Mushers face big challenges on way to McGrath

John Schandelmeier
All that is left at the Skwentna checkpoint is lines of straw bedding on the Skwentna River for the sled dogs March 8, 2010, as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race moves past the checkpoint. The next checkpoint in the 1,000-mile race is Finger Lake, which is 45 miles away.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Posters on the wall of the McGrath Captain Snow Community Center made by McGrath children welcome mushers.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News

The 350 miles to McGrath can be some of the most treacherous the Iditarod Trail dishes out all the way to Nome.

The Happy River Steps just out of Finger Lake, the Dalzell Gorge on the backside of Rainy Pass and the Buffalo Tunnels of the Farewell Burn all give rise to trepidation.

Given reports of low snow near the Alaska Range, portions of the early track were expected to be dicey this year. But maybe that's overstated.

Yukon Quest trailbreaker Bruno Baureis drove his Ski-Doo from the Willow Lake starting chute to McGrath last week and reported relatively good going.

The Happy River Steps will indeed make the mushers smile. The Steps usually get scraped out by the studded paddle-tracks of Iron Dog snowmachine racers who go through a couple of weeks ahead of the Iditarod. The trough they create can be a couple of feet deep and spell disaster for unwary mushers.

But this year, some 6-8 inches of new snow on a packed, frozen base should be hard enough to hold up under the brakes of the Iditarod frontrunners.

The Dalzell, a twisting slope that zigs down a narrow creek bed on the backside of Rainy Pass, can be a nightmare of shelf ice and alder stubs. Corners can approach 90-degree turns. Sleds skid from ice bridges, and mushers are pulled into broken snags by their teams.

Still, Bruno tells me, "There is nothing I would put a hazard marker on."

Nonetheless, there will be spots requiring caution and there's one narrow ice bridge in a corner near the exit of the Dalzell. But it appears much of the Dalzell may be just a fast sloping run with a few shallow water crossings.

Rohn marks the entrance to the Buffalo Tunnels. Snow is rare here, somehow always missing this section of the Alaska Range. That's great for the buffalo that roam nearby along the South Fork Kuskokwim River, but not so good for dogs and sleds.

In many places, the Iditarod Trail is only about the width of a sled. The snow is usually shallow with patches of ice, frozen tussocks and stumps making it notorious for busting sleds.

The first few miles out of Rohn are nothing more than ice and gravel. The so-called "glacier" near Post River outside of Rohn is among the more notorious stretches, with ice growing on the surface of several muskeg benches. Sometimes, ice is so smooth and steep it can stop snowmobiles without studs.

Even with a studded track and a light sled, Baureis needed two passes on his Ski-Doo to make the climb.

Once on top, the tree-lined Buffalo Tunnels have fair snow cover and the normally iron-hard buffalo piles are mostly snow covered. The glare ice of Farewell Lake is under several inches of snowpack.

But snow is missing from much of the 35 miles from Farewell Lake to the Kuskokwim River town of Nikolai on the far side of the Farewell Burn.

There are 17 trail miles of mossy hummocks on either side of Bear Creek where a federal Bureau of Land Management cabin is located. It will be slow going, though dogs and sleds get through this type of terrain much easier than snowmobiles.

Iditarod teams will breathe a sigh of relief on reaching Nikolai, while there is little snow on the overland portions of the trail leaving town. Nevertheless, the trail is smooth and relatively straight until it dropping onto the Kuskokwim River enroute to McGrath.

All and all, I would expect faster-than-usual times into McGrath.

Remember, though, this is Alaska and the Alaska Range can create its own weather quickly. A big dump of snow would slow things considerably. It has been snowing lightly at Rainy Pass and Farewell Lake for at least the last 48 hours, light snowfall forecast to continue.

John Schandelmeier of Paxson is a lifelong Alaskan and Bristol Bay commercial fisherman. A musher, he was trail coordinator for the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and has written on the outdoors for several newspapers and magazines.