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For Iron Doggers, Iditarod Trail offers world-class road trip across Alaska

Craig Medred
Iron Dog snowmachine pro racers travel about 2,000 miles from the race's start in Big Lake to Nome and then east Fairbanks. Trail class riders stop in Nome. Alaska National Guard photo by U.S. Army Pfc. Karina Paraoan

One of the world's truly great road trips left Big Lake, Alaska today when 29 snowmachiners headed up the Iditarod Trail to pave the way for Sunday's start of the Iron Dog -- the world's longest, toughest snowmobile race.

Forget about the latter for a moment. The pro-class racers in the Iron Dog -- including Todd Palin, husband of national political celebrity and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- will get more than enough attention in the days ahead as 39 teams vie for $210,000 in price money along a 2,000-mile, sled-bashing, body-pounding, potentially bone-breaking dash from the starting line on a frozen lake 60 miles north of Anchorage. Driving west, they’ll reach the remote historic, gold-mining town of Nome near the tip of a peninsula in the Bering Sea by mid-week.  After a short rest, they’ll turn east towards Fairbanks, the self-proclaimed golden-heart city near the center of the 49th state, where they’ll finish on Saturday.

Consider, instead, what lies ahead for these 29 forerunners on the trail: 

• The windswept and snow-drifted muskegs of the Alaska Range foothills. 

• The wild-and-serpentine trail through the beaver ponds and big-spruce forest on the climb up the rugged valley of the inappropriately named Happy River toward Rainy Pass. 

• The towering peaks of the Alaska Range. 

• The bison-filled regrowth of forest on the Farewell Burn, the site of what once was the largest wildfire in North America. 

• The smooth, frozen (hopefully) surface of the Kuskokwim River leading into the Interior.

• The land gone lonesome in what was once the gold-rich "Inland Empire'' of the Alaska territory.

• The mighty Yukon River, so big and so full of history, that flows west through the Interior toward the Bering Sea coast.

• And the coast itself, a place beautiful in its desolation on a sun-blessed day and downright intimidating in a storm.

Cost to race: $20,000

Retired Alaska State Trooper John Glass last rode the trail in 2011. He hopes to be on it again next year to celebrate his 70th year. He would have been back this year had he not opted to put a new motor in his single-engine airplane. That more than ate up most of the $20,000 cost he estimates it costs to ride the Dog.

At such a high cost, is it really worth it? "Absolutely,'' Glass said. Nome, he said, never looks so good as when approached by land, and the trail still fosters a camaraderie that can't help but make you feel better about humankind. 

"One of my fondest memories is (when) we pulled into Galena (on the Yukon River) to get gas,'' he said of himself and a traveling companion. It was around 1 a.m. The riders decided it would be great to take a break for the night, but all the beds in the local lodge were full.  

Glass was talking to the checker about what to do when "some woman comes driving up. And she says, 'C'mon over to our house.’ '' 

The riders were led to her house, offered moose stew, told to toss their gear in her dryer beside the front door and offered beds for the night. 

"She took us in; she fed us at 1 o'clock in the morning,'' she said she slept in, but to help ourselves to oatmeal for breakfast in the morning. Glass offered her money. She wouldn't take it.

"Where else are you going to find that?'' he asked. "That woman had no idea who we were, but she took us in. It was truly an Alaskan adventure.'' 

Happy River or Unhappy River?

Some emphasis should, however, be put on the word "adventure.'' The Iditarod does not offer an easy journey no matter whether you travel it by snowmachine, dog sled, foot or, increasingly, fat-tired bike. Improvements in snowmobile technology over the past decade have made the machines that travel the trail today reliable enough that you don't have to be a mechanic to get one to Nome, as was the case when the Iron Dog began in 1984 and for years after. 

But you still better be able to ride one of the machines, which require a skill set similar to what motocross bikers possess. Glass started riding snowmachines three years after the first Iron Dog. It would be years before he entered his first race, and he admits he still wasn't quite prepared. On his first trek up the trail, he rolled his machine, but escaped injury, on the climb up from the so-called Happy River onto the nasty side-hill trail that takes a rider north to Puntilla Lake.

"They call it the Happy River,'' he said. "I call it the Unhappy River. 

Fair enough, according to John Woodbury, a lifelong Alaskan and publisher of Alaska Coast Magazine. Woodbury took to the trail for last year's Dog. It turned into the best road trip of his life.

"Absolutely,'' he said. "If you ever want to go across Alaska, this is the one way to do it.'' 

'1,000 miles of trail, 1,000 ways to die' 

The Iron Dog sets up checkpoints to provide fuel for racers and trail riders, and it works with the few businesses and communities along the trail to ensure Iron Dog competitors have someplace warm to sleep -- a good idea in a land where temperatures regularly drop to 50 degrees below zero. 

Anywhere along the sparsely-populated trail, one is more likely to see wildlife than human life, and during winter there isn’t much of the former, either.  "It has all the highs and lows of the best road trip,'' Woodbury said, "with a few curve balls.'' 

Little things like blizzards, open water that can swallow a snowmachine and driver, frostbite, avalanches, and, of course, accidents. No one has ever died in the Iron Dog, but there have been close calls.  

"There's 1,000 miles of trail and 1,000 ways to die,'' Woodbury said. The risks, of course, go down in proportion to skill and up in proportion to speed. The former makes things safer for the pro-class racers who depart from Big Lake Sunday; the latter makes it more dangerous.  

Most everyone familiar with the Iron Dog thinks there will someday be a fatality; all agree it will likely be a pro-class racer. One of them, two-time champ Tyler Huntington, suffered serious injures in a training crash at an estimated 80mph earlier this month and had to be air evacuated from the Bering Sea coast to Anchorage for medical treatment. He is only now starting down a long road back to recovery.

Trail-class riders have the safety advantage of not racing, but their trip is still not for the faint of heart. 

"It's crazy,'' Woodbury said. "That's one of the reasons I'm not doing it this year. I was comfortable in the saddle. (But) it's like 200 miles per day. It's a lot like an exercise program. You get up and do it every day. It definitely pushed my abilities.'' 

He says that as a rider who started riding at age 4 in 1968.

It's a world-class road trip all right -- possibly THE world-class road trip -- but don't jump in unprepared. There's a little more required here than just knowing how to turn the key to start the engine.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com