The evanescent Iditarod Trail
Somewhere at latitude 63.87N on the shores of the Bering Strait, a practicable 80-mile long valley connects Alaska’s western shores with the Interior, between coastal mountains. Used by humans and animals for thousands of years, we know it today as the Kaltag portage. It is one of the better used portions of the heterogeneous Iditarod Trail, a National Historical Monument, a 1049-mile long trail that connects Anchorage on Cook Inlet to Nome on the Bering Strait.
Locals often run their snow machines between village pairs. Many other segments are far away and lonely, across the Alaska Range, or between Poorman and Cripple in the Interior, for instance. And many exist only for a few weeks before they melt again: along the Susitna, Kuskokwim, Takotna, and Yukon rivers; across the sea ice in the Norton Sound; across vast swamps before they become impassable mud traps; and across tussock fields, immensely frustrating once they are no longer covered in snow.
The Trail is sparsely marked, sometimes by large wood tripods, by blazes, or by lats placed by race organizers. After the race has gone past, the Iditarod Trail ebbs away. A human-powered competitor fell behind the dogs just by just a few days – enough for him not to find his way on the sea ice portion of the course and to have to drop after valiantly attempting the crossing twice. Without the race, many parts of the Iditarod Trail would slide into the realm of fond memories and tall tales.
Even the dogs shape shift as sponsors demand a faster race. No longer the large load-pulling beasts of yore, today’s dogs are lithe racing machines bred to run on somewhat groomed trails. A few weeks before the dog teams race each other, trail crews remove obstacles from the most fraught and dangerous parts of the trail – typically, at Rainy Pass where avalanche danger is generally high.
A week before the dog race, humans take to the trail on fat bikes, on skis, and on foot for a 1000-mile race to Nome and a 350-mile to McGrath. The Iditarod Air Force delivers supplies and crews to checkpoints along the trail and evacuate dogs who cannot continue racing. Sixty-some mushers and over 1000 dogs start down the trail for their 8- to 16-day adventure. A trail breaking team of three heavy snow machines tries to make the trail easier for the dogs, but snow storms and wind can destroy their work just minutes behind their passage and hours before the teams get to the same point. This was often the case this year.
By early March, some parts of the Iditarod Trail are deep in snow; others might not have snow at all. Some rivers are frozen solid; others have treacherous overflow and weak ice. This year, the Kuskokwim 300, a qualifier for the Iditarod dog race, had to be rerouted because of bad ice on the Kuskokwim. Neither the Iditarod dog race nor the human-powered races were rerouted and several of the self-propelled humans did fall through.
During those two or three weeks, the Iditarod Trail becomes alive with checkpoints, bush planes, dogs and humans. Villages along the trail briefly explode in cheer. TV crews and filmmakers from around the world fly back and forth. Veterinarians and checkpoint crews, spend a couple of sleepless weeks fawning and taking care of the 1000 dogs racing their longest race. In the middle of a cold, hibernating world, humans and dogs celebrate life to the fullest.