Vaughan, 92-year-old spring chicken, mushes through another Alaskan winter


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Dispatches, February 1998

Gramps Is Doing What?
Vaughan, 92-year-old spring chicken, mushes through another Alaskan winter
By Bill Donahue

It’s not exactly the remark you expect to hear from a guy who’s about to hop on a dogsled and then spend nearly three weeks slogging through the piercing chill of central Alaska. “I just got a new pacemaker!” exalts 92-year-old Norman Vaughan, a man so ancient he accompanied Admiral Richard Byrd on an expedition to Antarctica in 1928. “My heart’s
gonna pump perfectly! And this cataract operation I had….”

Oh, let’s not even begin to extol the wondrous benefits. Let us instead merely note that at the end of this month in Nenana, Alaska, Vaughan will gaze keenly toward Nome and begin mushing the 770-mile trail toward that icy outpost. Vaughan’s expedition, the Serum-25, is a celebration of Alaskan history. It will follow a route used 73 years ago by a squad of mushers who rushed a
medicinal antitoxin to Nome to quell an outbreak of diphtheria. The long-ago mushers relayed the serum from the Nenana train station in five days. Vaughan and his entourage — about 200 dogs, 20 mushers, and ten snowmobilers — will, in contrast, spend 19 days leisurely trudging west. They’ll sleep comfortably in backwoods school gymnasiums and — aw hell, let’s let
the cat out of the bag — Vaughan may actually saddle a snowmobile during a few of the most arduous stretches, a right certainly earned by a man still taking on difficult physical challenges while his contemporaries’ most taxing efforts involve laying down their cards and wearily uttering “Gin.”

Yet despite the handful of luxuries, Vaughan’s impending journey will certainly be no cakewalk. Consider the 60-mile-per-hour winds that will likely howl on bad days, and the minus-40-degree cold snaps that are all too common in dead-of-winter Alaska. And then remember that Vaughan will be out there with a bad hip, an artificial knee, and an ankle that has been surgically fused
(and thus can’t be bent). “Norm’s got a lot of spare parts in him,” concedes 1997 Iditarod champ Martin Buser, a longtime Vaughan admirer and confidant, “but that’s his only limitation. Mentally, he’s tough as nails.”

Indeed. To celebrate his 89th birthday in 1994, for instance, he fulfilled his lifelong dream of summiting Mount Vaughan, the 10,302-foot Antarctic peak named after him by Admiral Byrd. Vaughan, who lives in a one-room Alaska bush cabin with his 55-year-old wife, Carolyn, is forthright about the impetus behind the Serum run (which is an expanded version of a
schoolhouse-to-schoolhouse educational trip he led last year): He’s craving a new thrill. “I don’t want to just spend my days sleeping in front of the TV,” he explains, his scratchy voice redolent of his native Boston. “I’ll have a long time to sleep soon enough.”