Recent Reading: The Cruelest Miles by Gay and Laney Salisbury

Okay, so this book, The Cruelest Miles, tells the story about the diphtheria epidemic in Nome and the race to get the serum there by dogsled. It’s a very readable book, well put together, background nicely integrated with the essential story, lots of drama, and of course we know from the beginning that the serum got to Nome, so thankfully that reduces the tension to a bearable level.

Nome’s residents knew exactly how much coal to order and how many turkeys, cans of evaporated milk, eggs, and medical supplies they needed for winter. They knew how to plug up their keyholes to protect against blizzards and how to reach the doctor or hospital if their children became ill. But they enjoyed a false sense of security, for the town’s isolation could quickly turn an average crisis into a catastrophe. If the weather turned suddenly, or there was a fire, or if a cargo ship sank, they might as well be on the dark side of the moon.

Diphtheria was a terrible killer prior to the invention of the antitoxin. It’s horribly contagious, and healthy carriers can spread it widely before the first cases are identified. It’s specifically a childhood disease, striking mainly children up through younger teenagers. It kills by slow suffocation. Imagine for one moment what that would be like, to have half the children in your community die slowly, over days, of a disease you can’t treat. You probably can’t stand to imagine that for longer than one moment.

There was one doctor in Nome. He had specifically ordered diphtheria serum. That part of his order failed to arrive. Then, after it was too late and Nome was isolated for the winter, the first cases of diphtheria began to appear …

You probably know that the sled dog diphtheria serum run from Anchorage to Nome is the effort that inspired the Iditarod race because everyone knows that. [I mean Americans; I’m not sure anyone else hears this story in grade school. For that matter, I don’t know whether children today still learn this story.]

Anyway, I knew that. I knew a little bit more than that. I knew that the guy who is most credited for the race was Leonhard Seppala, the guy for whom the modern Seppala Sleddog is named. I didn’t realize that nineteen other sled dog drivers and teams took part of that run, usually twenty or thirty miles or so apiece (Seppala took ninety, except he did a lot of his route twice: once to meet the driver handing off the serum and again to return.

Seppala’s dogs were original Siberian Huskies, which were a landrace from, obviously, Siberia. They were less beautiful but better sled dogs than modern Siberian Huskies.

A digression about sled dog breeds:

Alaskan Malamutes are the big ones. They are about eighty to a hundred twenty pounds. They are meant for pulling heavy loads short distances at a slowish speed. They are not currently popular, which is good, as they would be difficult dogs for most people. They are affectionate, cheerful, demanding, independent, destructive if their energy is not channeled appropriately, often same-sex dog-aggressive, and really, really strong. Plus they howl. They do not ever have blue eyes.

Siberian Huskies are the small ones who sometimes, not always, have blue eyes. They are half the size of Alaskan Malamutes. They are meant for pulling lighter loads much faster over much longer distances. They have diverged into multiple types in recent decades, including the very beautiful show variety that isn’t as fast or as high-drive as the original Siberians, and a longer-legged variety that has been selected to pull wheeled carts in the UK and has diverged enough in type and structure that it ought to really be called something else. Regardless, Siberians are very popular, as you may have noticed, but they are way (way) too smart and way (way) too energetic and way (way) too independent for most people. Almost everyone who thinks they want a Siberian is wrong. Do not just casually get a Siberian, even a show-line Siberian. Their attitude is, “That fence is just a suggestion, right?” Their other attitude is, “Dude, I love you and all, but I’ve got things to do.” They are called “Siberian Houdinis” by people who know the breed because they will find a way out of your yard and they will then run for miles and miles. They will be two counties away before they realize they are lost. They get lost – inexperienced and ignorant dog owners allow them to get lost – more than any other breed. There are far, far easier spitz breeds for the casual owner.

Alaskan Huskies are the crossbred functional type that are not a breed. They were and still are created by crossing all sorts of other breeds into Malamutes and Siberians, including shorthaired dogs like German Shorthaired Pointers, and they are the fastest sled dogs in creation. They do not reliably have enough coat and they may need coats and booties, and they are not nearly as beautiful as show-line Siberians, but by heaven, they are fast.

