Creative Nonfiction by Geneviève Montcombroux
By Geneviève Montcombroux
It is February, 1925 and I am at home in Nome, resting my muzzle between my paws. It is still minus fifty but that does not bother me. My ancestors came from Siberia. I feel good. I am an athlete and my heart is full of happiness. Thanks to the effort of us dog teams, the supply of diphtheria antitoxin serum arrived in Nome a few days ago. My cousin Balto led the team that carried the precious cargo on the final leg of the relay. Pretty good for a youngster. He was showered with accolades, but I can’t complain because as soon as I arrived back with my team, I was mobbed by all the girls with hugs and kisses and cries of “I love you Togo! You’re the best.”
I heard Leonard (that’s my musher or dog driver as some call him) say that there are many people outside Alaska who think it is wrong to use sled dogs for transport. Don’t they know we love pulling the sled to deliver mail and food supplies to remote Inupiaq communities? Don’t they understand there are no roads up here, no railroads? The semi-nomadic people of the Arctic need us to survive. Without us they could not move over the harsh terrain. Because of this, they love us. So much so that at the top of the Great Tree of Life there are the Inuit (the people) and right underneath the Qimmiq (us dogs). Below is the rest of the animal kingdom. We have a special place in people’s hearts and they honor us.
I suppose there will always be misguided people who will claim that it is an abuse of a dog’s rights to attach him to a sled, even when they see us howl and jump for joy when the musher comes into the dog yard with harnesses in hand. They don’t realize that we are always eager to go, to feel the wind in our fur, to flex our muscles and pound the wind-packed snow with our sturdy paws.
I am twelve years old now. I stand to stretch and yawn. Many a race I have led and won, but my greatest achievement was a different kind of race, a race to save the lives of children, the Great Race of Mercy. To get to our leg of the relay, my team and I ran from Nome, where we live, over the mountains and across the frozen Norton Sound to pick up the diphtheria serum in its fur-wrapped box from the other team, turn round and carry it to Charlie’s team, who then handed it over to Balto’s team.
My team was selected for this stage, the most dangerous leg of the journey, because under my musher’s expert direction we are the strongest and most skilled. I am proud of that achievement, because no place is as dangerous as that Bering Sea. The ice in the sound is fragile and can splinter under a mere gust of wind. Beneath it are huge waves that break through and crash against the rocky shore. That’s what it is at the best of time. We were fighting the blizzard of the century. The sea was so violent waves were freezing in the air. The winds were so ferocious they drove down the temperature to make it feel like minus eighty-five! I felt sorry for the humans, frozen in hand and face. But, like us, they are a tough breed and did not give up. They pressed on under impossible conditions and their dedication paid off. Not one of the glass vials containing the serum arrived broken.
I roll over to let the last rays of the winter sun warm my old belly. I close my eyes, but I am not sleeping. I am reliving that epic journey, from the day Doctor Curtis at the Nome hospital announced there was an outbreak of deadly diphtheria and there was no antitoxin available. The last supply boat before freeze-up had forgotten to load it. My musher was prepared to sled the almost seven hundred miles to Nenana, that’s the end of the railroad, to pick up a supply a hospital in Anchorage was sending by train. Of course, it would have taken too long, even with sled dogs like us whose parentage goes back to Siberia’s native dogs. Thanks to the telegraph, the journey was organized like a relay race, using the teams of the postal service. The first one was to pick up the serum at the railhead, travel to the next community and pass it on to another team, just like we do with the mail.
When we approached Norton Sound on the return trip, we halted. Leonard came up to me and said, “Now, Togo, I count on you to get us safely to the other side. It’s night and I can’t see a thing with this blowing snow.” I assured him I would by rubbing my muzzle against his fur-gloved hand. At the signal, I set off knowing I could rely on my nineteen team members. They followed me and did not panic when we suddenly found ourselves adrift on an ice flow, cut off from the shore. My musher helped me jump the nasty open lead of water, and my team jumped too. I am proud of them, but we still had to go through the Little Kinley Mountains under whiteout conditions. It was odd to think of a ‘whiteout’ in the middle of the night, though the snow wasn’t white, nor the night black. Everything was a sort of murky gray mass that stuck to the lips and the eyelashes. I knew the route and I kept a straight line until I scented Charlie’s team waiting for us. My musher handed over the serum pack.
We rested a day at the roadhouse. We had run one hundred and seventy-four miles non-stop, except for a hasty meal and getting our paws checked in case we might have been injured by ice shards. But we were all fit and healthy. The storm abated by the time we came home. Between us, my team and my sled dog friends in the other teams, covered six hundred and seventy-four miles in five and a half days, arriving in Nome in the night of the second day of February.
Night is settling over Nome and the inhabitants breathe a sigh of relief. I think of the ice, the wind and that terrible blizzard we experienced. I have to wonder about humans. They have boats, airplanes and all manner of ingenious machines, but it was us sled dogs who were the only ones capable of bringing the life-saving serum to the town to save the children.
- Geneviève Montcombroux is a novelist, a writer of non-fiction and a sometime poet. She has been published in English and in French. Passionate about nature, she respects all its creatures. You can learn more about her and her books at https://www.genevieve-montcombroux.com/