Gay Salisbury – Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles. The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic, New York 2003


“We are prisoners in a jail of ice and snow. The last boat may be justifiably considered to have gone and this little community is left to its own resources, alone with the storms, alone with the darkness and chill of the North.”

Nome Chronicle

CURTIS WELCH was the only doctor for hundreds of miles along this forgotten edge of the Bering Sea, and for the past eighteen years he had watched winter descend suddenly, as it tends to do up in the far north. There were just two seasons here, they said: winter and the Fourth of July. Winters were at least seven months long in Nome, and the other seasons came and went within a few short weeks. From July to October, the Bering Sea was free of ice and the town was open to steamboats and schooners that sailed in from Seattle, the closest major port, about 2,400 miles and fourteen days away to the south. By early November, the Bering Sea would be frozen over until the following spring and the light would be nearly drained from the sky. The Victoria, usually the first passenger ship to arrive in spring and the last to leave in the fall, would have unloaded its cargo and headed south, leaving the town cut off from the world save for one route: a dogsled trail that linked the town through the Interior of Alaska to the ice-free ports in the southeast.

The unrelenting cold came on suddenly and violently, with blizzards that lasted for days and brought about an extreme isolation that could sap the determination of the hardiest soul. Each fall, nearly half the town's population left aboard the last ships of the season and stayed away until spring. And yet, Welch stayed behind. He had done so each year except once when he left on a short stint to work as a stateside doctor during the Great War. Welch had fallen for Alaska from the moment he arrived in 1907, and his fondness had grown over the years. He had once written to his sister back home in New Haven, Connecticut, that the big country provided plenty of room for him to stretch his soul.

From the time Welch was a young boy he had felt a distinct sense of otherness, and while he still found even the smallest social gesture a task – he was known to leave a dinner party when the conversation was just getting going – the boundless Alaskan space was heaven-sent. He had found himself at last, he wrote.

He was fifty now, the golden blond hair white, standing up in shocks. He looked forward to the town's annual exodus, and to his solitude.

At any time of year, Nome was a distant place, a speck on the map of America's last frontier, that vast territory of Alaska stretching out over nearly 6oo,ooo square miles – an area as big as England, France, Italy, and Spain combined. At one end, in the southeast, were the capital, Juneau, and the territory's year-round ice-free ports. At the other end, to the northwest, was Nome. In all its parts, Alaska defied exaggeration. To the west, active volcanoes spewed smoke over a rugged North Pacific Coast, and to the east, glaciers the size of Rhode Island hovered over fjords. In the Interior, the heart of the territory, North America's tallest peak, Mount McKinley, reached up through the clouds over an endless expanse of timber. A traveler in the early 1900s said that one would have to spend a lifetime in Alaska to fully understand it, to catch the seasons’ change over four climatic zones or to smell the sweet cold air as it hustled across the frozen sea. And perhaps, by the end of that lifetime, one would finally reach Nome.

In the early 1920s, Nome was the northwesternmost city in North America, a former gold rush boomtown that had lost its glitter years before. It sat 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle on the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula, a windswept fist of land that jutted two hundred miles out into the Bering Sea. It was closer to Siberia than to any other major town in Alaska, and a little further north, on a rare, clear day in this foggy, storm-ridden world, one could see across the Bering Strait to Russia, fifty-five miles away. The international date line was a few miles off the westernmost tip of the peninsula, and one could literally see tomorrow.

From the second floor of his modest corner apartment above the Miners & Merchants Bank on Front Street, Welch and his wife, Lula, had front-row seats to the town's elaborate winter preparations. The Victoria was gone and the last ship of the fall season of 1924, the Alameda, sailed in with the town's winter supplies. It sat heavy in the water a mile and a half off the coast at the "roadstead," as near as a ship could get to shore without running aground. Nome had neither dock nor safe harbor, and the lighters and launches had to maneuver through the surf and out to the great ship before turning back to shore with their precious cargo.