Seppala Siberian Sleddogs were re-created from Siberians and Alaskan Huskies after Siberians became less functional as sled dogs because they were being bred mainly for showing and as pets. I presume they are a lot like the original Siberians, given the name.

Samoyeds are the jacks of all trade that do it all: pulling sleds, herding reindeer, whatever. They are easier to own than the dedicated sled dogs because they are not dedicated sled dogs. They are cheerful, extroverted, and too smart for some owners. I have literally seen a Samoyed train his owner to give him a cookie, like so: Jump on a person. Get commanded: OFF! SIT! Sit in front of the person, collect a cookie. Jump on the person again and repeat the whole business, ad infinitum.

Honestly, people only think they want smart dogs. Almost no one really wants a smart dog. But at least Samoyeds are happy and good-natured as they outwit you.

Keeshonds are my favorite spitz breed. They are meant to be family pets and watchdogs, not sled dogs. They bark a lot because they are meant to be watchdogs, but they are also affectionate, willing, not as independent as any breed above, cheerful, extroverted, beautiful, and roughly two orders of magnitude easier to own than Siberians. They are also moving toward the edge of extinction because nobody knows about them. If you want a spitz breed, look here.

Image from Pixabay

Yes, there are lots of other spitz breeds, but that digression is long enough, so let’s go back to the book, which features sled dogs, especially the original Siberian, front and center.

The authors emphasize over and over the closeness between sled drivers and their dogs, especially their sled dogs. No doubt some drivers were cruel, but the authors pass over that rather lightly, especially because the drivers they focus on the most were anything but. Seppala in particular was a serious “dog whisperer,” though the authors don’t use that term. He apparently impressed his contemporaries by barely seeming to do anything, just cluck to his team and off they’d go. Probably part of that was just picking the right dogs to start with. As the authors correctly point out, wolves are horrible working animals and any amount of wolf genes makes for a bad working dog. In this case, that’s because wolves run in order to chase prey, but sled dogs run because other dogs are running. The Siberians of the time, and Seppala’s dogs for sure, were basically all the same size and specifically all ran in step, making for a smooth rhythm and a very fast, efficient team. They were far more efficient at running as a team than the crossbred Malamutes popular at the time.

Sled dogs also learned about the terrain, and the team leaders were selected for intelligence, drive, willingness, dominance (the authors don’t use that term, but it’s obvious because they describe the traits they mean: calm, confidence, and forcefulness. Those are traits that define dominance, which has nothing to do with aggression). Out on the trail, if a blizzard came up, the driver would have to turn everything over to the lead dog. In an early sweepstakes race, the very experienced driver who won was snow-blind for the last hundred miles; the lead dog got them to the finish line. Out on a frozen lake or on the frozen sound, the lead dog was the one who made decisions about whether the ice was safe to cross – often split-second decisions. If the driver got into dire trouble, the team leader was the dog who might be able to get him out, by figuring out a solution on his own because the driver could not tell him what to do and often did not know what to do. Many examples in the book.

Here is an incident Seppala describes, with his lead dog Togo, the same dog who was the team leader during Seppala’s part of the serum run. Seppala was crossing ice on the sound and the ice broke up, stranding him and his team on an ice floe. The only thing to do was wait and hope that the wind would push the ice floe toward shore rather than away from shore, which it did, or someone else would have tried to make Seppala’s part of the serum run. But the ice floe didn’t get close enough: a gap of five feet remained. The way to handle that is to tie a line to a dog, get the dog to jump the gap, and then the dog can pull the floating ice to shore. But Togo couldn’t jump that far, so Seppala picked him up and threw him across the gap. Togo understood all this and began to pull in the ice flow, but the line broke. And Togo jumped into the water, grabbed the line in his jaws, scrambled back out on the ice, dropped to the ice while still holding the line, and rolled twice. Then, with the line over his shoulders, he pulled the ice floe to shore.

