YENTNA RIVER — Organizers of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were Wednesday doing their best to make a decent trail for the weekend start of the so-called “Last Great Race,” but Mother Nature appeared to hate them.
Where trail breakers had early Wednesday rerouted the trail around an open lead in this river near a place long-gone once named McDougall, the new route had already been covered by a lake of river water flowing over ice.
Or hopefully a river flowing over ice. I did not stop to look but pegged the throttle on the snowmachine and skipped across it.
Farther south along the river, what had been the trail a week earlier was largely a ditch in the snow filled with water, but there was a better, drier trail of icy crystals beside it. It was generally smooth and screaming fast on a snowmachine, but it is the kind of trail that will make mushers want to pay careful attention the care of the feet of their dogs.
Too the north, the story was much the same from Skwentna to Finger Lake. The old trail was in many places a ditch full of water, but the trail breakers — with plenty of room to work in the huge muskeg meadows so much of the trail crosses here — had simply moved the trail.
And there was good news, too.
Despite the warm days, the nights were still cold enough that the new trail was setting up beneath a snowmachine track. Where the last fat-tire cyclists of the Iditarod Trail Invitational had ridden, they were staying on top, and even most of the Invitational runners and hikers could travel without punching through.
How much dog traffic the trail will tolerate before it starts to come apart is a question no one can answer, but it is certain the first teams will find good trail.
Beyond Finger Lake, in the swamps and beaver ponds on the way to the Happy River Gorge, there was a ton of snow, and lots of whoop-de-doo moguls left from the pounding of machines in the Iron Dog snowmachine race two weeks ago.
At the bottoms and along the sides of some of these features water was running. None of it looked deep enough to cause anyone a problem, but a few places looked prime for tipping a dogsled and soaking a musher.
Farther along the trail, the famous “Steps” down to the Happy were icy, but excellent with a berm to hold sleds on the trail. They were, in fact, as good as any dog musher is likely ever to see, but again the question was for how long.
Here’s the thing about the new Iditarod: Ever since the so-called “drag brake” was invented, a lot of modern mushers stand on it all the time.
The drag brake is an old piece of snowmachine track cut to fit between the runners at the rear of the sled. When you stand on it, it slows the sled just enough to keep the team strung out without slowing the dogs much.
The drag brake also cuts into the trail. The first cut isn’t so bad, but with each passing cut, especially if the weather is warm and the trail starts to come apart, the track cuts deeper.
By the time all of the teams have passed the Steps in past years, there has sometimes been drag-brake ditch 14-inches wide and a foot to 18-inches deep at the top and in other places on the three steps down to the river. This would be OK if it was easy to straddle the ditch with the 20-inch wide runners of a dogsled, but that is not easy.
Invariably, one runner or the other wants to go in the ditch, and the results are not pretty. How long it will take mushers to ditch-witch the trail from Finger Lake to the Happy, and beyond in places all the way to Puntilla Lake is an unknown, but it will happen.
More warm weather will only make it happen faster, and the National Weather Service is forecasting temperatures from 35 to 45 degrees in this area from the Willow restart of the Iditarod on Sunday through to Wednesday.
With the temperature near 45 degree this Wednesday and the sun beating down from on high only to bounce back off the reflective snow, sweating Austrian adventurer Klaus Schweinberger was approaching the Winterlake Lodge at Finger Lake on a planned hike to Nome. A veteran of the Iditarod, Schweinberger confessed he had not prepared for what the Iditarod was dishing out this year.
“It is like the desert,” he said.
On the way to Puntilla Lake on the south side of the Alaska Range, Iditarod teams hoping to contend for the race victory are going to have deal with a choice between as some point running dogs in the heat of day, which is tough on them, or risk waiting for the cool of evening with the possibility the trail ahead will be churned to ruts or mush or a mixture of both by the teams ahead.
Mushers will find better going behind Puntilla, making this a year when it might be a good idea to run almost nonstop to that checkpoint and then rest before the push over Rainy Pass. Winter still reigns from The Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge on to the north,and the snows that came heavy on the south side of the Alaska Range continue.
Outside of the Puntilla checkpoint, there is more snow than has been seen in 20 years on the high plateaus leading to the final crossing of the Happy River before the 1,000-foot climb to the 3,160-foot Pass itself. The upper Happy is open at the crossing, but the water is neither deep nor wide. There is more open water in some of the many places the trail crosses Pass Creek, too, but it is all shallow.
The snow-loaded slopes on the south side of creek do look a little creepy, however. They have not dropped their loads in the warm weather as have the south-facing slopes of the Pass Fork on the opposite side of the Rainy Pass, where a good-size pile of avalanche rubble covers the trail at one point.
Pass Creek would probably not be good place for a rookie musher to linger to take photos on the climb to the top of Rainy no matter how spectacular the scenery there.
