I heard the Velcro on the sled bag separating and saw Drizzle’s nose appear. Drizzle was tucked inside of the sled bag as she had been every night since the beginning of trip. She poked her head out of bag and her blue and brown mottled eyes connected with mine. She knew. Her head rested on my lap as I stroked her head.
Inside the Galena Community Hall, I found my cot set up with my sleeping bag already laid out on top. My buddy Phil rose from his own cot across the way to ask if I was okay. I nodded and thanked him for setting up my cot. I knew it was him. He motioned for me and when I approached handed me a piece of blueberry pie his wife had made for him. In a sleepy tone he said, “I have been saving this for your birthday.” We shared the pie and discussed the dark details of the evening.
Everyone, including the dogs, were moving slowly the next morning. We had decided to stay a second day in Galena to work details of sending Kirsten’s things back to Nome and to attempt to pull together as a team. I decided to take Kristen’s offer and keep her leader Molly. I also moved my own dogs from her team to mine and decided to send some of the older dogs home as she had suggested. Part of me felt guilty for moving on without Kirsten.
The community of Galena rallied around us to help transport the dogs, sled and gear to the airport. Several folks stopped by inquiring about Kirsten. They were genuine and caring people. I was ecstatic when the son of one of the original Serum Run musher, Charlie Evans, visited with my dogs and me. He was royalty in my eyes.
I could feel the extra power of having my younger dogs with me as I pulled out of Galena the next morning. It was beautiful and the temperature was -35°F.
We parked the dogs on the river in Nulato. The temperatures continued to hover in the negative 30°s F. Prior to leaving for Kaltag, the schoolchildren visited with the dogs.
By now my dream of running dogs on the Yukon River was diminishing and I was feeling anxious to get to Kaltag. We had been on the frozen expanse for nearly 200 miles. I think the anxiety made time stand still because the 36 miles to Kaltag seemed like a lifetime. The dogs felt it, too. This was definitely a low point for them mentally, physically. They were still pulling, just in a slower groove. The trail was soft due to new snow and I peddled to help them most of the way.
Kaltag was exactly as I pictured with hills in a distance and smoke ever so gently rising out of the chimney of homes. A group of kids bundled in snowsuits, hats, gloves, and tennis shoes greeted us as we arrived at the school lot. The kids were thrilled to gather the worn dog booties as souvenirs and help make straw beds for the dogs.
I was first out Kaltag the next morning following trail breaker Phil. I was ecstatic to travel the infamous Kaltag Portage. I had read so many stories of this section of the trail like how the Athabascan Indians and Inupiaq Eskimos used this passage for trade and how Iditarod mushers describe the ghostly legends of the Old Woman Cabin and Mountain.
The trail from Kaltag was tight, lined with trees and the base was moguls. At times I felt like I was on the rollercoaster going through Space Mountain. To keep my wheeldogs from being jolted by the sled and gangline, I unhooked their tug lines. The dogs were elated to be off the river and their cheerful souls had returned. The craziness of this trail was just what they needed. I found myself laughing aloud as we traversed this section.
A large gorge separated the trail and I found Phil working to upright his snow machine sled that had slid downward as he attempted the crossing. I secured the dogs and helped. Once through, we contemplated how to get the teams across. We were uncertain of the depth of the ice at the base of the gorge and we could see swirling black open water just above. We managed getting the dogs across by walking them through one by one and then pulling the sled through ourselves. This was repeated as the other four dogs teams crossed. The mushers moved on and the snow machiners worked together getting each other across this huge obstacle that was more way more friendly to the dog teams than the snow machines.
The remainder of this run was magical. The dogs were at their peak and had a certain spark in their step. I believe they smelled the familiar coastal air. It was near dark when we arrived at Tripod Flats. The one room cabin was lined with a couple of wooden bunks, a table and woodburning stove. We started a fire with the little bit of wood in the cabin and then I ventured outside to scavenged for more.
The next morning was quite a debacle. We learned about broken down snow machines and lost items from snow machine sleds including a crated dog that was quickly found. Tempers were raw and frustration within the group were high. Fortunately, we had a couple of resourceful and levelheaded group members and within a few hours we were on our way to Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast. I could not wait to see the familiar frozen sea, but it was going be a long run, nearly 50 miles.
Running through the Kaltag Portage was everything I envisioned and more. The scenery, gorgeous weather and changes in terrain made for a peaceful and memorable run.
