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December 8, 2013

Going beyond Balto, film shows life-saving dog run

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A deadly epidemic had gripped a gold rush town in the impenetrable U.S. territory of Alaska nearly 90 years ago, transfixing the nation.

A cure existed, but there was no way to deliver it. There were no roads available, and air supply drops weren’t an option.

The only solution was a nearly 700-mile sled dog relay in 1925 to deliver a life-saving serum to those threatened by a diphtheria outbreak in the rugged coastal town of Nome.

A new film, “Icebound,” documents the race against death and will open the Anchorage International Film Festival this week. The 95-minute picture is narrated by Patrick Stewart, and a national theatrical release is set for next spring.

Eight years in the making, the film details the rescue efforts, using black-and-white photographs and film footage, interviews with survivors and descendants, modern mushers and historians, and longtime Alaska journalists.

“It’s a small moment in history for which you can extrapolate all these larger truths about American culture,” said filmmaker Daniel Anker.

The documentary revives a story that captured the nation’s imagination from radio and newspaper reports.

The first of two supply runs took five days, and the saga quickly reached mythic proportions. Months afterward, a bronze statue of the sled dog Balto went up in New York’s Central Park.

“One of the things that’s really interesting about this story has to do with the technology and what the technology could and couldn’t do,” said David Weinstein, senior program officer for the National Endowment for the Humanities. “Ultimately, the only way for this to work was through dogs, through an older technology.”

Diphtheria is an airborne disease that attacks the upper respiratory system and has been largely eradicated.

But in Nome, Alaska, in 1925, it was a deadly threat. The official medical record counted five deaths and 29 stricken residents. However, many believe that deaths among Alaska Natives were never accurately tracked during a time when they were segregated from Nome’s white residents.

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