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2020 Serum Run Expedition: Day 12, Nulato Into Kaltag

The expedition group has dwindled but continues to press on. Kirsten Bey of Nome has reportedly been released from the hospital in Fairbanks and is expected to be coming home to Nome soon. Expedition members wrote that Bey’s dog team flew back to Nome safely earlier this week.

But Bey isn’t the only one down for the count, expedition Leader Robert Forto has withdrawn, at least for now. Forto has had multiple issues with his snowmachine but reports on social media that he may be able to re-join the group in Unalakleet. KNOM has the latest word from trail boss Phil Pryzmont, an interview with Dick Evans (son of 1925 Serum Run driver Charlie Evans), and some background on one of the expedition mushers we haven’t talked about yet.

That leaves the expedition primarily in the hands of trail boss Phil Pryzmont, who says the group got into Nulato last night after traveling from Galena all day.

“Yesterday’s trail was probably the nicest we’ve had, maybe the whole trip. And we had some just spectacular weather. I would guess it got up around five below in the daytime, no wind, sunshine.”

Pryzmont says Nulato community members have been warm and welcoming, even fixing the group a hot breakfast this morning as they prepared to hit the trail this afternoon. Their journey today is short, just 37 miles to Kaltag. But right after Kaltag is the infamous Kaltag portage, an area that Pryzmont says has defeated him twice.

There’s a section of trail that’s kind of sketchy. It’s kind of a hairpin u-turn on a natural ice bridge that slopes down to the creek and there’s about an eight -foot drop town to the water. And I’m told that people that have fallen into the water, that the water is about eight feet (deep).”

2020 Serum Run Expedition’s trail map. Courtesy of Phil Pryzmont.

When the Expedition reaches the village of Kaltag, which sits high on a bluff overlooking the Yukon River, they will have completed their run of over 250 Yukon River miles. From the Athabascan community of Kaltag, they will go west to Unalakleet and the Norton Sound. In 1925, when the original Serum Run occurred, the Kaltag school opened and the community was beginning to experience more traffic from steamboats up and down the Yukon, that’s according to explorenorth.com.

Kaltag was traditionally a cemetery for nearby Athabascan communities to bury their deceased family, but after colonization it became a robust Roman Catholic Mission. In the early 20th century an epidemic of measles devastated a third of the Native population at Kaltag. After that epidemic, communities from nearby fishing and hunting camps decided to settle in the area.
When musher Charlie Evans finished his run to Nulato in the original Serum Run, writers Gay and Laney Salisbury report in The Cruelest Miles that he handed the serum off to Tommy Patsy, who took the serum from Nulato to Kaltag.

According to the Salisburys’ book, Patsy was one of the last Koyukon hunters to hunt a grizzly bear by spear. Patsy and the other hunters, including Sidney Huntington, would train for the hunt in secret to build their strength. The three-man hunt required the hunters to vault over the bear den with birch poles to surround the bear, using the poles to keep the animal in the den until they were ready. The hunters would not kill the bear in the den though, instead the raging bear was released and the hunt began.

But the hunters, including Patsy did not brag about their feat. Nor did Patsy speak much about his involvement in the original Serum Run.

“They never really talked about it much. It was just something they had to do, you know?”

– Dick Evans

That’s original serum runner Charlie Evans’s son, Dick Evans, who is 80 years old and lives in Galena. He met the 2020 expedition mushers when they came through earlier this week. Evans says the original mushers didn’t talk much about their involvement, he says they helped because they were asked.

“And I think he had a medal that they gave him for carrying the serum. He was telling me that all the other mushers lost their medal that they gave them. And he was the only one he knew that still had his, so he donated it to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. So, it should be up in there.” 

Dick Evans ran for his father, Charlie, in the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the race but mostly he says he grew up mushing because it was a necessity in the days before snowmachines. Many people in Galena used dogs every day to get around and do chores. And in springtime, Evans says there were the races.

“We had 56 dogs in our yard. My dad used to be kept on the barge lines so he was gone all summer, so we had to go use rowboats and fish about half mile up river. We had to check three fish nets every day and bring back about 100 dog fish. Most used them to go to their trap lines. They had trap lines all over the country. They’d drive out there and stay out there for four or five days or two weeks. They’d come back to town and go food shopping and go back out.” 

– Dick Evans

But it’s too expensive nowadays to keep a dog team, he says. There’s only one remaining team in Galena now.
For the mushers out on the Serum Run Expedition 2020 trail today, the motivations are a bit different.

Video of the 2020 Serum Run Expedition, courtesy of musher Marla BB.

“I’ve wanted to go to Nome by dogsled ever since 1997. I visited Nome and I got the bug.”

– Kathleen Frederick

Kathleen Frederick of Palmer, spoke with KNOM back at the expedition’s start in Nenana. Frederick is one of the four remaining mushers on the expedition. She calls her kennel the “Shameless Huskies”.

“Well if you’re my age and a young woman your mother said to you, “Don’t be a shameless hussy!”  When I first started, I had all females and a friend suggested the name and it was funny so that’s how I got the name.”

Although Frederick now has some male dogs in her team, she and her “Shameless Huskies” are still working on completing their first long distance race. She attempted the Iditarod several years back but had to scratch due to a broken sled. She’s also tried the Serum Run but only made it to Galena after the snomwachines that were bringing their supplies failed. As of this point in the trip, Nulato is the furthest Frederick has made it on the Serum Run trail.
She’s particularly keen to make it a bit further down the trail to the Old Woman Cabin.

“I’m bringing along my ashes of Xena, my leader who just passed away in August from cancer so hopefully I can sprinkle some at Old Woman cabin and some in Nome.”

But as Pryzmont mentioned, the trail ahead is difficult. The Kaltag portage is a challenge for experienced mushers and a source of some anxiety for many expedition members.
If their plans prevail, and the group reaches Kaltag tonight, they will camp near the Old Woman cabin tomorrow and reach Unalakleet on Friday.

Image at top: Snowmachiners lead the way out of Nenana to break trail for the mushers on Serum Run Expedition. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2020).

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