Last Great Race


The abandoned trail to Rainy Pass/Craig Medred photo

Once more the iconic crossing of the Alaska Range will be gone from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.


The 1,000-mile event that trademarks itself as “The Last Great Race” on Friday announced it will in March – for the second time in three years – follow a flat-lands course from Fairbanks to Nome.

The ceremonial start on the first Saturday of the month will continue in Anchorage as in recent times. The ceremonial event in the state’s largest city has become ever more ceremonial over the years.

It is now something of a dog-team parade that never leaves the city with a start Downtown that follows city bike trails to end near Midtown. Historically, mushers raced to the suburb of Eagle River, loaded their dogs and equipment onto trucks because of the lack of any easy route for dogs teams to cross the Knik and Matanuska rivers to the north of the city, and then motored north to a restart in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Traffic congestion and complaints from harried mushers eventually killed the same-day restart to the race, and the Anchorage portion of the race was turned into a ceremony with the official restart on Sunday in Wasilla, the home of Iditarod, or Knik near the home of late race-founder Joe Redington.

Logistical problems – a lot of development along the trail between Wasilla and Knik which created monay road crossings for Iditarod to deal with and a lack of parking in Knik coupled with several years of low snow – eventually forced the race restart north along the George Parks Highway to Willow, about 80 miles out of Anchorage.

Willow solved most of the problems of low snow, but the Alaska Range remained a hurdle for musher.

Alaska Range realities

From the checkpoint at Winter Lake Lodge on Finger Lake, about 130 miles up the trail, to the village of Nikolai on the north side of the Alaska Range, about 300 miles up the trail,  mushers have endured a sled-busting, sometimes bone-breaking adventure almost every year since the first Iditarod race in 1973.

Over the years, this stretch of trail took out some of the best of mushers. In 2007, four-time champ Doug Swingley from Montana crashed into a tree and was forced to drop out with rib and thumb injuries. 

“Every year there are stories of broken sleds and mushers injured” on the trail between Rohn, in the heart of the range, and Nikolai, Iditarod musher turned journalism professor Brian O’Donoghue wrote in the 2005 book “Iditarod Glory.” 

The Red Lake Hill just out of Finger Lake, the Happy River Steps just beyond, and the icy sidehills along the twisting, up-and-down trail from the Happy to The Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake have always been notorious obstacles. So, too, the descent from Rainy Pass to Dalzell Creek beyond Puntilla, the winding trail across numerous ice bridges in the Dalzell Gorge, and the open water on the Tatina River just before Rohn.

Beyond that came “The Glacier,” a once challenging climb up and over terraced patches of overflow ice; the “Buffalo Tunnels,” a trail through bison country so narrow a sled barely fit and God forbid you meet a buffalo herd there; the invariably snow-free Post River country; and finally the tussock-filled former Farewell Burn where in year of low snow the trail was so rough it was impossible to ride a dogsled.

A smoother route north

The run from Fairbanks north and east along frozen rivers of the Interior to connect to the traditional Iditarod Trail at the old mining town of Ruby avoids all those obstacles plus the overwhelming desolation of the 150-mile run across the now abandoned “Inland Empire” between the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers.

Officially, the Iditarod said the reason to move the restart to Fairbanks this year was that “trail conditions leading up to both Ptarmigan Pass and Dalzell Gorge are still considered unsafe at this time for the teams participating in this year’s race,” but the reality is bigger than that.

Few mushers will miss the difficulty of the trail from Finger to Nikolai. The stretch is always a challenge. And it is always in some ways dangerous. Only the degree shifts. No one has ever died in the Iditarod, but there have been plenty of injuries and most of them have come between Finger Lake and Nikolai.

Fan view

Not all fans, however, were happy about the move.

“Breaking News,” Anchorage’s Ben Mohr posted on his Facebook page:

“Iditarod Trail Board announces 2018 race to be held using treadmills, computer simulation.

