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Tracking the Ghosts of Alaska
How an obituary led authors Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury on a four-year search to uncover the truth behind an Alaskan tale of life, death and heroism.
By Katherine Koss
Gay Salisbury and her cousin Laney never got the chance to meet Edgar Nollner before he died in 1999. He was never able to tell them about his greatest featcompleting one leg of the 1925 serum relay that saved Nome, Alaska, from a deadly diphtheria epidemic. Instead, an obituary in the New York Times told his story for him. And as Gay and Laney read the short tribute, they felt as if they were hearing a story from their own past.
The last living musher in the 674-mile-long (1,085-kilometer) race against time and terrain, Nollner and his dog team played a key role in transporting vials of diphtheria serum from Nenana to icebound Nomea relay that saved the lives of dozens of desperately ill men, women and children.
Gay and Laney were well aware of the serious nature of diphtheria. Gay's father had suffered from it. And like the residents of Nome, his life was spared due to a last-minute serum deliverythis time, by Gay and Laney's grandfather, a tropical medicine expert in a remote Costa Rican community.
The similarities between Nollner's story and their own family history piqued the cousins' interest, and as they further investigated the tale, they were shocked at what they found: Nothing. Aside from the recent Disney animated film Balto and a few children's books, there was no full-blown account of the heroic serum run that dominated newspaper headlines across the country nearly 80 years ago.
"The obituary had a really elegant description of how this was one of the greatest cliffhangers of the 20th century," Gay says. "So I immediately thought, then it's certainly one of the greatest dog storiesand one of the greatest unwritten books."
Gay and Laney quickly decided they were the ones to write it, and dropped projects they had been working on individually to co-author The Cruelest Miles. From the outset, the cousins discovered their greatest challenges would be recounting the story accurately.
But because Nollner was the last living musher from the 1925 relay, his death in 1999 meant that Gay and Laney would have to draw on sources other than the relay's actual participants in order to piece together the subtle nuances of the story.
The task was not easy. After reading newspaper accounts of the harrowing race, the Salisburys discovered that the reports were prone to aggrandizement, something the authors wanted to avoid.
"We didn't want to be the girls from New York who exaggerate things," Gay says. "We had to set apart what was the written record and what we could know from recreating the conditions."
And even though they couldn't interview any of the relay's participants, Gay and Laney did have limited access to their thoughts and words. The famed Iditarod sled dog race began as a tribute to the heroes of the diphtheria run, and in 1980, the Bureau of Land Management interviewed a number of the 1925 mushers about life on the original Iditarod trail. This oral history, along with newspaper interviews and personal letters, proved helpful, though not as much as the authors had hoped.
"These men did not exaggerate. They were very understated, very modest," Gay says. "They didn't just tell their every thought."
Rather than discouraging Gay and Laney, the demure first-person accounts inspired them to conduct exhaustive research across Alaska and in portions of the Pacific Northwest. Over the next four years, they interviewed everyone from the missionaries who worked with the Eskimo and Athabaskan communities at the time of the incident to the epidemic's survivors. And as Gay and Laney assimilated the new information, the emerging story was much more complicated and thrilling than the mushers' testimonies had let on.
Gay and Laney uncovered hand-drawn daily weather maps in the basement of the International Arctic Research Center on the University of Fairbanks campus, validating newspaper accounts that the mushers and dogs had endured one of the worst Januarys on record. Telegrams that had been relayed among the Alaskan towns from the outset of the crisis detailed the organizational failings of the ramshackle territory. In 1925, Alaska had yet to conform to the standard railroad time schedule, leaving a plethora of uncoordinated time zones scattered across the vast Alaskan territory.
"We were very confused at first, asking, 'What time is it in Juneau if it's this time in Nome?'" Gay says. "But it was pretty exciting. We started to see who the real players were. We really started getting a sense of their personalities. There was considerable pressure for the delivery of the serum to go by airplane, and lots of other politicians started bearing in. At one point it got on the desk of President Calvin Coolidge."
While the human element of the story was compelling enough, Gay and Laney had long pegged the serum run as a great dog story. The story of teams that pushed on through blinding blizzards and negative 50 degree temperatures (-45.5° Celsius).
"Dogs ran themselves to death on the run. They literally lost their lives," Gay says. "The most difficult thing was trying to appreciate the risks, what skills the dogs had, and how important the dogs were."
Beyond the immediate event of the relay, the book also celebrates an Alaska that has since faded into memory.
"In many ways, this book became an obituary to old Alaska," Gay says. "This wasn't just about dog teams running serum to Nome. It became their last run. They ran themselves right out of business because the publicity that came from the run accelerated changes to Alaska."
The necessity to keep the story centered on the dogs getting to Nome meant leaving out plenty of choice material, particularly describing the relay's aftermath.
"Writing a book is so much about what you omit. Ninety percent of what you want to say is not in the book," she says.
Not content to leave those parts of the story untold, Gay and Laney will embark on another joint venturedeveloping the material into a documentary that completes the story.
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