FAIRBANKS - It was a bittersweet start to the eighth annual Serum Run in downtown Nenana.
On the minds of most of the participants Sunday morning as they prepared for their trek to Nome were two of the integral figures in the event - this year's honorary mushers, Col. Norman Vaughan and Mellen Shea.
Vaughan instigated the long-distance dog mushing and snowmachine expedition in 1990 to commemorate the efforts of the original mushers who were responsible for the relaying life-saving diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925. Shea is a close friend of Vaughan, five-time participant and former trail boss of the event.
Vaughan died at age 100 in December. Shea is battling breast cancer at a hospital in the Lower 48.
"We certainly miss her," said Beth Wheeler as she rushed around Sunday, helping organize teams for the start. Wheeler said she got involved in the Serum Run in 2000 because of Shea's enthusiasm and support.
While Shea, who is from Anchorage, couldn't be present herself, six of her dogs were making the excursion in her place. Kurt and Val Jokela from Chugiak are running the combined team of Shea's and their dogs.
The Jokelas are also carrying the ceremonial serum. The vials of mock serum arrived via the Alaska Railroad about 10 a.m., just as it did 81 years ago when it passed from the railroad to mushers in the race to save sick residents in Nome.
This year, the serum was handed off to Vaughan's widow, Carolyn. She was not participating in the run this year but isn't ruling out the possibility of taking part next year. After handing the serum off to the Jokela's and watching their dog team take off, tears welled up in her eyes. It was Norman Vaughan who accepted the serum last year and handed it off to the first musher.
"Right now, I'm still taking it day by day," she said softly.
During the next two weeks the participants will make their way across the rivers, tundra and sea ice, stopping to fulfill the two-fold mission of the Serum Run, promoting public health in the villages.
Each year the run promotes the importance of immunization but also chooses another "medical mission," according to trail boss Kent Kantowski. This year he said the participants will speak at village schools along the way about snowmachine safety.
For the 12 dog teams and 14 snowmachiners and one skier, the 18-day trek could be made interesting by the weather and trail conditions.
"What trail?" Kantowski said, laughing. The Tesoro Iron Dog Snowmachine race, which usually forms the trail for the Serum Run was halted in Nome and restarted in Unalakleet because of dangerous, wet trail conditions.
But he said the river portion of the trail was in fine condition and hard packed to Kaltag, where the group would then start to worry about coastal conditions near Nome.
"But the coast is almost two weeks away," he said.
Being patient with the weather is the one piece of advice Shea gave the Jokelas when they agreed to run her dogs in this year's Serum Run. The Jokelas were ready to care for Shea's dogs about a year ago when she was scheduled to leave Anchorage for a time and attend school in Colorado. Then, Kurt Jokela said, she was diagnosed with cancer.
The Jokelas continue to care for her dogs during her treatment out of state this year.
"Then we asked her, 'What would you like your dogs to do?"' Jokela said. And she said she wanted them to run the Serum Run again.
Wheeler said Shea is keeping tabs on the run via Internet and is communicating often by e-mail. But many agreed Sunday that Vaughan and Shea will be foremost in their minds during the next weeks. One will live on in spirit, while the other hopes to make it back on the trail in the future.
"Norman, he was ready to go," Wheeler said, having spent time with Vaughan and his wife shortly before his death. "But Mellen's not. She's still fighting."