Nome Serum Run

A deadly diphtheria outbreak has overwhelmed Nome, Alaska. A brave team of dog sledders set out to deliver the anti-toxin over 1000 kilometres in perilous conditions. Written by Scott Reeves.

Content Warning: This episode contains a brief description of animal death.


Scene summaries may contain spoilers
Wild Bill Shannon is about to endure the hardest night of his life. The town of Nome is suffering a diphtheria outbreak, and needs anti-toxin serum to treat it. However, Nome is on the remote coast of Alaska, cut off by winter sea ice. Flying in would be a suicide mission – the only option is dog sled. Wild Bill has the fastest dog team in the area, but with over 1000 miles to cover, the journey will be done by a team of mushers in relay over a week. It's a matter of life and death.
At times, Wild Bill has to run beside the sled to keep himself awake. Normally it's -40°C, but on this run it's dropped to -53°C. He mustn't get wet, or his flesh would freeze solid. It's dangerous for the dogs too, but this is an emergency. Three of the dogs have to be left behind at the road house because of cold-scorched lungs. But he makes it to Tolovana and hands the serum to the next musher. Just another 1000 kilometres to go!
Charlie Evans collects the serum at the halfway point. He's the 12th musher in the relay. It's a clear night and when he sees the aurora borealis, he thinks of his mother's stories. She's Athabaskan; half of the mushers on this relay are members of Indigenous groups. Indigenous people are particularly susceptible to diseases like diphtheria – the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918 killed half the Indigenous population of Nome. The sky might be clear but the fog is thick, and Charlie has to trust his dogs. When he reaches Nulato he's so exhausted all he can do is slump by the fire.
Henry Ivanoff has the shortest leg of the relay; less than a kilometre! But it's still important. Leonhard Seppala should have picked up the serum at Nulato, but earlier mushers made such quick time that the serum got there first. Henry must take it and keep an eye out for Seppala on the trail. Henry is usually a boat captain, while Seppala is the fastest musher in the north. The dogs leap at a reindeer in the path. He gets them back under control, then hears the sound of a sled getting closer. It's Seppala, and there's 271 kilometres to go.
Leonhard Seppala has a decision to make. He can take the safer route around the coast, or go across the dangerous frozen seawater of Norton Sound. When he stops, he learns that another child has died, so he heads across Norton Sound. There are many weak patches in the sea ice, and breaking it would be a disaster. His lead dog is Togo, who once saved him when he was trapped on an ice floe. There's a storm coming in, which could break up the ice. Togo leads them safely around the weak ice and back onto solid ground. They reach Golovin after covering 146 kilometres.
Gunnar Kaasen has picked up the serum 85 kilometres from Nome. There's an awful storm blowing, creating massive drifts across the trail, and he has to trust the dogs to find their way in the pitch black. He's using Seppala's reserve set of dogs, led by Balto. The wind catches the sled, blowing it over, and the serum is thrown into the snow. He manages to find it, and they're off again. Gunnar reaches Port Safety, but the musher who was supposed to meet him assumed he had sat out the storm and has gone to bed. With only 33 kilometres left to go, Gunnar keeps going to get the serum to Nome before sunrise.
On 2nd February, Gunnar arrives in Nome after seven and a half hours. Not one bottle of serum has broken and soon it's thawed and ready to use. The newspaper reporters miss his arrival, so he's asked to drive his sled down Front Street again so they can take photographs. Gunnar and Balto become celebrities, with Gunnar even starring in a movie, and Balto given a statue in Central Park! All 20 mushers who took part are given a medal and special award by the government. Around 150 dogs pulled the sleds; some of whom never ran again, and some of whom died to save the thousands of people in and around Nome. These brave sled dogs and mushers ran 1085 kilometres in five and a half days in the depths of winter to save a town from a deadly disease.


Cast listings may contain spoilers
Charlie Evans
Six to Start Ensemble
Gunnar Kaasen
Six to Start Ensemble
Henry Ivanoff
Six to Start Ensemble
Leonhard Seppala
Six to Start Ensemble
Wild Bill Shannon
Six to Start Ensemble
Scott Reeves
Matt Wieteska
Sound Designer
Winnie Simon