From Rainy Pass all the way down Dalzell Creek, the trail is good, although again there are a few holes and water. One of those holes swallowed a snowmachine of Invitational trail-breakers coming back from Rohn to the Rainy Pass Lodge, and it took them more than an hour to get it out of the creek, but they rerouted the trail around the hole after.
Besides which, none of the holes or water here should be a trouble for a dog team. The musher might get wet, but in general nothing looked all that likely to break any gear.
Dalzell Gorge, meanwhile, is something to see this year. The trail through there is fine, but looks plenty scary. There is a lot of open water winding its way downstream between shelf ice four- or five-feet high.
You wouldn’t want to put a sled in the creek, because it would be a nightmare to get out. But the Iditarod has been hard at work building bridges across this ice in the Gorge and competent dog drivers should have no problem whatsoever going through. There is plenty of snow for braking the team in most places, and where there isn’t, there is enough ice that the old pin-brake with carbide studs will work just fine.
Once out on the Tatina River, it’s good going the last four or five miles to Rohn except for one ice bridge that has collapsed into the river and now has the river running over it. Iditarod trail breakers might be able to again reroute the course there, but as it stood Wednesday the ice ramped pretty easily down into the slot between the shore-fast ice on either side and a dog team would have had no trouble crossing the water.
Rohn is where things start to get interesting. The trail for the first few miles out of that checkpoint across the ice and overflow of the South Fork Kuskokwim River is its usual not-so-good up into what used to be called the “Buffalo Tunnels,” which have now been so widened this stretch might more properly be called the “Buffalo Roadway.”
The snow starts decreasing passing through the dense spruce forest here on the way to the Post River, nine or 10 miles out from the checkpoint, and by the so-called “Post River Glacier” (really just a massive overflow) about a half mile on, the snow is largely gone.
On the approach to the ice there is grass, then mushers have a choice between ice or scree as the trail climbs upon onto the hillsides approaching Egypt Mountain. This is the sight of the 82,000-acre Turquoise Lake Fire of 2010. The land is barren but for the still-standing hulks of fire-ravaged trees.
For the next 10 or 15 mile, the trail is essentially bare dirt or rock. It is a great mountain-bike trail or more accurately maybe a great fire road. The area looks like the famous Farewell Burn area used to look and should be now properly referred to as the Iditarod’s “Burn.”
Where conditions are best, there is some ice in the trail making it possible to use the sled brake. In many places, there is just soil loosened by the heat of fire. Late on Tuesday night on a run to Nikolai, with a tailwind behind the snowmachines of Bill Merchant, the Inivitational trail breaker and myself, the dust the tracks kicked up forced us to at one point stop.
We had created such a dust storm of our own making that Merchant in front couldn’t see anything. The snowmachines themselves were covered in dust. The dog mushers shouldn’t kick up quite so much dust, but the trail will be rough.
Somebody might want to outfit the mushing mortician, Anchorage’s Scott Janssen, with a bubble-boy suit for protection given his past difficulties along this section of trail.
Where the trail crosses the big Farewell Lakes and smaller Farewell ponds, the skating would be superb. They are nothing but polished ice. In the warmth of the day on Wednesday, they were slippery enough it was hard to get the snowmachine up to top speed because even a heavily studded track spun so much on the ice it lost significant traction.
Mushers might want to wear their studded Neos overshoes here just to stay upright.
Beyond the Turquoise Lake Burn and into what was once the Farewell Burn there was some snow on the trail as of Wednesday. It was not necessarily good snow. The trail was more a mixture of bare ground, where the spinning tracks of Iron Dog snowmachines had dug deep during their race, and frozen mounds of snow. Mushers will have a rough ride.
An aside here, if you read or watch any reporter refer to the “Farewell Burn” without adding the qualifier formerly or such, you will know he or she has no clue as to that which they are reporting. The former Burn is well grown up with new spruce now, and the trees help hold some snow in an area where the winds can blow relentlessly.
Because of those winds and this years warmth, mushers will face trail that is either bare grass, dirt or ice for most of the 70 miles from Rohn to the friendly village of Nikolai. Expect more than a few of these mushers to be saying unkind things about the Iditarod Trail by that checkpoint if, of course, that is still OK given the Iditarod’s new gag order.
Back in the day, some of the best stories told by mushers came from the mouths of those tattered and battered after emerging from the once barren and windswept mess of the old Farewell Burn. Hopefully, the new gag order won’t prevent them from talking about the mess that is the new Turquoise Lake Burn.
Yes, maybe Iditarod organizers should have installed snow-making equipment in this area by now, but aren’t tough conditions what provide the defining character of this competition? Wouldn’t you think race organizers would want racers whining about how tough the Iditarod?
How long can this last as “The Last Great Race” if everyone is led to believe it’s nothing but a fast journey to Nome on a friendly trail of snow, a sort of northern version of NASCAR with dogs but without the crashes?