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18-Day Mushing Expedition to Travel Along Historic Serum Run Trail

Sled dogs from Stephanie Johnson's and Kirsten Bey's teams are ready for their training run in Nome. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2020).

The 1925 Serum Run, a sled dog tale steeped in history and familiar to many Western Alaskans, is being revived. Starting this Saturday, a team of several mushers, snowmachiners, and history-lovers will embark on a 750-mile expedition from Nenana to Nome following the old Serum Run trail.

But as KNOM’s Davis Hovey reports this Serum Run is neither a sponsored race, nor a life-saving venture.

“I’m Phil Pryzmont and I’m the trail boss on this new Serum Run….”

– Phil Pryzmont

Pryzmont says he has gone from Nome to Nenana several times, indicating he is quite familiar with a stretch of Alaskan terrain that was part of the trail used by mushers during the historic 1925 Serum Run. Pryzmont is very clear though that this new run is not a race, as it is not affiliated with the old Norman Vaughan Serum Run, which was last run in 2011.

“The Serum Run is an event where we have six dog teams and seven snowmachine support doing about an 18-day camping trip from Nenana to Nome, following the old mail trail from Nenana to Tanana and then the Iditarod or Iron Dog trail from Tanana to Nome.”

The expedition’s trail map, following parts of the old Serum Run trail, provided by trail boss Phil Pryzmont (2020).

This unique camping trip begins on February 22nd in Nenana and is not expected to end in Nome until sometime around March 10th. Each member of the group volunteered or willingly applied to do this 750-mile trip, and they’re paying their own way.

“But really we’re just doing this so we can get out there with our dogs, with our fellow adventurers, and just enjoy traveling across Alaska.”

Robert Forto, a musher based in Willow, is the main organizer of this Serum Run expedition. Forto has organized several expeditions in the past, sort of like all-inclusive mushing trips, but he says none of them are like this upcoming Serum Run.

“You know that’s something a lot of people aspire to do, but in this crazy busy world today, it’s tough to take off three weeks from our jobs and busy lives, and all that, just to run around in the woods.”

Forto says if this venture is successful, it’s possible he could turn it into a regular guided mushing trip for those willing to pay.

A sled for dog mushing sits empty while the team waits to begin its Serum Run practice session. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2020).

So why choose to mush along 750 miles of rough and unmaintained trail from Nenana to Nome?

Forto says the history of the Serum Run fascinates him, so much so, that he focused his master’s degree thesis on it. Forto recently graduated from Liberty University’s outdoor adventure sports program, which required him to plan and organize a long distance snowmachine or mushing event. So naturally he wanted to create an expedition that follows the Serum Run trail.

“And I guess our big goal was to actually see if we could pull it off. It had been attempted so many times in the recent times, but it just didn’t’ come together as a nonprofit, and as a smaller group, all of that with other participants meaning others beside us. And now here we are doing it on a boot-string type budget, and I think it’s working out pretty well.”

With the many logistics he helped organize, the biggest challenge so far, Forto says, is the approximately $4,000 burden each of the 13 expedition members must take on to participate in this Serum Run Expedition. And that doesn’t account for all of the costs to bring along the four-legged members.

Stephanie Johnson and handler Tim McGarry get ready for a training run in Nome. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2020).

“My name is Stephanie Johnson, I live in Nome, and I’ve been mushing dogs for probably about 11 years…”

– Stephanie Johnson

Stephanie Johnson, alongside Kirsten Bey, are the two Nome mushers participating in this year’s Serum Run expedition. Bey says having the opportunity to travel along the historic trail was a big part of why she agreed to do this trip.

“We all know the story of the Serum Run and read books about it and just to travel over that country…And I think about how easy we have it compared to what those guys did back at the turn of the century, in the early 1900s. The gear is just so much lighter in weight, better…We know a lot about nutrition for the dogs and that sort of thing.”

This weekend, about 95 years after the 1925 Serum Run, Bey and Johnson will be running some of the exact same trail that mushers like Leonhard Seppala, “Wild Bill” Shannon, or Henry Ivanoff traveled back then.

Johnson says this new expedition coincides well with a Serum Run revival of sorts, as there seems to be growing interest in Alaskan mushers and their sled dogs from outside the state.

“It’s really great timing for this run because of the two movies that just came out, well actually if you count Attla, that’s the third. But the Great Alaskan Race premiered in October, and then Togo has just come out. So it’s really in the air right now, as far as what’s going on, and the history of this run. So it’s kind of exciting to have that come along with us.”

Without the same sense of urgency as the original Serum Run, the mushers and expedition crew plan to travel up to 50 miles, on some days, but otherwise they will travel at a leisurely pace, giving lots of rest to their dogs.

Both Bey and Johnson agree, the goal is to do whatever they can to finish the trip to Nome with all of the dogs they start with.

BEY: So out of my yard, I’ve got Jody, Giant, Mud, Molly, and Pearl. And then the dogs I’ve been running from Stephanie’s are Daisy, Iris, Moose, Finnegan, Dockie, Izzy…
JOHNSON: And Mud from Kirsten’s yard was actually born in my yard along with his sisters Misty and Drizzle. And then I have Dan and Poppy, who are nine years-old, and three dogs from Sarah Stokey and Travis Beals.”

Kirsten Bey and Stephanie Johnson set up their dog teams for a practice run in Nome. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2020).

The group of 13 departs Nenana at 10am Saturday morning, and will stop first in Old Minto about 30 miles away, on their way to Tolvana. Their route will be slightly longer than the original Serum Run trail, but still these expedition members will be following in the footsteps, and pawprints, of some of Alaska’s historical icons.

KNOM will be covering the group’s progress as they travel 750 miles from Nenana to Nome. Stay tuned for more stories about the mushers, dogs, and the history involved in this Serum Run revival.

Image at top: Sled dogs from Stephanie Johnson’s and Kirsten Bey’s teams are ready for their training run in Nome. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2020).

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