Is this credible?

This story is on par with a story primatologist Frans de Waal tells in one of his many books (sorry, I don’t remember which). In this instance, what happened is a baby chimp was playing, got a rope wrapped around its neck, then fell off the height and hanged itself. The baby chimp was strangling, obviously, and the mother tried to pull the baby free, which was either going to strangle the baby faster or break its neck. A male chimp had been watching, and ran over, shoved the mother out of the way, lifted the baby up to relieve the pressure around its neck, and unwrapped the rope.

To me, that seems very much the same. The chimp had to understand the idea of “rope” and “wrapped around neck” and “lift to relieve pressure” and “unwrap.” The dog had to understand the idea of “rope” and “pull” and “get rope around body to pull better.” That last seems like a stretch, but sled dogs specifically learn to understand those exact concepts. This isn’t explained in this book, but I’ve listened to podcasts about sled dogs and the way they are trained, and so I can say that on a trail, when running, if a sled dog gets a line wrapped around its leg – not unusual – there is no time to stop the team and unwind the line. The dog might be crippled if it did not understand how to free itself. A dog that gets tangled while the team is in motion will throw itself down, shake the line free, and leap up without a pause. Sled dogs learn to do that when they are tied out as puppies, and it is one of the most important things they learn, crucial for the job of pulling as part of a team. To me, learning how to handle ropes and lines like this is exactly the kind of experience that could lead a really smart, really motivated dog to solve this problem. Also, as far as I know, no one ever suggested that Seppala made stuff up, so if he said this happened, probably it happened. Also, sled dogs did very smart things all the time. They had to, because their senses were so superior to human senses and humans were always being forced to hand all the decisions over to the lead dogs of their teams.

Okay, so that’s the dogs. What about everything else?

I cannot imagine living in Alaska, but most especially not Nome. The authors of The Cruelest Miles do a great job evoking the sheer weirdness of the world at -50F, where everyday expectations about how physics works start to be unreliable. I will add here that -50F is actually pretty close to -50C, so if you use Celsius, you can think of it as about the same.

“Traveling at fifty below is all right as long as it’s all right,” was a proverb known to many Alaskans. At this temperature, Alaska was a different world, a land with its own peculiar physics. A cup of boiling water flung into the air, for example, would become, as if by magic, a ghostly cloud of vapor. Steam rose from every finger on a bared hand as the vapor that passes continually through the pores became more visible. Spit froze, and opening the door to a warm cabin was an invitation to the phantoms: as the cold air rushed inside, moisture on the walls on floors would form into a chain of ice crystals, like tiny chandeliers in a woodshed. Outside, where the super-cooled air sucked out any lingering moisture, the landscape took on a fragile, glasslike quality. Objects would come into sharp focus and the landscape would fill with the fine, glittering crystals of hoarfrost.

During the actual serum run, temperatures were much lower, sixty or seventy degrees below zero. Oh, have I mentioned there was also a blizzard? It was some of the worst weather seen in that area for decades. A train took the serum from Anchorage to Fairbanks; sled dog teams then took the serum along the upper part of the route shown, from Nenana to Nome. Each of those little dots shows a waystation — a place where sled dog drivers could stop and recover. Each driver during the serum run was responsible for the distance from one or more waystations to another.

The people in Nome tried to get word to the last couple of drivers to stop and wait for better weather, but the last guy in the line didn’t get the message and kept coming. Because of the blizzard, he missed the last handoff and therefore took two legs of the run; that’s why he was the last driver and came actually into Nome with the serum. That was Gunnar Kaasen; his lead dog was Balto, who became famous because he was the one in the front as the serum came into Nome. He was a fine animal. But all the dogs that took part in the serum run were fine animals. The conditions on the run were so awful that a good handful of dogs died in the effort. (And some of the drivers sustained serious frostbite too; the serum run was brutal for dogs and men alike.)

