Alaska’s most famous trail, a trail that owes its place in history to the dogs, will largely be given over to men and machines this year.
With the now internationally recognized Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race moving its March 5 restart north to Fairbanks, less than half of a historic, 1,000 mile route from Cook Inlet to Nome will be trod by the paws of sled dogs.
But there will still be plenty of traffic, including some representative of the history of what was originally known as the Seward-to-Nome mail trail.
Dogs – along with the promotional efforts of early Iditarod sled-dog race supporters – might have made the trail famous, but in its day the route saw more use from the hearty pedestrians of a time long gone.
“An assortment of travelers used the trail,” observed the first management plan written for the Iditarod National Historic Trail more than 20 years ago. “The majority were prospectors, trappers or Natives who traveled – often without dogs or with one or two to help pull a sled load of supplies – to isolated cabins. A surprising number walked along the trail.”
The walkers will be there again this year. Some 20 of them are entered in the Iditarod Trail Invitational which leaves the old mining community of Knik on Feb. 26 for points north.
Most of the people are bound up and over the Alaska Range for 350 miles to McGrath, an old Kuskokwim river trading post that boomed as a refueling stop for “Lend-Lease” equipment being ferried from the U.S. to Russia during World War II. The two countries were then allied against the threat of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
Now down to fewer than 400 full-time residents, McGrath hangs on today as the regional hub for the upper Kuskokwim and a wilderness outpost welcoming the most adventuresome of tourists.
Most of the Invitational competitors call it a race there, but a half-dozen of those on foot plus 18 cyclists and a couple skiers are planning to push on all the way to Nome. Ahead of them will be about 70 fast men on snowmachines.
Because McGrath today awaits the leaders of the world’s longest, toughest snowmobile race – the fabled “Iron Dog.”
“The hero of the trail…was the dogsled team driver,” the 1986 Iditarod plan says. “Those noteworthies earned nicknames befitting the men who raced along the trail carrying fresh eggs or oranges, mail or express, or shipments of gold — Frank Tondreau, known from Belfast to Point Barrow as the Malemute Kid; the famous racer John ‘Iron Man’ Johnson and his indefatigable Siberians; Captain Ulysses Grant Norton, the tireless Trojan of the trails; the Eskimo, Split-the-Wind; and the wandering Japanese, Jujira Wada.”
The noteworthies are all long gone now, and the heroes of today’s trail might well be considered the faceless men in helmets who steer their iron dogs north. The snowmachine has simply become vital to the existence of the Iditarod Trail.
Long gone from the route are the roadhouses that history notes were “a day’s journey apart, approximately 20 miles.”
Many of the men of another era could break trail for 20 miles on snowshoes. There are not so many who could or want to do that today, and even if they did, the infrastructure to support them is gone.
Today the trail is broken for everyone by snowmachines. A bunch of them have already been up the trail to Nome. Behind them, the Iron Dog racers will today leave Big Lake just north of Anchorage on a journey that takes them 1,000 miles to the City of the Golden Sands.
They take a long layover to rest there and enjoy a halfway celebration before starting another 1,000-mile run east to Fairbanks. Their 2,000-mile, week-long race will be ending in Fairbanks before Iditarod dogs start their 9- to 10-day journey down the frozen rivers of the Interior on their way toward the Bering Sea and Nome.
The dogs will finally join the Iditarod in the Yukon River village of Ruby just beyond halfway to Nome on the Iditarod Trial.
Behind on the Iditarod, taking advantage of the trail packed by the machines, will be most of the Invitational competitors. The first of the cyclists could beat the dogs to the Yukon, but that would take exceptionally good trail.
Fat-tired bikes can’t go cross-country despite promotional literature that talks about how they float on snow. The reality is they need a trail of some sort. Over the years, the Invitational has sometimes devolved into back-breaking push-a-thons when fresh snow made the snowmachine track that is the trail disappear.
But the bikers and the runners have always managed to push on as have the snowmachine racers. For the latter, the technology has become so good that the modern snowmachine can run almost anywhere on almost anything.
For the latter, a shifting Alaska climate has, in some ways, been a benefit. Over the course of the last two years, fat-tire cyclists have enjoyed a lot of bare or hard-packed trail on which tires roll easily.
The dog mushers have not had it so good.
Blame climate changes
The Iditarod dog race restart in Fairbanks this year will mark the second time the race has moved north in the last three years. A lack of snow high in the Alaska Range and a lack of ice on the Tatina River leading into the remote checkpoint of Rohn in the heart of the range is this time being blamed.
Race organizers said they had no choice but to move the race in the interest of musher safety. Most Iditarod mushers seem to agree with that assessment, although it is hard to get a fully accurate reading given the fact an official race gag-order restricts what mushers can say.
