Fat-tired cyclists on the Iditarod Trail in what was once the Farewell Burn/Craig Medred photo
The grueling Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, “a brutal test of tenacity and stamina,” is off this year to traverse the Alaska Range twice, navigating “the dangerous gorges and switchbacks on sleds battered from their first journey through.”
Hint, hint: Iditarod Rule 15: “No more than three sleds can be used by a musher during the race.” Most of those sleds have been shipped to McGrath or Nikolai so no one has to come back on a sled “battered from their first journey” if, of course, it gets battered.
The story written by Catherine Whelan in Washington, D.C. is a snapshot of what is wrong with so much of journalism today.
“Catherine Whelan is a radio producer, poet, and preposterous wordnerd. Catherine has lived, worked, and studied in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Southern California, and Western Massachusetts,” she says. “Formerly she was a radio producer for WGBH News. Prior to that she contributed to the Peabody Award-winning program State of the Re:Union. She loves making noise.”
It’s possible she can find Alaska on a map. And she does know how to Google well enough to find a history of the “two preservationists” who founded the race while “lamenting the disappearance of sled dog culture.”
What is most clear about the story she wrote, however, is that she doesn’t know diddly about the Iditarod. She was just basically making up the “news.”
Alaskan Chris Batin, a long-ago columnist at the Anchorage Daily News who was let go for making things up, had a description for this sort of behavior: News fiction.
As he described “news fiction” in a commentary for a magazine published by the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) long, long ago, news fiction wasn’t really fiction; it was the news that could have happened sometime, somewhere, somehow that you needed to add to a story to make the story better.
There is no indication Whelan was stretching things quite this far with her reporting on Iditarod. It would appear she was trying to be accurate, and she must be given credit for rounding to 850 miles the length of the “slightly shorter Gold Trail Loop” being run this year instead of proclaiming the trail covers 852 miles or is “about 852 miles long” as one Alaska reporter described it.
Let’s see, “about 852” would be somewhere between 851.5 and 852.5 with a trail much shorter being “about 851 miles long” and a trail much longer being about “853 miles.” The reality is that nobody really knows how long the trail is because it hasn’t been accurately measured.
The 852 miles is about as accurate as the Iditarod’s original declaration of a 1,049-mile trail – the 1,000 being the trail miles and the 49 a recognition of the 49th state – from Anchorage to Nome. Over the years, that was rounded up to 1,100, rounded down to 900, and finally settled on 1,000 miles.
The big debate over the actual length of the original trails goes all the way back to 2007 when early tracking by global positioning satellites (GPS) put the distance at 908.5 miles. The problem with this nicely precise number – other than its disagreement with the odometers on snowmachines run along the trail to Nome – was that the technology arrived at the distance by connecting the dots from positions taken every few minutes.
When the dots and lines were plotted on a map, they weren’t always where the trail was, but then the trail wasn’t always where the trail was. A winter route atop the snow, the Iditarod can shift feet to tens of feet or more winter to winter.
It still does. Suffice to say, anyone who cites Iditarod trail distances to the exact mile doesn’t know the Iditarod Trail. Any reporter who even bothered to read the late Don Bowers’ “trail notes,” available on the Iditarod.com website, would immediately notice how fluid Iditarod trail miles.
Boots on the ground
Officially, the Iditarod puts the mileage between the Rohn and Rainy Pass checkpoints at 35 miles. But “this leg is not as long as the official mileage indicates,” Bowers wrote. “It is really only about 32 miles.”
(Except when it’s 36 miles as it was on the author’s snowmachine one year. Another year it was 31 miles. This is pretty much the Idit-a-norm.)
Reporters who do their homework quickly discover the historic “Iditarod Trail” is more a historic “Iditarod Route” that follows terrain modified by winter snows and can change considerably in both length and shape depending on weather conditions.
Because of the snow, there are almost no “switchbacks” on the trail. There is one. This is where the trail drops down to the Happy River north of Finger Lake in the foothills of the Alaska Range.
Switchbacks are manmade features. The Iditarod Trail takes advantage of nature wherever it can so as to avoid switchbacks.
Nature was uncooperative at the Happy, so a couple of ramps were cut into the south hillside to create a trail down to the river. North of the river, the trail takes advantage of the natural flow of a snow-filled ravine to climb back onto the Shirley Lake bench.
From there to Nome (or Iditarod in the case of the 2021 race) the trail twists and turns and does some nasty sidehilling, but the only other feature that might be considered a “switchback” is the short stretch of state road from Takotnta to Ophir which Bowers describes as a “rise” of “about 800 feet on easy grades.”
There is one “gorge” in the drainage of the Dalzell River. It is not particularly dangerous if there is snow. The sidehilling in many places along the trail is usually more problematic. Dog sleds do not do sidehill well. They want to skid to the lower side of the trail and if there are trees there….
Well, the sidehills between the Happy River and Puntilla Lake south of Rainy Pass in the range, and those between Rohn and Nikolai have over the years busted more sleds and resulted in more injuries than the gorge.
At one time, most of the worst of the latter trail was in the Farewell Burn, once the sight of the largest wildfire in Alaska history. But though some reporters still refer to the area as the “notorious…Farewell Burn,” the Burn is long gone.
If there is snow, the trees now prevent the wind from blowing it away, and the trail can be rather pleasant. If, of course, there is snow. The north slope of the Alaska Range from Rohn to Sullivan Creek is rather famous for its low snow. The low snow helps one of the state’s few buffalo herds survive in the area.
For those who’ve spent time on the Iditarod Trail, it would be funny if it was funny to read the descriptions of the trail written by journalists badly paraphrasing the observation of others or translating their aerial view of the trail into what they think the situation on the ground might look like.
This is the Alaska equivalent of the newspaper coverage of “flyover country” by the country’s “elite” newspapers on the East and West coasts. Whether you’re at 1,000 feet or 35,000 feet, the view from the air is different from that on the ground.
And if you have no boots-on-the-ground experience to help inform the aerial view, no knowledge of the workings of what you are covering, and have done little or no homework, the stories you construct are likely to end up as real as reality TV.
That reporters can’t get simple facts straight as regards the Iditarod is a small thing. At the end of the day, the Iditarod is a dog race across Alaska with no real significance except to a small number of competitors, a larger number of fans, and a business or two.
But Iditarod coverage is representative of the bigger problem of journalism, which is a steady and fundamental decay in accuracy. Forget all the arguing over bias. Claimed media objectivity was never all that objective, and now it is pretty much gone.
The most objective news organizations lean left or lean right. The least objective so obviously embrace, if not promote, their prejudices you can’t miss them. Most readers can sort out the partisanship.
What they can’t do is sort facts from the fictions presented as fact, or find the facts left out to further a narrative. Sixty percent of Americans now profess little or no trust in media.
There are reasons.
The news has deteriorated to the point where it is sometimes almost painful to read stories covering subjects about which you are knowledgeable. And reading them, and recognizing how messed up many of them are, only reinforces concerns about the accuracy of stories covering subjects about which you are less knowledgeable.
Where this ends up, who knows. But it’s not good.