In the distance, I saw flickering lights resembling lightning bugs on a summer night in West Virginia. I knew we were very close to Unalakleet.
Nome felt so close but I remind myself that we have at least 250 miles to go until we reach Nome. Our housing was in the teacher workroom in the Unalakleet School. We were packed like sardines but appreciated the warm space. We shared the school with the influx of more than 300 high school basketball players plus fans from Nome and surrounding villages. Teams from all over the region were gathered in Unalakleet for the regional tournament. Basketball in Alaska a big deal. We sort of “crashed” this basketball party but were welcomed by the community. They invited us to their French toast and sausage breakfast the next morning.
I was excited to move on to Shaktoolik.
I was approached by three young boys as I was feeding the dogs and packing the sled. They were curious about the names of each of the dogs so I introduced them and gave them short stories of each of the dogs. They helped sort booties into various sizes and I placed them on the dog’s feet. The boys disappeared for a short while but reappeared when I was ready to leave. One of the boys brought me three jolly rancher candies for my journey to Shaktoolik. He said, “I brought you this candy in case you get stranded or something.” I placed my treasured candy in my parka pocket and gave the little boy my thanks.
The dogs were in good spirits as we passed the Unalakleet airstrip and meandered between bare sandy ground, ice chunks and driftwood making our way to the trail paralleling the Bering Sea icepack. A quick turn pointed us to the Blueberry Hills. I saw wolf tracks along the trail and scanned the terrain for other signs of this clever and elusive animal. I felt the wolf was watching me.
I could see the other teams at a far distance ahead of me. The sky was a perfect blue and the sunset that followed was magnificent. Instead of a round ball of fire that gradually sets on the horizon, the sun seemed to elongate, stretch and linger as if it did not want to go away. I parked the dogs, gave them a snack and watched this strange light phenomenon until the light disappeared.
The dogs seemed a bit tired and quickly bedded down once they were given straw. I gave them a handful of dry kibble while I worked to fix their warm and hydrating meal. A few children met us at the school lot when we pulled in and I gave them juice boxes and candy from my food stash. They were so much fun and so inquisitive about the dogs.
I was anxious for the trip across the ice to Koyuk. The infamous Norton Bay has turned back and stranded the best mushers and teams due to unforgiving storms that can take the feet out from under a dog and blow a sled sideways. Fortunately for us, the wind was calm, the sky blue and the day was again perfect. Heading in to Koyuk the sun was setting to my left and the nearly full moon was rising to my right. The horizon as a glowing orange on one side and a subdued pink on the other. The dogs picked up speed as we neared the village.
Our stay in Koyuk, thankfully, was uneventful unlike Shaktoolik when one of the team members’ snow machine burned up while they were working on it in the school shop.
Koyuk to Elim proved to be one the toughest runs on the trip. The dogs were tired and physically, and I was also wearing down. We had been on the trail for almost three weeks. Several monstrous hills proved challenging but the dogs never stopped or let up on their tugs. We were just a bit slower than our normal pace. At this point, we were so in tune to one another. I knew this special camaraderie would be over soon and I needed to soak in every minute of our time together.
We left the sea ice and traveled on a snow-packed road for what seemed like miles to reach the Village. A full moon illuminated the backdrop of trees, snow, and the frozen ocean at a distance.
The up and down terrain continued on our way to White Mountain until reaching the Golovin Bay which led to the Fish River. The village sits on a sloping hillside above the river and has always been one my favorite places in the region.
We parked on the river below the village. Several folks met us when we pulled in including one lady who loaned me her snow machine to haul water from the village. She gave her only form of transportation to a complete stranger and this generosity is one of the many reasons I remain in this region of Alaska.
The next morning I was ready to go before the others so, with Trail Boss Phil’s blessing, I pulled the hook and glided along the Fish River. I was hoping the Topkok Hills would not prove too challenging for the dogs. They continued to show a little fatigue but have never faltered, ever. As I left the river and traveled along “flats”, I knew a few of the dogs recognized our location. Six dogs in my team had been here before for the Nome – Council 200 and they knew it. They increased their momentum and the others followed with a certain gusto.
The craziness halted quickly as the leaders suddenly dropped into deep overflow. I only saw the frantic paddling of my lead dogs as they were attempting to move toward higher ground. The swing dogs pulled sharply to the left and dragged the leaders out of the deepest section. Once we were in the clear, I stopped the team and quickly moved to Drizzle and Molly to make sure they were okay. I removed the t-shirts that were already starting to freeze around their bodies and then removed the icy booties from all of the dogs. The dogs shook and rolled in the snow to dry themselves.