“‘We really like the idea of a race which hearkens back to the Alaskan toughness we know from myth and legend,’ said board chair T.I.Mid, ‘but ACTUALLY racing that route? Ugh, can you say cold, dreary and dark? No thanks.’

“Balto the dog was joined by the ghosts of miners and trappers, and every participant of the 1925 Serum Run the race commemorates, in issuing the following response: ‘This is bullshit.'”

Mohr, in a response to a Facebook message, admitted his post was “a little mean. (But) the race organizers need to better articulate who they are and the purpose of the race.

“Is it, as they say,  ‘the race that pits man and animal against nature, against wild Alaska at her best and as each mile is covered, it is a tribute to Alaska’s history and the role the sled dog’ played,’ or is it now all about the finish line?

“The race seems to only be concerned with setting records, not the event. You can go safe and slow and ‘battle the elements,’ or you can make it a 600-mile sprint.

“I’m sure as hell not tough enough to run it. So good on them there, but they’re making themselves into a reality show version what they were/could be.”











9 replies »

  1. The route this year and last follows the actual serum-run route from When they reach Nenana onwards. The historic serum run ran along the telegraph line from Nenana down the Tanana and then down the Yukon to Kaltag. The portion from Fairbanks to Nenana was the original mapped route for the continuation of the Alaska Railroad. So this route is historic, but not for the mining history.

    • totally historic, as you note, Dave. there’s an argument to be made, probably a pretty good one, for Iditarod going all in and just making Fairbanks the official restart from here on out.

      • Much less money for the promoters if full start in Fairbanks, though, but if it continued to have a ceremonial in Anchorage and/or if it combined with an Alaska Railroad special train to the Fairbanks start, it might retain financial incentive.
        BTW, I too am an older greying musher, having run the race in ’83. Dalzell is not the route the historic trail took. Ptarmagain pass has been said to have been a route, or through Rainy but continue South to the next drainage s of Dalzell down. Avalanch danger was a concern there for the modern race.

  2. Craig, I think you are leaving out an obvious factor in why the Iditarod might be more quickly moved to an easier course these days. Aging mushers. Nordman and the ITC are old codgers. And many of their long-time Iditarod musher friends are gray warriors. The Iditarod doesn’t want courses that Dee Dee Jonrowe and other senior mushers break bones or lose their teams on. 30 years ago, the route would be no problem. But the veteran mushers, when you add 3 more decades onto their bodies, they aren’t the spring chickens they used to be. Easy trails are an Alaskan, aging-baby boomer phenomenon. You see it everywhere – most guys and gals in their 60’s and 70’s are all now dragging their remote cabin snowmobile trails smooth. Bodies can’t take the bumps like they could 40 years ago.

    • sadly, there’s too much truth there. a lot of the Iditarod competitors would appear to prefer a trail where they can sit on their sit-down sled nearly all the way to Nome. crossing the Alaska Range is always a workout, and one can get hurt.

  3. Would be a good idea if the “new” race stops grooming the trail also….maybe take out the thousands of markers too….Might be good for some of these “Greenhorns” that are renting dog teams to get lost, throw on snowshoes….break trail for a while…navigate….all the real testaments for Alaskans who travel in the bush on a regular basis without a trail committee to accompany their journey.

  4. My heart has been broken with the change of the route. Do it once or twice to avoid lack or snow…fine… But there seems to be sufficient snow this year. Joe Redington would be sadden to witness what this race has become…

  5. The Iditarod is no longer the Last Great Race it is now the Lost Great Race. When I finished my first Iditarod in 1986 I felt I acomplished something. The most difficult part of the race always was the Alaska Range. Without that it is a poor reflection of the Race I grew up loving. Very sad day for something that was truly Alaskan. I can not be the only former and or current dog musher that is saddend by this situation. I say the traditional communities that have supported Iditarod need to pull their support. I vote they move Iditarod to Fairbanks permanently and let’s strart a new race. Call it say the Joe Redington Memorial Race

    • i am really curious at to the reactions of more old timers here, Gordon. Iditarod does in recent years seem to given more importance to the issue of “racing” than the history and image of Iditarod.

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