April 2007

Skiing the Iditarod Trail
by Jerry Dixon

Jerry Dixon BA’70 BA’73

 

Images from Skiing the Iditarod Trail

Map of the Iditarod Trail

The 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 was overwhelming.

The 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.

Since 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.

In 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.

We 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 breed.

Some 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.

* * *

That 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 point.

Dick 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).

Dick 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 by wolves.

At 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.”

Between 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?”

Like 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.

We 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.”

“How did you get here?” one vet asked.

“We 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.

“And that was slow,” Dallas said.

***

Anvik 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.

Before 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.”

“Yes ma'am,” I replied. Fortunately my left shoulder will heal without an operation.

I 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.

Jerry S. Dixon BA’70 BA’73, Biologist/Teacher of the Gifted



U-News & Views © 2007 An online publication
by the University of Utah Alumni Association
Questions? Concerns? Contact Linda Marion, editor (801-587-7837)
or Marcia Dibble, assistant editor (801-581-6996)