As we crested the last hill before falling sharply to the coast, we halted and I set both snow hooks. I sat amongst the dogs going from one pair to the next. We looked toward Nome a mere 50 miles away. We were leaving what was a mystery before embarking on this journey twenty some days ago and moving forward to what was familiar. I smiled as I reminded myself a trip from Nenana to Nome will now be familiar to us. I beamed with pride as I looked down the line of dogs I adore. It never ceases to amaze me on just how much the dogs actually mirror my own mood. As I ponder the last three weeks, they sat and stared quietly. They, too, understood our time on the trail was limited. My focus switched and I excitedly clapped my hands and said, “Okay guys and gals, let’s go home!” They jumped to their feet, Spirit and Blinky barked obnoxiously and they all pounded forward in their harness. Drizzle gave me her sly and mischievous smile showing the thin line of her upper teeth as if to say, “Hold tight, Mom!” She passed this charming trait to her son Hero and daughters, Faith and Spirit, and I love it.
Hold on, I did! The dogs ignited and moved quickly down the last hill toward the familiar Topkok Cabin. Their enthusiasm was remarkable, and, at times, I was not sure I could hold on as we continued to descend toward the Topkok Cabin. Since we had spent a couple of nights in this safety cabin during a couple of the infamous and dangerous “Topkok Blowhole” storms, I thought the dogs may want to stop, but they did not, and kept moving. We moved the next 10 miles toward the Solomon River Bridge traversing the ever-changing terrain of sand, driftwood, thin snow and the glare ice.
We reached our last stop of the trip, a two-story cabin near the Safety Road House. The weather had finally warmed to above zero and the wind was beginning to blow as a storm was approaching. On a table of the quaint cabin were five large pizzas, candy bars and a rack of soda. Off to the side was a card with my name surrounded a few of my favorite snacks. My husband Lance had come out by snow machine earlier to start the heater and brought dinner for the team and my special treat.
The snow was swirling in the 25 mph winds next morning. We wanted to beat the storm to Nome as it was only supposed to get worse. Phil suggested I lead the teams to Nome today. I hesitated because I had the slower team, but we were going home, so I obliged.
I huddled around the team and gave each of them thanks for their trust and faithfulness. Each dog had contributed to the team in a different way. The silly antics of Spirit, Blinky, Finn and Hero made me laugh. The focus and determination of Jinny, Marlow, Molly and Drizzle kept me confident and honest and, as leaders, kept the team moving forward. The silent work ethic and loyalty of Docky, Casto, Faith and Izzy amazed me daily. I had learned so much on this trip about dog care, teamwork, and long-distance travel. I also made many, many mistakes. At the beginning of the expedition, Aaron and Barb, told me to focus on the dogs, the trail and myself. There were moments when I lost sight of this advice and allowed other issues to creep into my mind and actions but once it was recognized, I changed my mental direction
We crested Cape Nome with Phil leading the way by snow machine. The trail had blown in with the increasing winds and sideways snow. He stopped his snow machine and walked back toward my team patting each of the dogs that had grown to know and respect him. With one hand on my shoulder and the other stretched to the west, he said with a proud grin, “There is Nome, Steph, you made it.”
As I approached Front Street in Nome, I traveled on the ocean ice below, I began to see familiar faces cheering. Ten-year-old Haley, who often visits and helps out at my dog yard, was on the road above cheering for her dogs but especially for Casto. They share a mutual admiration. She put so much work and love into helping me reach this goal. The dogs recognized her voice and turned right toward the huge boulders that make the seawall to find her. After a little convincing, they moved back to the trail to find Lance who was standing on the ice to meet us. Following a short hug and a peck on the cheek we moved forward another few hundred yards to our finish. We were greeted by the hospitality of many Nomeites.
We had made it home!
Editor’s Note: As the Serum Run mushers pulled into Nome on March 15, the COVID-19 pandemic began to develop in earnest and state and local governments went into crisis mode. As the mushers arrived, the Nome City Council had convened an emergency meeting and City Hall was crammed with citizens to figure out the way forward. Shortly thereafter, the state of Alaska and the city of Nome issued emergency orders to shut down travel and while allowing the Iditarod to proceed and mushers to come to Nome, traveling to Nome was discouraged. The Serum Run mushers, quite literally, arrived in Nome at the last minute before life as we know it changed due to the global pandemic.