Friday, February 9, 2007

Thoughts on Wild Bill Shannon

Through a flurry of emails with Stacy Robinson and her crew from Towers Productions our plans to film my dog team are firming up very nicely. We are looking at a full day of work on Wednesday, February 21st that will include filming on the trail as well as at a static location. My little team of four will portray the team of "Wild Bill" Shannon, the first musher of the 1925 serum run.

Shannon was handed the 20 pound package of serum at the train station in Nenana at 9:00 pm on January 27. Despite a temperature of -50 °F (-45 °C) he left immediately, driving a team of 9 inexperienced dogs, led by Blackie. The temperature began to drop, and the team was forced onto the colder ice of the river because the trail had been destroyed by horses. Despite jogging alongside the sled to keep warm, Shannon developed hypothermia. He reached Minto at 3 AM, with parts of his face black from frostbite. The temperature was -62 °F (-52 °C).

After warming the serum by the fire and resting for four hours, Shannon dropped three dogs and left with the remaining 6. Shannon and his team arrived at the Tolovana Roadhouse at 11am. The team and their musher were all in bad shape. The three dogs dropped at Minto died shortly after Shannon returned for them, and a fourth may have perished as well.

The historical record, consisting of only two brief paragraphs, begs many questions that can be answered only through speculation. The first question I have is "Why did Shannon take a team of inexperienced dogs for what he knew would probably be the most important run of his life?

The most obvious answer is that Wild Bill probably drove the dogs he had. So why did his team lack experience? Was Wild Bill Shannon also inexperienced? With no more information than the paragraphs above, I would guess that might well have been the case.

50+below temperatures are not uncommon along the Tanana River, yet Bill Shannon ended up with hypothermia and deep frostbite to his face after only 6 hours on the trail and in spite of running along beside the sled. Although other mushers in the relay suffered frostbite, they did not suffer hypothermia. Therefore, I believe that Shannon was lightly dressed for the conditions - a rookie mistake.

Since Shannon dropped three dogs in Minto, only 23 miles by trail from Nenana, I think it is also likely that he over-drove his team, running them to exhaustion. 23 miles in 6 hours is an average of only 3.8 miles per hour which is a very slow pace for a team of sled dogs, but let's remember that Shannon ran the river rather than the trail. The Tanana River is a type called a "braided river", that winds through it's valley in huge loops and bends. Because the Tanana meanders so drastically the actual distance run by Shannon and his team was probably much further than the 23 trail miles, perhaps as much as two times further.

This theory is supported by the fact that Shannon and his team ran the remaining 28 miles to Tolovana in only four hours, for an average speed of 7 miles per hour. My "Star Dancer Historical Sled Dog team typically averages the same speed over similar terrain.

It is my opinion, though difficult to prove, that Wild Bill Shannon was probably not a very experienced dog driver. I believe that he was caught up in the excitement of the emergency and potential glory of the "Race of Mercy" and took unnecessary risks that more experienced woodsmen did not. His first rookie mistake was in dressing too lightly for the conditions, resulting in hypothermia and frostbite. One of the earliest signs of hypothermia is loss of judgment which could certainly contribute to driving his young, inexperienced dogs beyond their abilities.

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