While you were shoveling snow from your driveway and dreaming of Florida or the Caribbean Islands, Evie Wakulenko was mushing through the middle of Alaska through white-outs and sub-zero temperatures.
And she was enjoying herself.
Wakulenko, a graduate of Genoa High School and Bowling Green State University, completed the Serum Run, which commemorates the efforts of sled-dog teams in 1925 that relayed diphtheria serum to residents of Nome, Alaska.
This year’s start in Nenana, Alaska began Feb. 20 and Wakulenko arrived in Nome – a distance of about 800 miles – on March 14.
“We were late four days due to weather in the beginning and a snow machine that wouldn’t start at 35 below in Tanana. The mushers really depend on the snowmachiners to haul the heavy gear between villages so we need them all,” she said.
A nurse, Wakulenko has worked at the Alaska Native Medical Center since 1998. Participating in the Serum Run, she says, is a natural fit for her because it’s an event with a medical mission to provide information about health related issues to residents of remote towns along the way.
This year’s mission focused on suicide prevention.
“We had a state trooper that gave talks in the villages and is planning on returning to follow up on that at a later date,” Wakulenko said. “Suicide is really prevalent in Alaska. Just talking about the issue is a huge step. We each carried prevention cards with info to hand out at the assemblies we did.”
She kept in touch with friends via email during her trip. Some excerpts from the trail:
Feb. 23 “We have traveled approximately 90 miles in the past 3 days. About one mile out of Nenana, on the river, I went about 300 yards off the trail in a white-out before my leader and I realized we needed to turn around. I went back to the last trail marker I could find and waited for a snow machine to come by to guide me thru. It was pretty blustery but didn’t seem to bother the dogs as they were amped and I had my ruff to protect me from frost nip.”
March 7 “Well, we are off the Yukon after 5 days on the river. It is mentally tough on the dogs but mine have done great! We pulled into Kaltag and got swarmed by kids ready to pick up booties and harnesses. Every morning we get up at 6 a.m., soak kibble baited with liver then feed the dogs. We wait a couple of hours then we begin to put booties on each foot, remove dog coats, harness, rake straw, scoop poop, pack our sleds then hit the trail after trail breakers go out to mark the trail. Some runs have been 8+ hours (50-60 miles) so the days are long. When we get in, we snack the dogs, remove booties, check feet, take off harnesses, lay straw, get water for soaking beef and kibble, put back on the dog coats then let them rest.”
March 8 “Leaving Kaltag was rough. The Iron Dog snowmachine race put huge moguls on the trail for 20 miles, which was rough on the dogs and everyone’s back and legs. It was a very long 45 miles. But coming down out of the pass was much smoother today.”
March 12 “We had another warm welcome from the (Shaktoolik) village kids and got to see another gorgeous sunset. The sunsets are best here where there is white land/ocean ice reflecting shades of blue, purple, pink, and orange and they last a long time. I saw the best Northern Lights I have seen yet in Alaska, there that night in Shaktoolik. They spread across the entire night sky, dancing green lights.
“Today we climbed over “little McKinley” and back onto the sea ice. Another fast, fun descent until my swing dogs (second in line) decided to chase some ptarmigan off trail, dragging my (single) lead dog, Kayak, across the snow on his back. He was OK but the girls were tough on him today. I am running 6 girls and 3 boys. The girls just wanted to play for the first half of the day and he had to bark and drag them along. Tomorrow we will be in Safety, then on to Nome Monday.”
Outside of Koyuk, Wakulenko hooked her team with her boyfriend’s, making a team of 21 dogs that gave her a chance to ride in her sled, sip Baileys Irish Cream, and listen to music on a headset while watching the scenery.
Some of the children the mushers met on the trail were descendants of the mushers who rushed the serum to Nome in 1925, she said.
Wakulenko spends about half her time in Cooper Landing, about 100 miles south of Anchorage, with her boyfriend, who is preparing for the famous Iditarod race.
“I enjoy camping out with the dogs the most and keeping it recreational but Robb’s goal is to do the Iditarod some day,” she said. “It is pretty rough racing with the lack of sleep. It takes its toll on the mushers.”
Weather conditions forced an early end to the Serum Run in 2009, which Wakulenko participated in on a snowmachine, and the event wasn’t held last year.
Wakulenko, who has been working in the cardiology department at the medical center, sees a strength in many of the patients she tends.
“I am inspired by my patients who stay active by living a subsistence lifestyle,” she said.
Norman Vaughn organized the Serum Run in 1997. Vaughn had left college to join Admiral Richard Byrd’s expedition to the Antarctic in 1928 and participated in his first of 13 Iditarod races at the age of 72.
He died in Anchorage in 2005 at the age of 100.
Wakulenko is the daughter of Anatoli and Annette Wakulenko, of Billman Road.