Commentary

Not a Farewell Burn

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Iditarod Trail through the once and no-more Farewell Burn – March 2, 2016

Failed Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the tax-’em-till-they-bleed former Alaska governor who somehow morphed into a conservative lightening rod, has had one thing right for a long time now: “lamestream media.”

Sad to say, especially for someone who has spent a lifetime in journalism, Palin is way too often spot on with this accusation in ways both big and small.

Over the course of the next several days, as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Races moves north from the Willow restart over the Alaska Range and into the Interior, you will likely hear again and again references to the “Farewell Burn.”

The Anchorage newspaper mentioned it today. KTUU.com, KTVA.com, and others, including the globe-spanning Associated Press, had it earlier in pre-race reports. The AP went so far as to describe the “Farewell Burn, a dangerous area of the race that is notoriously barren.”

Thity years ago, the AP claim was true. Today?

Take a good look at the photo above. Does that look like a burn to you? Does the area look “barren?”

If you look closely, you will see in the left of the photo the sticks of dead trees rising above the thicket of  green spruce. Those are the relics of the Farewell Burn, one of the largest wildfires in Alaska history.

The Burn is now gone. Nature healed itself as nature does. The Farewell Burn of 1978 is back to being the good, old Farewell Hills of 1968.

At the moment, the Hills hold more snow than a lot of the rest of the 70 miles of trail on the north side of the Range between Rohn and Nikolai. The winds that sweep this area blow the snow off the open swamps and lakes to the south and out of the Turquoise Lake Burn to the north.

This is what the Turquoise Lake Burn of 2010 looks like:

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Wilson stopped in the Turquoise Lake Burn north of Egypt Mountain

The Farewell Burn used to look like the photo above. The winds whistling through the dead trees and blew the snow. That ended long ago when the brush began to grow up, but somehow the Burn lived on.

Never mind that referring it to as the Burn now is sort of like writing about the “Anchorage bowl wilderness.” The bowl was wilderness once. The wilderness is gone, paved under and built upon everywhere. No reporter would today refer to the Anchorage bowl wilderness, and yet the Burn remains.

When I started ranting about this to the Snedden Chair at the University of Alaska Faibanks today, he bit back with this: “You did it, too. The Burn has been gone for a long time.”

In fairness, he’s right. For years after the Burn grew back, I fell victim to following the pack, which is both the most common and worst of journalistic behavior. One adheres to a false description because everyone else is using that description.

How hard is it to break out of this trap? Read what an editor at an Anchorage news organization wrote in response to an e-mail today suggesting the term Farewell Burn needs to go away:

“It’s what it’s known as; I don’t think it has to be still burning or recently burned.”

Apparently the fact the Hills looks nothing like the description “Farewell Burn” is meaningless, and its OK, as a matter of convenience, to mislead readers to believe there remains a huge burned over area out there.

Given the way so much of the media works today, it will likely take an official proclamation from someone (the governor maybe?) declaring the area officially the Farewell Hills again before the Burn goes away.

If the spokespeople and agents of “public relations” who largely feed, actually almost wholly fed, the media the news continue to describe the Farewell Hills as the Farewell Burn, no reporter is going to argue. Hell, if officialdom describes the moon as made of green cheese, few reporters are going to contest the claim.

By and large, journalists really aren’t expected to be reporters anymore. They’re expected to be stenographers.

Alaska Public Media was Friday reporting that on the Iditarod Trail “from Willow onward there’s actually really good snow.…I’ve definitely heard some mixed things about areas, but I think the big take away is, um, you know, after 2014 after with the really just radically unsafe conditions coming out of the Dalzell Gorge and across the Burn…there was this kind of never again mantra” and race officials made a better trail.

Look that photo immediately above again? Does that looks like “good snow”?  Does that look like good trail?

No and no. It looks like the bad trail that is the Iditarod norm somewhere almost always. But that isn’t what the reporter was told. He got a sanitized version  and ran with it. Who can blame him? He hasn’t been out on trail to see for himself; it might take a bit of digging to find out more; and worst of all, disagreeing with the official version could create blow-back.

The Iditarod is already trying to muzzle mushers. Why would Iditarod officials be reluctant to call someone’s boss and complain a report about bad trail is unfairly dissing the Iditarod? Who wants to deal with that when it’s so much easier to just go with the flow?

No reporter has ever gotten in trouble for regurgitating what all the other reporters are saying. That’s a sad journalistic reality that has existed for a long time. The new real journalism is the PR. The agents of PR long ago took over the show.

“It’s what it’s known as….” It’s what they say. It’s quit wasting your time trying to find the facts and just re-write the damn press release.

This is journalism today. The nonsense with the Not Farewell Burn is just one small example of a far bigger problem, albeit an example that got under the skin of someone who can’t seem to let the reporter thing die.

I just came in off the Iditarod in the Farewell Hills. There’s a fair bit of bad trail.  It’s sort of the norm. The Iditarod is a wilderness route. It’s not an urban bike trail.

What exists now in the Turquoise Lake burn is what use to exist in the former Farewell Burn.

Does the bad trail there or elsewhere create conditions that are  “radically unsafe?” Was the Dalzell radically unsafe in 2014?

The trail was bad; no doubt about that. But 85 percent of the mushers made it through OK. No dogs died nor were any seriously injured. Some mushers were injured, but none of them seriously.

Was it scary? The video shot by four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King from Denali Park, who got knocked off his sled at least once and tipped it over several times, certainly made it look so. But the 58-year-old King made it through OK.

Will the Gorge be scary this year? For some, no doubt.

Iditarod volunteers did yeomen’s work

Iditarod trail breakers put a huge amount of work into making it passable. But the Gorge appears to have been blocked by an ice dam at some point during the early winter. It would seem a lake then formed behind that dam and froze only to later wash out.

There is ice up to three feet thick in the trees in the Gorge, and the ice immediately adjacent to the creek rises some 4- to 6-feet above the water that flow below in places. There are a lot of holes in the creek ice, too. And there are places where bridges across the creek have been built by spanning the ice holes with 40-foot spruce trees. You wouldn’t want to fall off one of those bridges.

But that said, the trail is good. Very good. Very, very good. The Iditarod deserves to be commended.

If the trail scares someone, it will only be because — as Bill Merchant, the trail breaker for the Iditarod Trail Invitational observed — people have become so citified they expect the Iditarod to be as safe and easy as the Anchorage Coastal Trail.

The Iditarod isn’t; and it never will be. There will always be tough trail. Tough trail is a key part of what made the dog race tough enough to be called “The Last Great Race,” as author Tim Jones put it.

Some of the trail today, on the downhills out in the Turquoise Burn, looks a lot like stretches of the Dalzell Gorge in the King video from 2014. Mushers will just have to hang on and bash there way through until they reach the better trail of the not-Farewell Burn.

Yes, the better trail. Because the trees of the Farewell Hills hold snow, and where it hasn’t been trashed by the spinning tracks of the snowmachines in the Iron Dog, mushers should be treated to a pretty nice ride.

And if you read anywhere about the horrors of the trail in that something that no longer exists call the “Farewell Burn,” just be aware you’re reading the writings of someone lame.

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