1925 diptheria survivor is 2005 honorary musher

Juneau resident is the last alive to have made it through epidemic in Nome

Posted: Monday, March 14, 2005

In the winter of 1925, 20 mushers and 100 dogs worked in relays for 700 miles to deliver serum from Nenana to diphtheria-stricken Nome. The serum run is the genesis of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

The only living survivor of the epidemic, Jirdes Winther Baxter, 81 and a Juneau resident, is the honorary musher of this year's race.

Baxter said her eldest brother, Gudmund, was the first one in the family that fell sick with diphtheria. Then she was ill and her mother and her other brother, John, followed. Nome, an isolated mining town on the Seward Peninsula, didn't have much serum left.

"I got the second-to-last one of the old serum. And John got the last one," said Baxter, who was 11 months old and heard the story from her mother. "The doctor wanted my mother to take the last serum but she insisted Johnny take the last one."

That was Jan. 30. The Winthers didn't know when more serum would arrive.

Sending the serum to Nome by plane wasn't an option because the only pilot considered capable of braving Alaska's unpredictable weather was on a trip in the Lower 48, according to Don Bowers, author of "Back of the Pack: An Iditarod Musher's Alaska Pilgrimage to Nome."

The only option was to ferry the serum by train from Anchorage to Nenana, 220 miles north of Anchorage, and by dog sleds from Anchorage to Nome. The first musher took the serum down the frozen Tanana River to the Yukon.

"Every village along the route offered its best team and driver for its leg to speed the serum toward Nome," Bowers said. "The critical leg across the treacherous Norton Sound ice from Shaktoolik to Golovin was taken by Leonhard Seppala, the territory's premier musher and his lead dog, Togo. Gunnar Kaasen drove the final two legs into Nome behind his lead dog, Balto, through a blizzard hurling 80 mph."

Kaasen arrived in the morning of Feb. 2.

The 20 mushers covered 674 miles in 127 hours, across rugged mountains, frozen rivers and through cutting winds.

Baxter's mother took the serum. Although she was weak from the illness for the rest of her life, she survived the epidemic.

Baxter, her mother and brother John were discharged from the hospital Feb. 25, on Baxter's first birthday.

Eighty years later, the organizer of the Iditarod called Baxter and wanted her to be the honorary musher. At first she was reluctant, but her son Fred encouraged her.

"It was very important that as the only survivor, she participated in the event," he said.

On March 5, the first day of this year's race, Baxter rode on a dog sled for the first time in her life. Her musher was Melissa Owens of Nome, winner of the 2005 Junior Iditarod. They cruised 11 miles in Anchorage to the Campbell Airstrip.

"I had always wanted to ride in one," Baxter said. "I finally got my dream come true."

Baxter and some of her family members will fly to Nome later this week to attend the race's closing ceremony.

"Melissa said she will take me for a ride," Baxter said. "That will be fun."

• I-Chun Che can be reached at ichun.che@juneauempire.com.

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