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How's Alaska's Iditarod Trail this year? Call it a snowy superhighway to Nikolai

Craig Medred
Martin Buser set a blistering pace from the start, and pushed straight through the Rainy Pass checkpoint, miles ahead of anyone else. He stayed two minutes. Loren Holmes photo

HAPPY RIVER, Alaska -- Alaska’s sparse-snow winter that complicated training for mushers in the Iditarod Sled Dog Race may ironically have created a fast track to Nome. The early trail running some 150 miles from the Winterlake Lodge at Finger Lake up and over the Alaska Range to the village of Nikolai appears to be in the best shape of modern Iditarod history.

The notorious Happy River steps down the perilously steep creek banks on the south side of that stream were so innocuous earlier this week that an Iditarod rookie arriving for the first time might not have noticed much except the last step. Nobody could miss that steep drop of about 15 feet to a tiny patch of spruce forest just before the frozen and snow-covered river. Even that step shouldn't be much of a problem for mushers who just hang on and let the dogs run, unless Iditarod trail breakers decide to fix it.

Often they have done that by building an angular chute of snow across the side of the hill. Unfortunately, structures built of days-old snow cannot take much wear and tear, and the improved descent has at times proven worse than the problem it was designed to solve. Trailbreakers might well be advised to leave well enough alone this year.

As the situation stood earlier this week, a 6-year-old Alaskan experienced at driving a dogsled could have taken a team from Finger Lake all the way to Nikolai. At Perrin's Rainy Pass Lodge, Steve Perrin Jr. wondered if the Iditarod would really be the Iditarod on such a trail. He'd come in from Wasilla days before and was amazed at the trail conditions between Finger Lake and his lodge.

But, of course, there are problems. This is the Iditarod Trail, a National Historic Trail that really only exists in winter, not an interstate highway. Weather and traffic can change things in a matter of minutes. What was last year is unlikely to be this year. What was last week can be different in days. Trail reports from those who haven't been on the trail recently are best ignored.

Alaska Dispatch was on the trail Wednesday and Thursday, however. Here's a segment-by-segment look at what we found to answer one of the  most-asked Iditarod questions: How's the trail?

As of Thursday it was pretty damn good. Here's how it breaks down checkpoint to checkpoint:

Willow to Yentna Station Roadhouse (40 miles)

Both the Susitna and Yentna rivers froze in strange and confounding ways during southcentral Alaska’s snow drought of November and December. There are, as usual, areas of open water, shelf ice, and overflow.

In the past, the Iditarod has gone to great lengths to mark the trail around such dangers and should do so again this year. Mushers will be well advised to stay on the trail. There are plenty of places off the trail where one could smack into a chunk of solid ice and smash a sled -- or get in overflow deep enough to give a team or its driver a good soaking. The worst-case scenario would be stumbling into open water.

None of those things are likely to happen, however, because of the popularity of today’s Iditarod. Fans line the course much of the 35 miles from the Willow start to Yentna. It would be hard to stumble into danger in a race that moves from party to party upriver. The greater danger is that some inexperienced or intoxicated partygoer fails to pay attention and soaks their snowmachine into overflow.

Yentna Station to Skwentna (30 miles)

See previous section and repeat. The marked trail is fine with just enough snow for a dog team, but not too much.

Skwentna to Finger Lake (40 miles)

Expect lots of bumps, moguls or hoop-de-doos, but they should pose few problems. The snowmachine trails are well-traveled, hard-packed and wide, minimizing the chance of a ditch-like trail as in years past. With nothing more than the prospect of flurries in the forecast, dramatic changes are unlikely.

Finger Lake to Puntilla Lake (30 miles)

This is where things often get interesting. The big drop through thick spruce from just behind Finger Lake Lodge to Red Lake has caused crashes in the past, but this year it sets up like a tame luge run -- right down to a banked turn. It shouldn't present much of a problem. The same is true for the beaver ponds and creek connecting above the west end of the lake on the way to Happy River. Some years, the trail here side-hills above open water, but there is none of that this year, making things pretty much a breeze.  At the Happy River, three steps drop down a series of near cliffs. The first descends at the grade of an intermediate ski slope. It is in good shape this year. The classic problem has been teams driven by drivers standing on the drag brake -- a chunk of snowmachine track between the runners -- groove the trail until the groove becomes a ditch up to 18 inches deep.