On Front Street, which ran parallel to the sea, gangs of Eskimo longshoremen unloaded the cargo, which they stacked up along the waterfront and readied for storage. There were boxes of dried fruit and frozen turkeys, mountains of coal, and crates filled with butter and tea. The work went on all day and into the night. Horse carriages and wheelbarrows moved down Front Street to the hulking wooden warehouses along the shore of the Snake River on the west side of town. There was room enough to store supplies for Nome's 1,400-odd residents, as well as for many of the 10,000 other Alaskans living in scattered villages and small mining camps of the Seward Peninsula and beyond.

The town had become the region's commercial hub, and many Alaskans traveled here through the winter to buy everything from hardware to curtains and coal. If they took ill, they ended up in the care of Welch and his four nurses at Maynard Columbus Hospital, which had twenty-five beds and was considered the best-equipped medical institution in northwestern Alaska.

Front Street was never busier than in the days before the last ship sailed out. Its wooden planks creaked and its sidewalks sagged from the human traffic headed down to the waterfront. Eggs were stored in vats of brine and turkeys were laid out in cold caches built behind every home, and if the missus ran out of storage space, she could always walk down to Front Street and make a last-minute deal for a little extra room in one of the trading posts.

Children came home from the tundra with buckets filled with the last of the season’s wild berries; these would be turned into preserves or better still, into cordials, which were technically illegal since Prohibition was the law of the land. Miners who had spent the summer prospecting for gold in the hills beyond Nome returned in knee-high rubber boots and woolen breeches and waited in the hotels and coffee shops to ship out. Those who stayed behind traded in their boots for warm, waterproof Native footwear called mukluks.

The U.S. Marshal was known to hand out government-issued blue tickets, which were exit visas for the insane, the destitute, and the criminally inclined. Dallying was firmly discouraged, for the Alameda was the only way out, and the captain could hardly risk being trapped in for the winter. The ice was the final arbiter: there was no higher authority.

Nome's permanent Eskimo population lived a mile and a half west of town on a sandbar across the mouth of the Snake River called the Sandspit, and they readied for winter as they had for centuries. Those without jobs as laborers in Nome traveled down the Bering coast with their nets to fish for a last batch of salmon or char, and the women would go to work with their curved steel knives, or ulus, and hang the fish up on drying racks to cure in the cold sea air. If they came upon a seal on one of their frequent trips up north, they would shoot it, load it onto their wide, skin-covered boats (umiaks), and, after a rough ride over the waves, bring it home. There it would be skinned to make mukluks and its blubber would be cut, eaten, or rendered into oil for food or fuel.

WINTER WOULD be late this year but the pace nevertheless quickened out on Front Street and along the waterfront and in the shops. Men hammered loose boards into place and lashed down the buildings, anchoring them against the wind. The Moon Springs Water Company turned off the town's only plumbing, two crude pipes running down from Anvil Creek. Holes in the wall were patched up in preparation for the blizzards, and the surfmen from the local U.S. Coast Guard station prepared to move down to the beach to haul up Nome's fleet of skiffs, schooners, and lighters.

The arctic ice pack was inching ever closer to the narrow Bering Strait and ice was forming along the shores of the Bering Sea. The sea became “an ocean of slush rolling ponderously up on the sands, crashing and splattering an icy enamel on everything it touched,” said naturalist Frank Dufresne, a town resident.

On the deck of the Alameda, the captain knew he would have to retreat south soon or risk being crushed in the vise of the encroaching ice. It was time to batten down the crates and send out a clear message: get on board or stay behind for the winter.

As the sound of the whistle echoed across the shore, carpenters dropped their hammers, housewives paused in the street, and sled dogs roaming free on Front Street cocked their heads and, in sympathy with the Alameda, let out their own mournful wail.

The last lighter raced out to the ship, picked up its cargo, and returned to shore. Black smoke rose from the Alameda’s stacks as it built a head of steam, and the anchor went up. Finally, the bow of the ship began its slow turn southward and all of Nome took a deep breath.

