of the Iditarod Trail
wind was blowing 70 mph—I could barely stand up on my skis
during the gusts—and the wind chill was -35 F. Visibility
was zero. The “What-am-I-doing here?” feeling I had
Iditarod Trail starts in Seward, Alaska, and passes through the
historic mining town of Iditarod, then threads on to Nome. Most
people associate the trail with the Last Great Race, a dog sled
race from Anchorage to Nome. The gold from the Iditarod district
was transported to Seward by dog sled for many years before there
was even a tent in Anchorage.
1982, the Seward Iditarod Trailblazers have been building the historical
Iditarod trail from Seward to Girdwood. In August 2003 a Centennial
Ultra Marathon was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the
founding of Seward and the historic Iditarod Trail.
I have traversed this section four times—on skis, on foot,
on a mountain bike, and in a kayak.
March 2004 I skied with my friend, Dick Griffith, 160 miles across
the Alaska Range from Skwetna to Farewell Lake near McGrath. Dick,
a 78-year-old Alaskan mountaineer and ultra-marathoner, and I were
finally able to fly into Skwetna after waiting four days because
of storms. It was a magnificent journey, made memorable by incredibly
beautiful country and wonderful people.
skied out of Puntilla Lake just as the first 2004 Iditarod mushers
were rolling in. Between there and Rohn, 80 mushers passed us. When
Martin Buser, four-time Iditarod champion, rolled past, he called
out, ”Way to go, Dick, you are an inspiration to all of us!“
Three photographers stopped to take Dick’s photo.
The first trailblazers were the Alaska natives. By using geography
to their advantage and following game trails, they blazed a network
of trails to Alaska's interior. In the early 1800s, parts of the
trails that would eventually become known as the Iditarod were used
by the Russian-American Company trappers and explorers. Recent research
has found that the first ski journeys in North America were done
by Russians in the 18th century. Russian traders actually began
the practice of running in-line dog teams to traverse timbered areas
as opposed to the Inupiat method of allowing the dogs to fan out
in front of the sled.
Early American explorers and prospectors followed many of the same
paths. After the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867
there was a rush of exploration, mostly by boat, during the Arctic
summer. Overland treks were especially difficult because of the
vast interior wetlands. However, in the winter, rivers and lakes
froze and were covered with snow. This created a frozen pathway
and made the Iditarod Trail the favored winter route of those traveling
to the interior.
In 1908, starting at Seward, the Alaska Road Commission surveyed
and marked the trail. The original Iditarod Trail ran from tideline
at Seward north to Crow Pass near Girdwood to Eagle River and then
across the Alaska Range to the mining camp of Iditarod. Roadhouses
were established about a day’s mush apart so that mail and
supplies could be transported from the interior to Seward and back.
The trail was much used from Seward for almost a decade before there
was as much as a tent in what is now Anchorage.
Iditarod is an Athabascan Indian Village on the Iditarod River where
gold was discovered in 1908. Since established as a town site in
1903, Seward was an obvious starting point for the trail to the
Iditarod gold fields. As early as 1910 the Iditarod gold rush town
was the center of a mining district. The trails originally used
by Ingalik and Tanaina Indians were much improved by the miners.
When the trail was surveyed by the U.S. Army Alaska Road Commission
in 1910, it was officially named the “Seward to Nome”
mail route. Dog teams and sleds were commonly used. The number of
dogs varied depending on the load, but five to 18 was the usual
size. The dogs used were a mix of mongrels and huskies, the latter
a breed that would become known as the Alaskan Sled Dog, now a recognized
intrepid travelers walked from roadhouse to roadhouse frequently
using snowshoes. There were also sleighs drawn by horses that carried
passengers, mining equipment, gold and much else. Anyway you look
at it, it’s not an easy place to get to.
* * *
day Dick and I skied into a 25 mph headwind with -20 F wind chill.
The next day we traversed Rainy Pass in a blizzard with wind gusts
of 60 mph. It was a whiteout on the pass, reminding me of Denali
and the time I traversed the range over North America’s highest
wasn’t worried as he has spent so many nights in Arctic blizzards
skiing the 3,000 mile Northwest Passage solo across Canada, a journey
he completed at age 73. He has finished more of the Alaska Mountain
Wilderness Classics since 1982 than anyone and is 56 years a Colorado
River boatman, one of the few still alive who have run most of the
Colorado River before it was dammed (and the first to run Lava Falls
in a rubber raft).
and I skied down Dalzell Gorge on the north side of the Alaska Range
with wind gusts up to 60 mph. (This is where Doug Swingley, three-time
Iditarod champion, froze his corneas on the same day.) We got our
light ski boots wet in overflow on the SF Kuskokwim River and pulled
our sleds across three miles of snowless ‘buffalo wallows.’
Then we came across a fresh moose kill that had been partially eaten
the Big Yetna River crossing a German musher passed us. “Meine
familie kommt aus der Schweiz,” I said to him. Sebastian, the
German musher, responded, “You guys are incredible, can I take
your photo. Nobody in Germany would believe you do this on skis.”
the Big Yetna and the NW fork of the Innoko I was skiing ahead of
Dick and we had passed two mushers. It was a warm day for interior
Alaska and I took my hat, gloves and shirt off. Then I rolled my
pants above my knees just before I came upon two female mushers--one
from Alberta, Canada, and the other near Fairbanks. I could read
the look on their faces, “What is with this guy’s thinking?
Doesn't he know this is interior Alaska in winter?”
so many wonderful folks we met who had given us smoked salmon, moose
burgers, and jerky on the way, they offered us food and drink.
skied to Shageluk and were there when Dallas Seavey, age 18, rolled
in. Two veterinarians began checking up on his dogs, and I walked
over to say, “As vice president of the Seward Iditarod Trailblazers,
let me be the first to welcome you.”
did you get here?” one vet asked.
skied.” I replied. It turns out it took us four days and two
hours to ski from Iditarod to Shageluk over 13 ridges, which Dallas
accomplished with his dogs in seven hours.
that was slow,” Dallas said.
is located on the Yukon. I was skiing out of the woods onto the
frozen river when I fell. The Iditarod Trail dropped steeply to
the river; 70 mushers and 1,200 dogs had gone in front of me and
there was overflow and ice below. Pulling a 75-pound sled didn't
help. I threw my hands in front of me to protect my face and felt
my left shoulder pop. If it were my right shoulder I probably would
have dislocated it, again (as I did before in the 2004 Wilderness
Classic in the Talkeetna Gorge). My left had also been dislocated
climbing but had had longer to heal. I had skied 27 miles and was
exhausted. But as I lay on the ice in the river, it wasn't the potential
injury that bothered me so much as the wrath of my wife, Deborah,
were I to get injured again.
I left on this trip she had said to me, “Listen—give
me eye contact, Jerry—I don't want any more calls from the
Alaska Trooper and Mountain Rescue Group telling me that they are
on their way to extract you from some Class V gorge, inaccessible
peak or slot canyon and not to worry. You have two teenage sons,
so you come back in one piece.”
ma'am,” I replied. Fortunately my left shoulder will heal
without an operation.
flew out of Anvik and Dick continued on to Kaltag 150 miles farther
north. When he arrived there the wind was blowing at 60 mph. That
would mark his 5,500 mile of skiing on wooden Bonna skis wearing
mukluks and pulling a sled with leather straps—across Alaska,
the Brooks Range, and the entire Northwest Passage to Hudson Bay.
He did it solo except for the 500 miles we had skied together.
S. Dixon BA’70 BA’73, Biologist/Teacher of the Gifted