Sometimes more. The ditch becomes a problem for late-arriving teams.

If they try to straddle it, an almost impossible task, the drag brake often becomes useless because it loses contact with the ground. If they put a runner in the trench, the sled goes on its side and becomes hard to control. How deep the trench goes is dictated by how much snow is on the ground, and this year it doesn't look like the trench can go very deep before hitting frozen ground.

The second step at Happy angles across a hill steep that the first step descends. Here the problem is not so much the grade as it is going off the low side of the trail into cottonwood trees. A few sleds have been destroyed that way, and more than a few mushers have found themselves struggling to get a sled unwrapped from a tree. On Wednesday, the trail was ideal with a large berm on the downhill side to keep sleds from sliding off. Then the Iditarod Trail groomers went through. The drag they were pulling didn't do much to improve the trail surface, but it did chop off some of the berm. There was still enough to hold a sled on the trail, but if some of the first sleds through start scouring off the top, that could change.

Beyond the Happy River, there is usually some difficult side-hilling on the two-mile climb to Shirley Lake, but it’s not bad this year.

About the only place someone might get into trouble is about five miles out of Puntilla, where the trail leaves the last of a series of high muskegs and drops down into the timber along a sidehill for the run to the checkpoint. There is one steep drop there with a left-hand corner at the bottom that can prove troublesome, especially when it’s icy and the dog team plays crack the whip with the driver as it zips around the corner. There was a berm on the downhill side of the turn this week and runner-gripping snow – not ice -- on the trail. Traffic could scrape the snow down to ice and knock down the berm, but front-running teams should be able to waltz into Puntilla.

Puntilla Lake to Rohn (30 miles)

A few moose hang out in the valley north of the lake, but they typically flee if anything approaches. The first 10 miles of trail across the broad valley to the upper Happy River has hard snow, but no difficulties. There is good trail covered with firm snow from there to the entrance of Pass Creek, where the trail turns right and starts toward the 3,160-foot top of Rainy Pass itself. Sometimes there is open water to be dealt with on the way to the pass, but not this year.

After five miles, the trial tops out and starts down Pass Fork of the Dalzell Creek drainage. The relatively fresh avalanche rubble across the trail in places here might give rookie mushers pause, but the worst of the danger appears to have already come down. Once into the creek bed itself, avalanche danger subsides and there is good trail again without any open water problems. This continues to the Dalzell.

As always, the Dalzell has some open water, but there are good ice bridges as the trail winds back and forth across the creek. Iditarod volunteer Terry Boyle has built some excellent bridges with help from Bill Merchant and Rob Kehrer of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. The structures of cut alder covered with snow are solid and wide. A competent dog driver should have no problem. Where there were potentially troublesome sidehills above open water along Dalzell Creek, the trio has chopped the trail surface level and used what was removed to berm the downhill side. As with the trail from Finger to Puntilla, it's almost too good. This is the Iditarod Trail?

When the trail pops out on the Tatina River about five miles from Rohn, there is often slick, windblown ice sometimes pockmarked with holes. This year, there is neither. There is a thin-coating of snow packed to almost pancake-flat ice.

Rohn to Nikolai (90 miles)

Maybe this says it all: Andrew Runkle and his brother from Nikolai, who had been doing brush clearing on the trail 40 miles to the south, stopped in at the Rohn cabin to visit diehard volunteers Jasper Bond and Boyle. They arrived on a couple of aging snowmachines and noted it had been years since their last visit, or about as long as it has been since there was really good trail.

The once-notorious section call the "buffalo tunnel'' used to be barely a sled wide. Now it’s a much-wider, snowy trail.

Nearby, you could find the infamous "glacier'' -- in reality creek seeps that creates an icy hill of overflow. A trail was built around it years ago, and that trail has good snow this year.

How about the desolate, windswept Farewell Burn? It grew back to young forest years ago, too. There's good snow in the area this year – in fact, there's good snow most of the way to Nikolai.

The five to 10 miles of trail around the Post River is almost always short of snow, but there is enough this year to fill in between frozen tussocks. Cyclists in the Iditarod Trial Invitational had no trouble riding it, which means it shouldn't be difficult for a dogsled, either. And that's about it.

All in all, a typically tough trail is looking pretty good. What a year to be an Iditarod rookie --or even a veteran. And to think, this is the first race five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson will miss since 1997.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com