The Iditarod sled race is a grueling and challenging long-distance dog sled race that takes place in Alaska, covering over 1,000 miles of treacherous terrain from Anchorage to Nome. The race is named after the Iditarod Trail, a historic dog
Iditarod Sled Race Pt.2:
Traveling the Historic Iditarod Trail
The famous Iditarod trail, which is used by the Iditarod dog sled race, runs from Anchorage to Nome, covering approximately 1,000 miles. This trail is also used for the Iron Dog Snowmachine race. I have traveled the first 300 miles of this trail rather extensively by snowmachine (snowmobile to you lower 48’ers). When I share this tidbit of information with people, they often are rather surprised, and ask something like: “You mean they actually let you drive on the race track?”
Written By: Matt Snader
Well, yes, if you call the trail a race track, which it technically is. The trail is an actual, historically recognized trail, open to the public. You can travel it anytime you want, including during the Iditarod and Iron Dog races, although you might get yelled at if you are in the way (or run over).
The trail is only useful in the winter, when all the swamps, rivers, and lakes are frozen over. Every year it seems there are accounts of snowmobiles crashing into the dog sleds, or intoxicated folks getting in the way somewhere, and causing problems. Not only does the race course cover about 1,000 miles, it also runs through many communities in the Alaskan interior. The trail is used by people to go from town to town, or access hunting spots, so there is certainly other traffic on the trail.
Our original idea to run the trail went back to late 2019, when we were contemplating the long, boring winter ahead. My wife, Marlene, suggested we run the trail into McGrath, Alaska. McGrath is a large (by Alaskan interior standards) town of 300 people. The Sturm family, who we got to know real well when he found our buried treasure in Book 10, lives there. No roads lead to McGrath, the only way there is by snowmachine or airplane. Naturally, I was quite agreeable with Marlene’s idea, and so we ended up purchasing several snowmachines, and also renting one from Alan Reinford.
People in Pennsylvania tend to think because the Iditarod trail is a “trail,” it is also nicely groomed, like some sort of ski slope. Up here in Alaska, “trail grooming” is a fancy way of saying someone else drove a sled through there and made some tracks. These tracks then can be swiftly covered over by blowing snow. It can be treacherous, as it goes over rivers and lakes, which can have thin ice. Even at 40 below zero, falling through thin ice can still happen. Overflow is common, which is water on top of ice. This can be caused by several things: Water levels rising after the ice is already frozen and built up, or as is often the case, the ice being pushed down by the weight of snow. Overflow can be half an inch thick, or several feet.
There are also many stories up here of cheechakos (someone who has just arrived in Alaska) taking snowmachines out into the wilderness, and then having all sorts of problems, and then of course freezing to death (or being eaten by bears). It is very easy to underestimate the rough terrain and extreme temperatures that await. Most folks assume that if they carry a big gun, everything else will go easy up here. While a big gun is a wonderful idea, there are many other skills needed for wandering through the wilderness.
I hoped to avoid any of the scenarios where we needed rescued, or ended up freezing to death. Unfortunately, I had only a combined total of probably four hours of snowwwmaching experience in my entire life, and most of that was in Pennsylvania. My brother-in-law, Mike Kurtz, was very experienced on a snowmobile, having grown up in Colorado. He decided to come along for the trip. And so it was we had four people lined up for our first expedition: Myself, Marlene (my wife), Shane (my son), and Mike.
On our first attempt in to McGrath was in early February, right before the Iron Dog race came through. We launched our sleds at Deshka Landing, with hopes to make it to Rainy Pass by nightfall, which was about 140 miles in the trail, and roughly halfway to McGrath. We were pulling toboggans behind two of the sleds, with extra fuel and supplies. While we had tested all the equipment, the actual trail conditions were much worse than we anticipated. The toboggans kept breaking, unhooking, and doing all sorts of problematic things. Finally, we made it to Skwentna Roadhouse, which is only 60 miles in the trail. It was getting dark, and temperatures were falling fast. We decided to just stay there for the night, and we let Rainy Pass Lodge know that we weren’t going to make it that evening. That evening, the roadhouse owner, Cindi, talked with us about the Iditarod trail. It sounded like it would be difficult to make it to Rainy Pass, as we had to bypass a river and go over something called “the steps,” which would be very challenging. This river usually had an ice bridge over it, but the Iditarod trail team had not yet installed it. We decided to just get as far in as we could the next day.
As we were leaving the next morning, Cindi mentioned that we should “call when we reached Rainy Pass.” I assured her I would let her know when we arrived. It was a brisk -18 when we left Skwentna. Then it was off! Following the trail was a challenge, as I had the route programmed into my GPS, but it seemed to vary a bit by whoever had decided to “break it in” that winter. We picked up fuel at Shell Lake. The folks at Shell Lake Lodge seemed intrigued by our arrival, and asked a lot of questions about where we came from and where we were going. With full tanks, we headed west for a few miles, only to get seriously stuck in five feet of powder. After spending what seemed like all afternoon digging out sleds, we continued on. We came to fork in the trail, and naturally, took the wrong way. After passing a little, I mean very little, trapper cabin, we came to a dead end. In the process of turning around, Marlene sank her sled so badly that we couldn’t dig it out. We ended up staying the night in the little trapper cabin, which I think was about eight foot by ten foot. It did have a loft, where Marlene and Shane stayed. That was a very restless night, but the cabin did have a woodstove and supply of firewood. It was very poorly insulated, with cracks all over the walls, from the rough cut wood shrinking. There was a bottle of Gatorade sitting between me and the stove, and it froze solid during the night!