There have been a few voices of dissent raised, primarily from retired mushers who have watched the challenges of the Iditarod Trail grow slowly easier year by year. But times change.
As Rod Perry, a veteran of the first Iditarod notes, “the men of ’73…(were) almost entirely comprised of veteran Bush travelers who had to accomplish their own hunting, trapping, or other wilderness traveling agendas, who planned and carried out their own routes and trail creation and supply of their individual maintenance resources. We would have been in wonderment if officials had suggested the use of all of today’s (what I term) electronic hand-holding.”
Perry said there are not many left of the likes of Herbie Nayokpuk, the Shishmaref Cannonball; Isaac Okleasik, the Inupiat from Teller who forgot more about running dogs than most people ever learn; Red Devil miner Dick Wilmarth, the first Iditarod champ; and Perry’s old friend the late Ron Aldrich from Montana Creek.
Aldrich not only ran in early Iditarods, he sometimes helped break the trail over the Alaska Range on snowmachines that can by today’s standards only be described as “primitive.” And the first 300 miles of the trail was always bad.
“The meanest, toughest, most trying section of the whole (Iditarod) trail lies between Anchorage and Farewell,” Aldrich wrote in a 1978 edition of the now-defunct Iditarod Runner. “The country lies on its side, cut with four of the largest, fastest-flowing glacier-fed rivers in the state. A land of extremes, changing from low-lying delta swamps, inundated with water during the summer, frozen solid in the winter, to mile-high mountains. More than a mile high, in fact. This 300 miles of pure cantankerousness is well-known for its diversity. It is likely to be blown in by high winds and snowed in by 30-inch snowfalls in a single night. Rivers overflow or open up following warm rains, and –130°F chill factors can have a devastating effect on travelers. Any or all of these things can happen within a week’s time, and it is no place for the tenderfoot or greenhorn.”
Iditarod mushers will have to deal with none of that nonsense this year. The Iron Doggers will likely put it behind so fast they barely notice. Pre-runners have already been up and over the 350 miles of trail from Big Lake to McGrath in 11 hours – less than half a day.
The snowmachines of the 21st century are amazing machines. So, too, in their way the fat-tired bikes. Four people have now ridden fatties the 350-miles to McGrath in less than two days. Anchorage cyclist Tim Bernston joined that crew on his way to winning the race to the Kusko community last year.
The first 350 miles take the fastest Iditarod dogs teams a couple of hours longer.
A big detour
The cyclist are unlikely to be setting any records this year, however. With the Iditarod dog race abandoning the trail, Invitational race director Bill Merchant expects to bypass Rainy Pass and the Dalzell Gorge in favor of Ptarmigan Pass to the south and the South Fork Kuskokwim River. Ptarmigan is part of the route used by the Iron Dog.
“The broken trail will most likely be from Puntilla (Lake) up the Ptarmigan valley dropping into Hell’s Gate on the South Fork of the Kuskokwim and down river to Rohn,” Merchant warned racers in an e-mail. “It is roughly 35 miles further than over Rainy Pass. I was told by one of our skookum racers, they could probably get through the Pass and (Dalzell) Gorge.
“Here’s the deal: You can’t get a machine as far as Pass Lake, and you can’t get a machine past the first crossing on the Dalzel from the Tatina. So in between, should you decide to take the Pass, you are on your own with self rescue probably your only option. Last time we went through Hell’s Gate, two racers went over the Pass. One was rescued. So the choice will be yours.”
Some of the runners are still expected to give Rainy Pass and the Dalzell a shot despite that warning, in part because Merchant doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture of the Ptarmigan route.
“Ptarmigan Valley tends to be very grown up with, in places, head high willows and alders which will only be mashed down somewhat by Iron Dog machines….Bikers watch out you don’t tear off your dangly parts. Broke my little finger last time I rode a machine through there.”
He also warned that once on the route, racers are largely committed to pushing through to Rohn “because going against the grain of the smashed down bushes would be no fun at all should you decide to go back.”
Once over the pass, he added, things can also get a little sketchy.
“It’s stunning scenery, but pay attention and pick a safe route downriver using established trails and sand bars where possible,” Merchant wrote. “If a distinct main trail is evident, stay on it unless it disappears into a hole. Just before the confluence with the Tatina a trail leaves on river right which will take you to the (Rohn) cabin….Keep in mind navigation and safe route finding can be critical even if it only snows an inch after the last person goes through so be aware of your surroundings and travel safe.
“For those thinking of using an Iron Dog GPS track for the South Fork remember that what they cross at 80 mph can fall out from under you walking or riding. Use your senses not just technology!”
Let the fun begin.