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An invite to the Iditarod Invitational

Craig Medred

While the world speeds ahead into the digital information age, two Alaskas have come to exist in the far north. One is the Alaska of long, cold, dark, depressing winters and short, wonderful, midnight-sunned-blessed summers. This is the Alaska known to most of its residents, who for eight or nine months of the year struggle between their homes and offices in the modern world, with a stop at Starbucks to properly caffeinate in the morning and a pause at Wal-Mart or Safeway to resupply the kitchen with groceries in the evening.

The other Alaska is the land of year-round myth and mystery, the land of the great escape, the Great Land, the Last Frontier. This is the Alaska that is what the rest of the globe was -- until man conquered so much.

Fifty people on foot, on bicycles or on skis set off to challenge this Alaska Sunday. The bulk of them are from Europe or the Lower 48. A handful of them harbor thoughts of winning a competition called the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which boasts neither trophies nor prize money: Most of them will be competing solely with themselves.

Once, humankind considered the wilderness home. We were part of it. Now it is considered a challenge to our very survival.

Race away from evolution

The Iditarod Invitational runs 350 to 900 miles along the Iditarod Trail from the abandoned port of Knik to McGrath and then Nome. Most people opt for the 350-mile version of the trip. A few, however, do keep going. Less than four dozen have made it all the way to Nome at the north end of the trail in the past decade. More people annually complete the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The Iditarod, "The Last Great Race,'' is considered one of the world's toughest sporting competitions. It is extremely difficult because of a musher's dependence on the dogs.

The Invitational is extremely difficult for another reason -- simple, human frailty. A journey of even 350 miles along the Iditarod is an easy adventure to abandon. There are so many convenient excuses to quit. Some are ordinary: blisters, twisted ankles, aching joints, a little frostbite. Others are extraordinary: A couple years ago, competitors had to wade through waist-deep snow for tens of miles through the Alaska Range. The bikers in the race carried their bikes for much of that way. Sometimes, though, they couldn't carry them.

They had to pitch them onto the snow ahead, drag themselves to them, and then pitch them forward again.

A few years before the great snow slog, the problem was different. Temperatures plunged to a life-threatening 50 degrees below zero on the north side of the range. Of those temperatures, turn-of-the-century Alaskan Hudson Stuck, the author of "Ten Thousands Miles with a Dog Sled," observed, "the old-timers in Alaska have a saying that 'traveling at 50 degrees below is all right as long as it's all right.'''

(Stuck's book is an Alaska classic and a must-read for those in Alaska or intrigued by the Alaska mystique. And you can now find it free online.)

At 50 degrees below, things can go badly wrong and quickly. At 50 degrees below, it can quickly become difficult to survive.

Suffice to say, there are sensible reasons to avoid travel on the Iditarod Trail in February and March. But most people avoid this journey simply because it is in large part everything modern day America is not. Modern day America is easy and comfortable. The Iditarod is about difficulty -- and no matter how one travels -- becomes at times a little uncomfortable.

"Tomorrow I head out on the Iditarod Trail,'' Invitational organizer Bill Merchant posted on the race website Wednesday. "Whether on skis, foot, bike or breaking trail with a machine it is the trail and culture that comes alive this time of year that has pulled me back out there for the past 13 years. In all that time the trail has never been the same twice."

An Invitational to return to the tribe

The "culture'' to which Merchant refers is little more than people pulling together to survive because it sometimes becomes necessary and because there is, and always has been, a certain comfort in the tribe. The trail brings out the best in people.

Nobody, be it in the Invitational or the Iditarod or the Iron Dog, passes someone in trouble on the trail. There is a code, and everyone lives by the code: You help your fellow travelers, because there is no telling when you might need them to help you.

I know Merchant well. I hunted him down by snowmachine once, and helped him get back on the Iditarod Trail when he got lost out in the Farewell Burn north of the range. He was a skijorer then bound for McGrath. I loaned him some shoes years later at Finger Lake on the south side of the range when he was a cyclist with a broken bike. He decided that year he would just hike on across the mountains to McGrath.

Merchant was not a young man even then, but he wasn't yet the stubborn old cuss he is now.

Now he is the essence of the kind of people you find hanging on in remote corners of Alaska. When he isn't on the trial, he lives in a tiny cabin tucked back in the mountains above Sutton with wife, Kathi, or tours the states by mountain bike. We've spent some time on the trail together. He led some tricky trail-breaking on snowmachines through the Alaska Range last year when we both came back to civilization from the outpost of Rohn. Hopefully we'll do it again.

We were traveling together in 2010 because it is easier to travel that way. Along the trail, that elemental idea of man (or woman) against the wilderness confronts the societal reality of what are humans:  animals of pack, social animals. Odd is the lone wolf. Even in the wilderness, people tend to travel together unless in some sort of real race for fortune or fame, on the run or crazy.

All of the latter have been glorified, of course. They are the backbone of the Alaska mystique. "Iron Man" Johnson won legitimate fame, and a great nickname, with his victories in the All Alaska Sweepstakes dog races on the Seward Peninsula around the start of the century. Author Jack London brought America Jack Westondale chased by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and aided by the Malamute Kid in the famous short story "To the Man on the Trail.'' And Sean Penn just recently glorified poor, demented Chris McCandless, who died in the hills west of Healy, in the movie "Into the Wild.''

Few if any of these characters exist in modern Alaska with its suburban comforts and smart phones, and yet there are parts and parcel of them there aplenty.

They are bound to that mystique that evokes some primordial human yearning for the wild places of our ancestors. It is easy to understand why the Invitational is such an attraction for the Europeans. (The field for this event is limited to 50, and at one point this year Merchants had a list of 20 people waiting to get in.) Europe is a land overrun with people and the remnants of their history.

In most of Europe, it is hard to find a place visibly untouched by the hands of man at some point in time. In Alaska, once removed from the major cities, it is almost the opposite. Even where men and women have come to the Alaska wilderness, they have left little mark.

Along the E35 freeway in Italy, as it climbs north from Rome into the Alps, there appears to be a castle of ever-lasting stone on almost every high spot of ground. Along the Iditarod Trail as it climbs north from Wasilla into the Alaska Range, there are some houses, some shacks, a couple lodges, and by Skwentna, almost nothing.  

Follow the trail and you'll find Alaska

One hundred years ago, there was more. There were roadhouses every 25 or 30 miles along the Iditarod to accommodate those headed north on foot or by dogsled to the goldfields of Iditarod and Flat, or Golovin and Nome.

The roadhouses have all decayed to dust or burned. Now, there are only six key outposts of human civilization in the 350 miles or so between the range and Wasilla's exurban population swell.

The Yentna Station roadhouse is just upstream from where the Mat-Su Valley suburban sprawl halts its creep into the Bush. Next is Swkentna, a slowly fading community on a tributary of the Yentna River 80 miles north of Knik; then the remote lodges at Finger Lake and Rainy Pass further on. A lone log cabin staffed seasonably by the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in the heart of the Alaska Range constitutes a place called Rohn; further on the struggling Native village of Nikolai, and then finally McGrath, a fading Kuskokwim River community that once, a hundred years ago, was a hub for miners.

The Iron Dog snowmachine race has already roared through here. The famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is yet to come. But it is now into this wild, with its few residents that the Invitational heads.

Come along this week as Alaska Dispatch visits some of them, characters all, and the characters who journey north along the Iditarod Trail looking for something of themselves.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com