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An Iditarod highway?

Craig Medred

A company that could change forever the character of the historic Iditarod Trail has signed on as a principal partner for the Last Great Race.

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A company that could change forever the character of the historic Iditarod Trail has signed on as a principal partner for the Last Great Race. Officials of the struggling Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race say they are pleased to be getting a $285,000 contribution from Donlin Creek LLC, but the money has raised obvious questions as to what Donlin is buying.

Donlin is a company set up by the Calista Corp., one of 13 Alaska regional corporations established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act; the Kuskokwim Corp., a village Native corporation; and two major international gold mining companies -- Barrick Gold and NovaGold. They are trying to develop a $4.5 billion gold mine on the Kuskokwim River upstream from Bethel, an Alaska regional hub about 400 miles west of Anchorage.

The big impediment to mine development along the Kuskokwim near Crooked Creek is power. To make a mine a reality, Donlin needs a reliable and economic source of energy. They company looked at using a combination of diesel and wind to power the mine, but costs and concerns about fuel spills from heavy barge traffic on the river sank that idea. Donlin has since begun studying construction of a gas pipeline from Cook Inlet over the Alaska Range to near the Interior community of McGrath, and then west to Donlin.

The pipeline route would follow or parallel the Iditarod through some of the country that has for generations most defined not only the historic mail route itself, but the Iditarod dog race as well. The challenges inherent in overcoming the sheer ruggedness of the trail from Skwentna north to Finger Lake and on over Rainy Pass to Rohn and Nikolai have in many ways made the Iditarod what it is. Pipeline construction could change that.

Some contend a little earth-moving could make the trail better. A right-of-way sliced through the wilderness in order to bury pipe could define the trail, they say, and provide a smoother, better surface for dog teams to travel notoriously bad stretches like the sled-busting steps of the Happy River gorge, the musher-bashing side hills along the valley slopes of the Happy Valley as the trail climbs north to Rainy Pass, the dangerous ice of the Dalzell Creek gorge, and the troublesome "Buffalo Tunnels'' through the thicket of stunted forest between Rohn on the north side of the Alaska Range and the village of Nikolai.

In the overwhelmingly popular and yet still wild Chugach State Park above Anchorage, construction done years ago to bury a fiber-optic cable beneath the Powerline Pass Trail transformed it from an overgrown, rutted and dying trail to the most popular hiking and mountain biking route in the state. Burying a pipeline beneath the Iditarod might do the same for a trail now poorly maintained and in many places hard to find.

The heart of the race

But some contend that making the trail better by easing the obstacles could cut the heart out of the race. The two views are to some degree part of a philosophical struggle that has been under way within the Iditarod nation for years. Should Iditarod be a NASCAR-style race focused solely on which dog teams can get to Nome fastest, or should it hang onto the Jack Londonesque roots of an adventure that few dare to undertake and that even fewer ever finish?

A stock-car race needs a track. An adventure really needs only a route from point A to point B, and in some ways, the tougher the route the more the adventure.

Burying a pipeline is not a big issue in and of itself, said Judy Bittner, a state archaeologist and president of the Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance, but there could be a lot of discussions about "what they leave above ground.''

What happens underground means little, she said, but what is done to the landscape could mean a lot.

The alliance has formed a committee to track the issue, Bittner said, and Donlin has pledged to work with committee members as it moves forward on a feasibility plan. Donlin spokesman Kurt Parkan said the company doesn't expect to have that together until at least June of next year. He added that Donlin is extremely sensitive to the nature and value of the Iditarod as a historic trail.

"There's not going to be any infrastructure out there,'' he said. "No roads.''


What Donlin proposes is a 12-inch buried pipeline that could be serviced from the air. It would need to run about 325 miles from tidewater at Cook Inlet to the mine site, which sits about 300 miles northwest of Anchorage. Bittner notes that the project raises interesting historical issues in that the Iditarod Trail system itself started as a route to service gold mines near Nome and in the Iditarod-Innoko mining district in the early 1900s.

The route is now used not just by the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race but the Iron Dog snowmachine race and the Iditarod Invitational -- a mountain-bike, ski and footrace that is in many ways a throwback to what the Iditarod dog race was when the late Joe Redington, a legendary Alaska dog musher and adventurer, first got it underway with an eye to saving both the trail and the Alaska sled dogs that had traveled it so faithfully for generations. The sled dog race is now a multimillion-dollar competition that attracts international attention, but it is still staged on a primitive course.

Originally mapped and marked by the Alaska Road Commission, the Iditarod Trail was, in its heyday, better maintained than it is today.

Many have lobbied in recent years for improvements to the trail to make it more accessible for recreation and the few businesses that have tried to take advantage of a market for Iditarod tours. The big trick in the modern age, Bittner said, is defining exactly the "character'' of the Iditarod National Historic Trail and then determining what needs to be done to preserve that.

Donlin's pipeline might detract from that character; it might also enhance it.

"This is going to be a big project,'' she said. "We all need to be aware. The message to Donlin is that they need to involve and invite and talk to all the user groups.''

Parkan said that is one reason why the company became an Iditarod sponsor. It connects Donlin to one of the trail's main user groups and hopefully spreads a little goodwill.

"Companies look for places they can contribute in places they can use some assistance,'' he said. "This might be a great match.''

Donlin's pipeline construction efforts -- if a pipeline moves forward -- might be organized so as to help provide a better trail surface for parts of the Iditarod or make access easier for trail maintenance. There are aspects to the Donlin proposal, however, that reach far beyond the Iditarod, especially given that natural gas is now in short supply in Cook Inlet. Dependent on natural gas for both heat and electricity, Anchorage, the state's largest city, has been making plans for emergency actions if supplies run low this winter when demand is at its peak.

Demand for new gas to power a Donlin mine could spark exploration in the Inlet, leading to more gas for Anchorage, Parkan noted, or require construction of facilities for importing gas.

"I think right now we're looking at LNG,'' liquefied natural gas, Parkan said. There is a possibility Donlin could partner with Enstar Natural Gas, Chugach Electric, or someone else to build an LNG plant capable of moving extra gas into the pipelines now servicing Anchorage homes and Chugach turbines. What sort of gas plan might materialize in the future is anyone's guess.

"We're just trying to move forward,'' Parkan said. "Clearly there are a lot of issues out there.''

And not all of them involve the Iditarod, which has -- to date -- taken no official position on a pipeline north up the Yentna and Skwentna river valleys toward Rainy Pass. Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George said he has no idea what the race-managing Iditarod Trail Committee might think of that idea. The committee, he said, will consider that when it finds out what exactly Donlin proposes.

Donlin, he said, didn't join the Iditarod looking for approval of its pipeline. "They became a part of our partnership because they have an interest in the Iditarod,'' St. George said. The Superbowl of Alaska sports, the Iditarod runs for almost 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome along an old gold mining trail, and Donlin is a gold mining company.

"They love the race,'' St. George said. "I know they are committed to communities along the trail. They share the same mission we do.''

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.