So it’s a story with some tragedy mixed into the heroism. But, spoiler, the serum got to Nome, the epidemic was paused, and – I had no idea about this – a second run was made after the first to get more serum to Nome. A relative handful of children and a few adults are known to have died; probably a good many more died farther outside of town and were buried quietly, with no one ever hearing about it. But the epidemic was halted, and the bare outline of story – from 1925, so almost exactly a hundred years ago now – was still being told in grade schools when I was a kid.

Now I’ve heard the much more detailed account, and I definitely recommend this book. I have no great desire to ever go to Alaska except maybe on a luxurious cruise, but the Iditarod is a big draw, of course, and lots of people do go for that. The race doesn’t copy the route of the serum run because the whole race is for sled dogs, so there is no train doing half of the run, so the route looks like this:

So you can see that the route cuts diagonally across country and picks up roughly halfway through the east-west part of the serum run. This whole route is about a thousand miles, which is … wow … it’s a long way. Most teams used to take about 20 days to do this route, but today, most teams take ten days or so. This is partly because the sleds are better now — the driver can sit down now, which was not possible for drivers during the serum run. The Iditarod today is both safer and easier than it was at first. Not that I would ever have wanted to try to do it.

But beyond the race itself, this book also offers very nice details about clothing and tools; also about metaphysical beliefs of the Athabascans vs the Eskimos, plus which group should be called Eskimos and which Inuit – lots here I didn’t know. With the winter country in mind, I took notes. The Ugaro aren’t like any of the peoples described here, but nevertheless.

I also noted that most of the winter country can’t get THIS cold, or if it does, Ryo hasn’t described that. I do have some idea about how to design a person for really cold climates – I am thinking here, for example, of countercurrent mechanisms in the circulatory systems of the extremities, as cetaceans have in their flippers. But there are limits, and I can definitely say that most of the winter lands generally stay above fifty below and also, I see why the special climactic zone of the northern borderlands is crucial.

I have to add, it was a good thing for Aras that his first ill-prepared nineteen-day forced march into the winter country took place during the earlier part of winter, plus in the less-cold forest rather than out on the steppe. If it had been fifty below, that journey would have been impossible.

Overall conclusion: Great book, highly recommended.

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12 thoughts on “Recent Reading: The Cruelest Miles by Gay and Laney Salisbury”

  1. Keeshonden are an old Dutch/German breed which often lived on river barges that travelled up and down the river Rhine, from the Netherlands through Germany, with the family who also lived on board.
    They guarded the ship when it docked, as well as the younger kids in the family (help keep the baby from falling overboard) – older kids often had to stay ashore with family or in a boarding school during the (later) school years.
    So it’s not surprising that they are good family dogs as well as guard dogs, and need less room for really long runs. Barges aren’t small (95-135 meters long and 11.45 meters wide), but the room to run on them is limited in a way a husky would probably hate.

  2. I know, Hanneke. I should have said some of that because this background makes it clear why they aren’t like sled dog breeds. Also, this background explains why they’re barky — it’s the watchdog job. I actually knew the correct plural too, though in the US, even Keeshond fanciers are likely to say Keeshonds when talking to people who aren’t into dogs, though they say Keeshonden when talking to people at a dog show. Same for Komondor and Komondorok.

    One other item about the Keeshond: they’re one of the very best medium-sized breeds out there for families, BUT they are also one of the only medium-sized breeds that has, or used to have, a significant problem with patella luxation. Breeders may have gotten this problem under control in the past thirty years, and if so, good for them, but if I were buying a puppy, I would specifically ask about patellas and I would make sure my vet checked for luxation on the first puppy visit. Otherwise, that’s a problem you mostly ask about only with toy breeds.

    Regardless of all that, they should be at least a thousand times more popular in the US than Siberians. I mean that literally. Siberians are (finally!) declining in popularity, but they should be way, way down and Keeshonds (or Keeshonden) way, way up.