Early the following morning, a guy showed up on a snowmachine. He asked what we were doing there, and we explained that we had made a wrong turn, and stayed for the night. This fellow then explained that search and rescue had been out looking for us, including a search helicopter! Alaska State Troopers were also out trying to find us because they thought we needed rescued! Now that was sobering!
I had not texted Cindi, because we had never reached Rainy Pass. Because we had not texted her, and we weren’t at Rainy Pass, or anywhere in between, everyone assumed we had gotten in trouble. We had enough drama, and just decided to go home. On our way back past Shell Lake I called in to Search and Rescue headquarters, to confirm that we were all ok. They were polite, but firmly insisted we don’t trigger any more false alarms, citing the expense of using a helicopter and so forth. It was a humbling experience.
On our drive back to Clam Gulch (5 hours or so) we talked about our failures to reach McGrath. It was obvious we needed to try this again, the sooner the better! We settled on retrying in a few weeks, right before the start of the Iditarod dog sled race. The trail would have had a little more traffic, and those ice bridges would be in place.
That trip went a little bit better, that time around we didn’t take any toboggans, but instead packed lighter. Everything went smoothly, except the public use cabin we had planned to use, was full of people! We continued on, and ended up sleeping in the city office of Nikolai, a small native town. Thank you, Nikolai, for letting us sleep there! Outside it was in the negative teens, not super cold, but cold enough to appreciate a warm building! The next day we arrived in McGrath without incident, only to find out that COVID had descended on the world and everyone had lost their minds.
We did one more trip on the Iditarod trail, in 2021. Iditarod race officials changed the race route, for that year only, to make a loop. It went past McGrath about 200 miles, then doubled back on the exact same course. Our plan was to run the entire loop, which was about 800 something miles, instead of the normal 1,000. The first day on that trip, things went awry and we got lost. You might wonder, how did we get lost with a GPS? As one might expect, we had some unexpected issues at the start of the trip, when the one toboggan (we should have learned from the year before) broke down, only a mile down the trail. We had to backtrack to town, buy another toboggan, assemble it, and then finally get on our way. It was around 10 PM when we finally arrived at Skwentna, but we decided to push on to Rainy Pass, where our reservations were already made.
About fifty miles after Skwentna, the Iditarod trail didn’t match the our route anymore, leaving us confused. Remember, our GPS didn’t have trails programmed in it, like roads on a normal GPS. Instead, there were just dots here and there showing checkpoints and such. Following dots around is much harder than following a defined track. Finally we came to a fork, and decided to take that. By now it was after midnight, and Mike and Gina had only flown in, early that morning. To them it felt like 4 AM, not to mention they had traveled all day to get to Alaska, from Pennsylvania. Finally, we arrived on an airstrip.
We assumed we had arrived at the Rainy Pass airstrip, except for the fact the dot that said “Rainy Pass” was ten or so miles the other way. However, that wasn’t real clear either, because there was no indication if the dot was actually Rainy Pass Lodge, or the actual Rainy Pass through the mountains. Up ahead we noticed some rough looking cabins that were certainly not the Rainy Pass lodge. I thought I had planned our route, but we were so out of whack now that my maps weren’t much good. Despite the late hour, we managed to find someone to talk to. We had actually stumbled upon a mining camp. They seemed somewhat annoyed we showed up in the middle of the night asking questions, but agreed to let us sleep in one of the small cabins. In AdventuresIditarod Sled Race the morning, our host was much more agreeable, and apologized for being irritated the evening before. Apparently we had woken him up.
That day the going was slow. I had an accident with my sled, and hit a tree with it. Marlene flipped her sled on some overflow, and that took some time to straighten out. We ended up staying at the Bear Creek public use cabin for the night, as there was nobody there this year. That spring was warmer than normal, and there was a lot of overflow. Due to this, we took a back way into McGrath, thanks to the advice from some Native folks we met on the trail. Then we watched the dog sleds come into McGrath the next day. We decided against going through the whole loop, as the trail was much narrower than we had expected, and we didn’t want to be encountering dog sleds head on. In McGrath, I got a chance to talk to Dallas Seavey, who has won multiple Iditarod races.
After a few days, when all the dog sleds got through, we headed back the way we came. It was thirty below zero when we left McGrath, and I was a little nervous about running in such extreme cold. Our helmet visors kept freezing up, and it was hard to see. This was also the first time I ever felt chilly in my full snowmachine gear. Surprisingly, that day everything went as planned, and we stayed for the night at Rainy Pass Lodge. The next day we arrived back in Willow, loaded up our sleds, and went home.
There is a lot more that happened, but I don’t have space to share all of it. For the whole story, and a lot more pictures, be sure to check out my book, 1,000 Miles on the Iditarod Trail.