Part 1 of a series
Thirty-four years ago, I first put journalistic boots on the ground to cover the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It was not the race that left Fairbanks on Monday.
So much has changed over the decades since 1983 that the race today barely resembles the early races. The sleds are different. The gear is different. The dogs are different. The people are different, and, most of all, the trail is different.
Even before the race shifted onto the flatter, easier, frozen rivers of the Interior for 2017, the old Iditarod trail was becoming a new and different Iditarod trail to suit a new and different race.
The new race is about speed. It is a 1,000 mile extension of the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Open World Championships as run on the streets of Anchorage in the 1960s and 1970s by the late Roland ‘Doc’ Lombard from Massachusetts and the late George Attla from Huslia, now legends of the dog-driving sports.
The 1983 Rondy and the 1983 Iditarod shared some similarities. They both started on Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage, where there is now only a ceremonial Iditarod show, and they both utilized big teams of dogs.
There the similarities ended. The Iditarod was more adventure than race.
“The race doesn’t start until the (Bering Sea) coast,” said the Iditarod contenders of the time. That the racing in a 1,100 mile race was relegated to the last 300 miles or so had a lot to do with the nature of those early events.
Just getting to the coast was a challenge that began early.
A winding trail with a couple big hills and some nasty sidehilling from Knik, the one-time restart, to the Susitna River could prove challenging. So, too, the overland trail from the Yentna past Rabbit Lake to Skwentna. (Only later would the trail be moved onto the smoother, flatter, easier Yentna River).
From Skwentna north into the Shell Hills, the trail just got worse. By Finger Lake on the south slope of the Alaska Range, the late Susan Butcher from Manley was invariably complaining about the “moose holes,” the foot holes up to two-feet deep punched into the trail by moose.
Trail? What trail?
The few Outside mushers who ran the trail in those days called it a joke. It wasn’t really a trail at all in their opinion. It was more of a temporary winter route and a not very good one.
Beyond Finger Lake there was a luge run down to Red Lake. Four-time champ Rick Swenson used to accuse the film crew of ABC’s Wide World of Sports of setting up at the bottom the hill at night, and then using bright lights to blind mushers and light up the scene so they could shoot video of teams crashing at the bottom of the hill.
It made for good television entertainment, but the major TV networks eventually abandoned the race. Iditarod coverage was simply too expensive to produce.
The myth of the Iditarod that TV helped spawn,however, remained because it was as much reality as myth in its day.
The trail from Red Lake to the Happy River for years sort of moved around in a series of beaver-pond filled valleys. Too often it ran along open water with a tilt toward the same. Depending on what snowmachiner put the trail in, there could be tight bends difficult to navigate behind a long snaking string of dogs.
The descent down to the Happy River on “The Steps” was notorious. There was a sharp left onto a steep sidehill, then a right onto a short flat quickly followed by another steep downhill, and then a left over a hill so steep it was almost a cliff.
Usually there was chaos. Some teams came barreling into the first corner, missed the turn and went plunging down the side. Some mushers couldn’t hold their sleds on the sidehill and rolled them. A lot of people crashed going off the cliff.
Over the years that changed. Trail crews started cutting the trail down into a team-protective ditch. The descent became a little like driving on a road with guard rails. The first turn became almost impossible to overshoot, and once around it mushers were in a chute, making it hard to roll the sled off one side.
At the bottom of the steps, a diagonal ramp of snow was built along a cliff wall to ease the descent to the bottom.
As the years passed, the trail just kept getting better in this way. There was a small improvement here and a small improvement there. Year by year, they took a little adventure out of the race, and put more race into it.
Somethings stayed the same, of course. Competitive mushers still wanted to be in the first 20 teams or so to the Finger Lake checkpoint because the trail from there to the Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake invariably deteriorated, sometimes badly, with each passing team.
Mushers standing on the sled brake to try to slow teams charging downhill would cut a deep groove in the trail. On a trail often only a dog sled wide, navigating around that groove to avoid tipping became a problem. It is less of a problem today.
