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Rough Iditarod Trail will dish out rocks, roots, trees, ice, and fragile ice bridges

Craig Medred
Craig Medred photo

ROHN -- The angry whining sound you’re likely to hear deep in the Alaska Range early next week will come from a chorus of Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushers.

From the looks of the trail from Rainy Pass down to the Tatina River, it is unlikely anyone will make it through the gauntlet of rocks, roots, trees, ice, gravel, stumps, brush, and fragile ice bridges without a story to tell.

The skilled and lucky will survive. The unlucky may suffer broken sleds or worse.

The trail was so bad before trail crews worked it over last week that race officials considered moving the race start to Fairbanks. But a gang of volunteers rendered the trail passable.

"It's amazing what a few people with shovels can do," said Dave Cruz, a leader of one of those crews. How bad is it now? Check out videos of the moss-covered trail, the Dalzell Gorge and Happy River.

Were Joe Redington -- the late, great founder of what has come to be called "The Last Great Race" -- still alive, he would no doubt say the trail down from 3,160-foot Rainy Pass is fine. Old Joe was an elfish man with a big heart and the toughness of Alaska river rock. There are not many like him left in the Iditarod.

Of those few, it is doubtful many have seen a trail quite like the one that drops out of pass this year. A mile or so of it is good. The fun starts where the Widgeon Lake tributary to Pass Fork Creek enters the valley from the south.

From here on, snow depth varies from little to none. The trail runs over grass, ice, rock and brush (the volunteers hacked out a lot, but far from all) before entering a stand of spruce near the confluence of Pass Fork and Dalzell creeks.

A walk in the forest follows as the trail weaves around spruce trees before popping out onto ice with a thin cover of snow. Beyond this point is where things get gnarly. The route forward exits the creeks through a patch of low willows. Literally. There is really no trail, just the scarred, bent and broken willows that indicate "a snowmachine went this way."

For miles after, the trail is mainly on barren ground or semi-barren ground. It first climbs up a hill out of which a trail was hacked long ago to avoid an old route past "sled-buster rock" down in the Dalzell Gorge. The drop from that hill back into the gorge has become almost as notorious as the rock. Here's how the late author Don Bowers describes it in a trail guide for mushers:

"After half a mile (from Dalzell Creek), you’ll see a 'Watch Your Ass' sign; immediately beyond is a steep 200-foot hill down into Dalzell Gorge. Depending on conditions, the Gorge can be nothing more than a very scenic exercise in sled driving, or it can be your worst nightmare come true. The worst-case scenario is minimal snow and lots of glare ice and open water. Hopefully you’ll have some warning if it’s really bad."

The "Watch Your Ass" sign is now gone, and an appropriate sign this year might say "Pray To Your God."

This year is Bowers' "worst nightmare come true." A musher who uses a drag or a sled brake to slow the team on the descent, an exercise as necessary as using car brakes on a big hill, runs a good chance of having the drag or brake torn off by a boulder or tree root. Dragging a foot risks breaking an ankle.

Mushers of old sometimes wrapped chains or rope around their runners in situations like this to increase drag and slow the sled, but modern Iditarod mushers don't carry chains -- not to mention the time required to stop and do something like this. Nobody wants to waste time in a race that has become as competitive as the Iditarod has today.

Most mushers will probably just get a death grip on the handlebar, try to use the drag or brake as little as possible, and pray they make it to the bottom in one piece. Praying would be a good thing, because things won't necessarily get better down in the gorge.

The trail crew did yeoman's work there last week, cutting new trail where the old trail was impassable, building bridges of alder covered with snow and ice chips, and busting out the worst of the sloping shelf ice that threatened to pitch teams into the open water of the creek flowing between patches of shore ice 5 feet high.

But as of Wednesday, at least one ice bridge had caved in and washed away. Trailbreaking crews ahead of the lead racers will need to make repairs there, and with the weather warming in the Alaska Range, who knows that things couldn't get worse before they get better.

And the Dalzell is only the start of tens of miles of torture.

Once on the Tatina River, mushers face five miles of glare ice into Rohn, which is almost snowless. Out of Rohn, heading north on the trail to Nikolai, there is more glare ice on the West Fork Kuskokwim River.

Trail breakers snaked the trail all over the bed of the broad, glacial river trying to find ice instead of gravel. There is still plenty of gravel, and much of the ice is covered with windblown dirt. Eventually, the trail pops back into the woods where there are more roots, rocks and ice with frozen tussocks yet to come between the old Farewell Burn and Sullivan Creek.

Mushers who get to Rohn without getting beaten up will be lucky to make it to Nikolai without getting pounded.

And to think that mushers and race officials were worried about the Susitna River when they were considering whether to move the race start to Fairbanks. The river looked decent even before some of the slicker ice was ground up to make it better. Trail near Skwentna might now be the best of this year's Iditarod, and the trail from Skwentna north to Finger Lake is hard, but good.

The notorious Happy River steps down a series of steep hillsides beyond Finger Lake are passable. The first step, however, lacks any sort of berm on the downhill side, making it easy for a sled to slide off. That will only get worse as more teams navigate the trail.

Much the same can be said of the third and last step. It has been built of alders and snow along the face of a cliff to provide a ramp to the banks of the Happy River. It appears to be someone's labor of love. How long it will last is questionable. Sled drags and brakes tear up even old, hard-packed snow. Soft, new snow such as that of which the ramp is made may not last long.

It could be a good year to be one of the first teams down the steps and into Rainy Pass. Being lucky will help this year, too. There are some almost-invisible ruts frozen in the trail that could grab a runner and pitch a sled in the trees. Some icy sidehills could do the same. Plus, there are some rough approaches to narrow temporary bridges crossing creeks.

Mushers with an appreciation of history might end up missing the Alaska Road Commission, which actually maintained a series of trails in the Alaska Territory in the early 1900s. The present Iditarod was one of them. Maintenance was done from freeze-up in the fall to breakup in the spring.

These days, the Iditarod National Historic Trail is a seasonal route dependent on snow. Low snow means a marginal trail. But it is what it is. Old Joe would have thought it fine only because he saw a lot of bad trail in his day and sometimes traveled where there was no trail.

But today's Iditarod rookies and some veterans, who've spent much of their lives training on groomed trails, could be in for a shocker.