They were on their own, at least until spring.

“It seemed to me that half of the people of Nome had managed to stow aboard the old steamer,” said Dufresne. “I had the feeling of being deserted on an ice floe... It was the worst day I ever spent in Alaska.”

IN A FEW weeks, the tundra’s rivers and creeks would freeze over and the frozen surface would become smooth and transparent to reflect the night stars like “tips of small torches held up from the depths.” In town, hoarfrost would coat every object, and out on the Bering Sea, the waves would flatten out as the sea turned into thickening sheets of ice that might stretch as far south as the Pribilof Islands, 550 miles away.

On shore, the floes piled one on top of another in towering hummocks; a little farther north, the pressure of the sea ice had been known to force up great slabs and eject them 50 feet onto shore, crushing everything in their path. The Eskimos of the Northwest called it ivu – “the ice that leaps.”

As the weeks passed, the sun would sink lower beneath the horizon and the fields of ice and snow would be transformed from the purest white to a wash of gold and then to a violet twilight. The days were shorter now, just four hours of sunlight, and the temperatures plunged. Finally, a cavernous silence would descend on the coast like a “great listening.”

At night, as the cold hung over the land, all of Nome’s wildlife and every dog and his master would hunker down. The slightest movement could puncture the arctic stillness, for the extreme cold amplified each sound. Far out at sea, one could make out the thunderclap of floes crashing into each other, and a hunter on land could hear the crunch of reindeer hooves on the crisp snow a few miles away, or the sound of a dog chewing on a bone.

Then the blizzards descended, choking gusts of snow that one resident said draws “the breath out you, then fills your nostrils and drives it back again down your throat.” Another simply stated that a blizzard in Nome could feel “as if an unseen hand were clutching at my throat.” One had to fight against the shrieking winds of Nome’s winter storms, square one’s shoulders, and lean forward with all one’s weight to keep going. A short walk home through town could turn into an hour’s haul and one could easily lose one’s way and end up dead on the tundra behind the town.

It was as if the Great Ice Age had returned.

DR. WELCH had gone through his checklist more than once in the final days before the Alameda left that fall. There would have been cotton balls, ether, tongue depressors, thermometers, and medicines that needed replacing. While most of the medical supplies had arrived safely, one item was missing. Earlier that year, in the summer of 1924, Welch had noticed that the supply of diphtheria antitoxin had expired, and he had made a point of ordering up a fresh batch through the health commissioner’s office in Juneau. In all of his eighteen years practicing medicine on the Seward Peninsula, he had not seen a single confirmed case of diphtheria, the deadly childhood disease. There was only the slimmest chance that he would ever need the antitoxin, yet he could never be too sure.

But now the waterfront was silent, and Welch reckoned that the order had either been ignored or misplaced. He would have to do without until next spring.

AT ABOUT the time the Alameda left town, an Eskimo family with four children arrived from Holy Cross, a village near the mouth of the Yukon River. The youngest child, a two-year-old, had taken ill, and when Welch examined the toddler, he found him “very much depleted and emaciated.” The child refused to eat and Welch noticed that his patient had extremely foul breath. The mother told him the child had been treated for tonsillitis in Holy Cross, but the diagnosis hardly explained his weakened state. Welch questioned the parents carefully and asked whether other children in their village had tonsillitis or severe sore throats – symptoms that resembled those of diphtheria.

The parents assured him they had not.

To Welch’s relief, the child’s three siblings appeared healthy and robust, and he set aside his concerns: diphtheria was highly contagious, and if the siblings were infected they would have shown clear symptoms. He guessed the child might be suffering from a less severe infection.

“Many cases have come under my observation in these eighteen years that looked very suspicious, but time had always before proved that they were one of the various forms of inflammatory diseases of the throat,” Welch would note in his medical records.

By the following morning, the child was dead.