Snowmachine racers training for the 2000-mile Iron Dog, the world’s toughest snowmobile race, now regularly make runs from Skwentna to Rainy Pass. The extra traffic helps to pack in a firmer trail less prone to sled-brake damage.
There are little differences like this all the way to Nome.
The trail across the Happy River Valley to Rainy Pass is now well marked with permanent tripods. An obvious trail has been cut through the alder and willow thickets along Pass Creek on the way down to the Dalzell Gorge.
Long ago, the trail around “sled-buster” rock in the gorge was moved up onto a ridge to avoid that difficult section. Where the trail dropped back into the gorge, trail crews went out before every race to build bridges back and forth across the creek as the trail wound its way toward the Tatina River.
In the old days, they threw some alder brush on top of the broken ice where a natural ice bridge had collapsed into the creek and let mushers figure out how to drop down into that hole and climb out the other side.
During the 1983 race, a young DeeDee Jonrowe hit a rock coming down from the pass that ripped the brake off her sled. Then she hit another rock that split the plastic that formed the bottom of her old toboggan sled the full length from brushbow to runners. And yet, she somehow made it to Rohn where other mushers helped her repair the dog sled.
Old hang out
Rohn was for years the checkpoint where the vast majority of mushers took the one required 24-hour rest during the race. They needed the time to recover from the Alaska Range climb and prepare for the Farewell Burn ahead.
The Range was never easy. In 1985, the year Libby Riddles became the first woman to win and vaulted the race onto the international stage, the Iditarod stalled at Puntilla Lake because of deep snow. It was eventually put on official hold because there was no food in Rohn. The Iditarod in those days had only one way of getting food there: by air.
With the trail and technology of today, it would have been possible to freight enough food in there by snowmachine to keep the race moving. A small army of snowmahines – Iditarod trail breakers, Iditarod trail sweeps, media, race suppers and a few Iditarod fans – now follow the race as far as Rainy Pass and could be pressed into service to assist. They can get to Rainy Pass and often beyond because the trail is so much friendly than in the past.
After the Rohn stop, mushers used to go sled-bashing their way through the “buffalo tunnels” up the “glacier” and into the dreaded Farewell Burn. The “buffalo tunnels,” a trail originally cut barely a sled-width wide through thick spruce in an area home to the Farewell bison herd were long ago widened. There is plenty of room now for not only a dog sled but for the widest of snowmachines.
A trail bypass was built to get around the glacier, a terraced series of skating-rink-slick steps formed by groundwater leaking out of a hillside not far from aptly named Egypt Mountain. And the Burn, once the site of one of Alaska’s largest wildfires?
It grew up with new vegetation. The winds that once blew across it to form sled-bashing drifts or strip tussock patches of their snow were tamed. The drifts ended. The tussocks themselves were eventually beaten down by the annual passage of snowmachines and dogsleds.
The trail got easier. Not that it’s easy.
It’s still a challenge to make it from Willow, the Iditarod restart of recent times ignoring the two out of the last three years in Fairbanks. But it is not the challenge it once was.
The story doesn’t change much from the old Farewell Burn No More on north to Nome some 700 miles or so distant. To keep listing the small changes that add up to one big change only gets redundant. It is enough to say the trail today is and of itself far better than the trail of yesteryear.
It is better maintained, especially in the worst places, and it better marked for the race. It is hard now for a musher to get lost on the Iditarod Trail. Three decades ago, somebody getting lost was part of the adventure, but then the old race was more adventure race than speed race.
The 1983 Iditarod took 12 days, 14 hours and 10 minutes. The 2016 Iditarod lasted 8 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes. In 2016, 12 days, 14 hours would have only been good enough for 68th place – four positions removed from last.
Next: Dogs and gear
Correction: This story was corrected on March 7, 2017 to reflect that the official reason for stopping the race at Rainy Pass was the lack of dog food in the Rohn checkpoint ahead.