Checkpoint of Iditarod offers glimpse into past

Up close and personal on the iditarod trail

March 15, 2009 

IDITAROD -- As sled dogs rested and mushers scrambled to make camp Friday afternoon out front of this decaying ghost town along the frozen Iditarod River, David and Joan Cooper stepped off a bush plane to enter a world they will likely never encounter again.

It was 4 p.m. and the retired couple from England had just landed on a flight from McGrath in a de Havilland Beaver, a workhorse of the Alaska Bush that went out of production in 1967. The couple paid a small fortune to be flown here in an old, single-engine airplane to watch a sliver of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race pass a long-abandoned town where people came to strike it rich 100 years ago.

"We're very privileged to see this," said David. "It's pretty wild."

Decades ago, in the years soon after John Beaton and W.A. "Bill" Dikeman hit it big on Christmas Day 1908 at Otter Creek, the couple would have arrived in winter by dog sled. There were near 10,000 people living here then, and dog teams and snowshoes were the primary means of winter travel.

Dogs hauled freight in those days, not racers trying to capture a $69,000 payout and a new Dodge Ram truck.

Had the Coopers arrived as tourists then, they likely would have gone straight to one of the several hotels for a room or one of the even more cafes for lunch. Those are all gone now. The Coopers went instead to greet a young dog driver slurping homemade spaghetti out of a plastic bag and munching chocolate chip cookies.

"Are you Melissa Owens?" Joan asked. "It's terrible having to put up with tourists who've come all this way. Does it bother you?"

"No, I'm used to it," said Owens, who was sitting on a bucket.

"You can tell us to go away," Joan said.

"Yeah, I'm probably going to hit the hay soon," said the musher from Nome.

She meant that literally. Mushers here regularly curl up with their dogs to snooze on piles of straw. A lot has changed in 100 years, but in some ways Iditarod has ended up stuck in primordial time. It's almost as wild now as it was back before Beaton and Dikeman made that 1908 strike.

There are no phones, no electricity, no running water, and no people, except for that brief period every other winter when the southern route of the Iditarod race swings through and volunteers pile in to turn the old ghost town into a comfortable rest stop.

"It's our own little village," said Jim Paulus, a volunteer who has built shelter cabins for mushers and checkpoint volunteers over the years.

Anchorage Dr. Robert Bundtzen, an Iditarod veteran, was planning a nap in one of those cabins, but first he had a team to tend. The 58-year-old musher knelt on the river ice and swung a heavy ax. It chopped out big chunks of snow.

Bundtzen poured alcohol into a galvanized bucket nearby, lit it and threw a pot on top. He scooped snow into the pot with a ladle and watched it melt. He's got ice melting down to a science.

"Four bottles for every three gallons," he said.

A plane thundered as it took off from the river, which doubles as the local airstrip. Bundtzen plugged his ears. He paused to look around and take in the scenery. Quarter-sized snowflakes were falling from the sky even though the sun was shining.

The banks of the river are lined with snow-covered alders. The remnants of a few buildings still stick up. A single, snowmobile-wide trail heads west toward Shageluk.

"We're in the middle of nowhere," Bundtzen said. "It's amazing there were actually 5,000 people here at one point."

Now there are zero except for those two weeks when the Iditarod comes to town.

Musher Sven Haltmann likes it that way. The 31-year-old moved from Switzerland to Willow in 2001 for the beauty and open space of The Last Frontier. He now makes a living fighting wildfires in Bush Alaska.

Haltmann puffed on a cigarette as he chatted with his good friend from Willow, Linwood Fiedler. They compared notes on the 90 miles of vast emptiness the Iditarod trail crosses on its run from the abandoned gold camp of Ophir to the abandoned town of Iditarod.

"I realize here that I was born in the wrong place," Haltmann said. "(The trail) is everything that I missed when I was in Switzerland. Luckily I found Alaska. Now I can finally breathe and feel alive."

The wilderness is inspiring, when it's not frightening.

People out here are on their own. The nearest medical help is in McGrath, about 100 air miles away, and it's only a clinic. The nearest real hospital is hundreds of miles away.

On Friday, longtime checkpoint volunteer Tor Holmboe wasn't feeling well. His hand was feeling tingly. Nobody knew what was wrong, but a decision was made to have a volunteer pilot with the Iditarod Air Force fly him to McGrath. There is commercial airline service there. Here, if the weather comes in, air traffic could be shut down for days.

Italian Marco Berni likes it this way. He is walking 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, an informal race. Two years ago it took him 30 days and 21 hours to reach the finish.

"In five years, I've never (carried) a satellite phone on the trail," said Berni, the tip of whose frost-nipped nose is peeling. "When you have minimal difficulty, you call in. If you travel alone without it, the mind is more strong."

Berni, 42, is dragging 50 pounds of camping equipment -- food, stove and tent -- behind him on a sled.

"It's all I need in my life," he said.

Still, company is nice. Every few miles on the way in here, Berni would turn his head and listen for the jingle of dog teams. Somewhere out in the Innoko wilderness, he heard the approach of Denali Park musher Jeff King. Berni managed to get his sled off the trail and out of the way just in time to give the four-time Iditarod winner a high five as he went past.

"It's all part of the adventure," Berni said.

The adventure comes in many strange forms.

John Rickert is a fork-lift driver for Costco in Anchorage volunteering here. On the way to Iditarod, he spent a night at Ophir in a cabin belonging to musher Roger Roberts, the "Loafer from Ophir."

Rickert said he woke one night to the sound of someone messing with the wood-burning stove.

"Roger, did the stove go out?" whispered Rickert.

He heard no reply. He figured maybe the answer had been drowned out by the loud snoring of a man in a nearby bunk. Rickert lifted his head then and saw a man at the stove.

"Roger," Ricket whispered again. "Did the stove go out?"

"Nope," said the man who was snoring.

Rickert put his head down and closed his eyes. He looked up just once more to check things out. The man at the stove was gone.

Rickert asked Roberts the next morning what he was doing at the stove.

"Dude, I didn't do nothing,'' Roberts said. "The stove's been running fine.''

"I saw something, someone," Rickert was still insisting days later in this ghost town. So far, he hasn't seen any ghosts here, though he has gone looking.

He wandered the old buildings and checked out the belongings people left when the town was abandoned. In the bank, you can pick up notes from the 1940s, he said.

Downriver at the brothel, "there's mirrors and flowered wallpaper and a pink boot," Rickert said. "I'm sure one time it was red."

Now it is old and faded and, he said, "just part of the character of the country."

Find Daily News sports reporter Kevin Klott at or 257-4335.

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