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2020 Serum Run Expedition Day 14: Old Woman to Unalakleet

Nome musher Kirsten Bey's team on the Serum Run trail. Photo courtesy of Kirsten Bey (2020).

Last night, the remaining 2020 Serum Run Expedition Team made camp at the Tripod Flats Cabin, not quite halfway to Unalakleet. They plan to be in Unalakleet tonight.

Listen to the latest in KNOM’s 2020 Serum Run Expedition Coverage

On the way they will pass by the Old Woman Cabin, about 33 miles East of Unalakleet. Local legends say that passersby must leave a piece of candy or trinket by the cabin, lest the spirit of the old woman follow and haunt them, but that’s unlikely to be a scare for this crew.

“We’re tough. Tough broads! ”

-Marla BB

That’s how Massachusetts-based musher Marla BB described the Expedition mushers to KNOM before they left Nenana in February. The five female mushers, who began the Expedition, are all over the age of fifty and have proved their endurance by battling deep snow, overflow, temperatures hovering around -40 degrees, and dangerous encounters with snowmachiners.

After being hit and injured by a snow machine on Sunday night, Nome musher, Kirsten Bey, returned home on Wednesday to begin her recovery.

“I have a broken leg. My tibia and fibula were broken near my knee. They’re the bones in the lower part of my leg, and so up near the knee they were broken.”

The dogs are uninjured and back in Nome being cared for with the help of family and friends, says Bey.

As for the collision, Alaska State Troopers are investigating and have made contact with the driver, who they say is complying. Bey has no recollection of the incident.

“I didn’t see a snowmachine. I didn’t experience a collision. It was a beautiful night. It was dark, and the trail was great. The dogs like going at night because it’s fun and it’s different. We were just cruising along really good, and then the next I remember is that somebody was helping me get on a snowmachine.”

The accident outside of Galena happened about fifty miles downriver from where Aliy Zirkle and Jeff King experienced being hit by a snowmachine during the 2016 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

The remaining mushers hope to have an easy trip up the coast.

“Once we get to Old Woman then it’s pretty much all downhill from there. Now we’re on trail that I really know.”

-Phil Pryzmont, Expedition Trail Boss

Expedition leaders confirmed with the team that they arrived to Old Woman safely last night. The expedition tracker doesn’t show movement right now, but it has only been working intermittently throughout the trip.

If the trip goes smoothly they will arrive in Koyuk on Sunday. This section of trail is among the most well-documented from the original 1925 Serum Run.

In their book The Cruelest Miles, Gay and Laney Salisbury paint a vivid picture of the conditions the original mushers endured.

At around 5 o’clock in the morning, Victor Anagick pulled into Unalakleet where Myles Gonangnan waited for him. As Anagick warmed the serum, Gonangnan surveyed the weather.

He looked out over the sea and far away could see sea spray bouncing off ice floes – there was open water. The stars twinkled clearly, and behind him the offshore wind was growing stronger. A storm was on the way and although it was faster to cross the ice, Gonangnan knew it would break up. He decided to take the inland route. At about 5:30 a.m., Gonangnan left Unalakleet in gale force winds that cause temperatures to drop down to -70 degrees Fahrenheit.

The stretch between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik forces travelers to go up and down steep hills. The Salisburys write that the wind did everything it could stop Gonangnan, drifting the snow too heavily for his dogs to run. Gonangnan was forced to take off his gloves in the bitter cold and put on snowshoes to break trail for the team.

It took him up to five hours only to go 12 miles. But he still had to face the Blueberry Hills and its 1,000 foot summit before Shaktoolik. And it all had to be done in a white-out. Then he had to cross a stretch of the Norton Sound before reaching Shaktoolik, which was reportedly blown bare of snow, forcing the dogs and sled to struggle for their grip.

About ten hours after leaving Unalakleet, Gonangnan and his dog team made it to Shaktoolik safely, a distance of about forty miles.

On the other side of the Norton Sound, Leonhard Seppala made the opposite choice. He decided to cross the sound to meet the serum in Shaktoolik.

But more on that in Monday’s update.  

When the 2020 Serum Run Expedition hits Unalakleet they’ll be able to spend the night in a real building and once again take up conducting the vet clinic and showing the film Attla.

Today’s current expeditioners have already made plenty of connections to the old serum run and other important icons in mushing history. That’s one of the aspects that Marla BB was looking forward to most in this expedition.

“Kaz Zirkle hooked me up with a school in North Pole. I went and did an educational program with them and Attla’s grand-nephew Job, who’s in the movie, [and] was one of the teachers, so I got to talk with him. So I’m really looking forward to going and visiting the villages and hoping to have some nice connections there.”

-Marla BB

In Galena, they met original 1925 serum runner Charlie Evans’ son, Dick Evans. As the team heads up the coast, there’s no way of knowing who they could meet or discover.

Looking ahead, the team can expect the weather to be a bit warmer at around ten degrees above zero but as can be expected around the Norton Sound, there will be some wind. The National Weather Service predicts wind at 15 mph tonight with some light snow.

Tune into KNOM on Monday after 12pm & 5pm Hotlines for your next 2020 Serum Run Expedition update.  

Image at top: Nome musher Kirsten Bey’s team on the Serum Run trail. Photo courtesy of Kirsten Bey (2020).

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