Original musher retraces 800-mile diphtheria serum route to Nome

Posted: Tuesday, February 29, 2000

NENANA (AP) -- When a group of Alaska dog mushers relayed a life-saving diphtheria serum 800 miles from Nenana to Nome in 1925, Norman Vaughan was a 19-year-old Ivy League college student.

That was 75 years ago.

On Sunday, Vaughan set out with 24 other fellow adventurers on the same trail ''to keep the history of the dog mushers who ran in 1925 alive,'' he said. It's the third time the 94-year-old Iditarod has traveled the route at a leisurely pace, typically taking more than two weeks to cover the distance.

Vaughan said he's driven to make the run again after his experience last year with a native of Nome, an Eskimo named Edythe who received a life-saving dose of the serum at the tender age of two-and-a-half.

''I took a little vial of the antitoxin to her last year, and she took it in her hands, crying,'' Vaughan recalled, cupping his own to illustrate his story. ''She told me, 'This is what saved my people,' and for me, that's incentive enough to go.''

This time, though, Vaughan left Nenana on a brand new Yamaha Ventura XL snowmachine, towing a sled filled with gear.

His old snowmachine didn't have a reverse gear, nor did it have electric start, luxuries that the white-bearded adventurer now requires. So he left the snowmachine at a dealership to be sold, a deal that just came through last week, Vaughan explained.

''I picked this one up just yesterday,'' he said Sunday morning, proudly pointing to the odometer, which showed .7 miles of travel.

It rolled past the one-mile mark as Vaughan drove the sled from the group's staging area at a local bed and breakfast to the Alaska Railroad train depot in downtown Nenana.

There, Vaughan sat on his snowmachine and posed for photographs while other members of the expedition bustled around, making last minute preparations for Sunday's 30-plus mile journey to Old Minto.

When Vaughan's snowmachine konked out after it had been idling for several minutes, a horde of friends quickly pulled out the two carbon-loaded spark plugs and installed a new set.

Vaughan walks with a cane now, and on Sunday, he leaned heavily on the arms of two friends when moving several yards from a heated vehicle to the Alaska Railroad train that delivered the commemorative serum packet at 10 a.m..

Vaughan says he's in ''tip top'' condition, as he works with a physical therapist three times a week, and does water therapy two days a week.

Others on the excursion say Vaughan is in better shape this year than during the 1999 Serum Run, his first outdoor adventure that followed his triple bypass heart surgery.

Two nurses, an emergency medical technician and a physician's assistant are among the entourage on this year's trip.

Phil Anderson, who was among about 100 Nenana residents who saw the start of the 1925 serum run, was also on hand Sunday to commemorate the occasion.

''I knew everyone there, and now, almost everyone is dead but me,'' he said.

Yet the 83-year old didn't begin to consider making the trip to Nome.

''That's for young people,'' Anderson said, pausing. ''And Vaughan, who's crazy.''

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