  3. Hond, plural honden, is Dutch for dog (though etymologically related to the word hound in English, a “hond” is a dog in general, not specifically a hound). So a Keeshond would be a Charlie-dog if you translated its name literally: Kees was and is a popular name for a boy or a dog.
    There are small, medium and large types of Keeshond.

    Another smallest type of Keeshond, with whom it shares many traits, is the little black “Schipperke”, also called the smallest shepherd at about a foot high. It’s origins are more in Belgium and the southern Netherlands, where a “schipper” is the captain/person in charge of a boat, with -ke as a diminutive. So it’s called a “little skipper”, showing the link with the dogs living aboard the river barges, even if this one was more associated with guarding Flemish Belgian craftsman’s houses, so it can bark a lot if left alone and alert.
    This link’s text is in Dutch, maybe Google can translate it, but shows some nice Schipperke pictures.

  4. Sorry for going on about the Keeshond, as they are more common here and originate here I thought it might interest you – I didn’t mean to repeat a lot of stuff you already knew, and that’s only tangential to the subject.

    I read a bit about the history with the emergency medicine run in an article about the Iditarod race, but not all the details you talk about here; it’s very interesting to learn more about that, and about the differences in the kinds of sled-pulling dogs.

  5. I didn’t know Kees basically meant Charlie! That’s delightful!

    Schipperkes are a lot brattier than Keeshonden, in my experience — not that I’ve met a lot of Schipperkes! A handful, plus talking to people at shows. Also, it took a real effort for me to learn how to spell and pronounce that.

  6. Not at all, Hanneke, I was trying not to go into detailed paeons about the breed in the actual post, since it was a digression, but I’m happy to have comments that emphasize this breed. I’ve known a fair number because I knew someone who did Keeshond Rescue. Plus I’ve always gone out of my way to chat with Keeshond people at shows. I’m glad (and of course not surprised) that they’re more common where they originated. A few years ago when I checked, only 16 litters had been registered in the US that year, and that is a really, really terrible number. I hope they might be doing a little better here now as Siberians gradually lose popularity.

  7. I’m in my early twenties, and I learnt this story when I was in school. This post has definitely made me interested in reading the book to learn about it in more detail.

  8. I first encountered this story via the film “Balto”, which I still very much enjoy. I haven’t read this book, and I think I might have to. Thanks for the rec!

  9. I will look for this book.

    I may have learned about this in school, not sure. My kids loved the Balto movie and we watched it a lot.

    We had a dog who was a husky mix. Her mom was a purebred husky who belonged to a grad school colleague of mine. The mom got out while she was in heat (Houdini, I guess). Dad was unknown but when the puppies were born it seemed likely on looks that he was the malamute down the street.

    We didn’t know anything about behavior of huskies or malamutes but we lucked out. She was a sweet dog, smart but mostly not a troublemaker. She absolutely loved running with my husband. One of our favorite stories about her was the winter day in Oklahoma when they were running at a local park. She broke the leash and took off chasing ducks. The ducks took to the air but were flying low enough that she kept after them. They flew across a pond and she ran right into it. She was probably 10 yards from shore before the very cold water began to soak through her fur. She yelped and swam for dry ground. By then my husband had caught up, and she was willing to be nabbed.

  10. Here’s a link to the Outside magazine article on the Disney+ movie Togo. It *is* really well-done, but there are some slight changes to the original story; they don’t, however, change the main thrust of the true story and the book, which is that Togo deserved the credit for the overall success of the serum run. Outside magazine is where Jon Krakauer first published his experiences with the disastrous 1996 Mount Everest expedition; his book Into Thin Air is excellent and also somewhat of a trauma narrative. One of the most renowned mountaineers of all time, Reinhold Messner, came to Krakauer’s defense after he faced some criticism from the sister of Scott Fischer, a leader of one of the rival teams attempting to summit Everest that day. Here’s the link to the Outside article on Togo, as promised:

  11. Thanks, Michelle! I don’t think I’m up for a traumatic expedition these days; I’m sure I’d be saying to myself all the way through, “This is SO AWFUL! Why did you DO this?”

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