A few moose hang out in the valley north of the lake, but they typically flee if anything approaches. The first 10 miles of trail across the broad valley to the upper Happy River has hard snow, but no difficulties. There is good trail covered with firm snow from there to the entrance of Pass Creek, where the trail turns right and starts toward the 3,160-foot top of Rainy Pass itself. Sometimes there is open water to be dealt with on the way to the pass, but not this year.

After five miles, the trial tops out and starts down Pass Fork of the Dalzell Creek drainage. The relatively fresh avalanche rubble across the trail in places here might give rookie mushers pause, but the worst of the danger appears to have already come down. Once into the creek bed itself, avalanche danger subsides and there is good trail again without any open water problems. This continues to the Dalzell.

As always, the Dalzell has some open water, but there are good ice bridges as the trail winds back and forth across the creek. Iditarod volunteer Terry Boyle has built some excellent bridges with help from Bill Merchant and Rob Kehrer of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. The structures of cut alder covered with snow are solid and wide. A competent dog driver should have no problem. Where there were potentially troublesome sidehills above open water along Dalzell Creek, the trio has chopped the trail surface level and used what was removed to berm the downhill side. As with the trail from Finger to Puntilla, it's almost too good. This is the Iditarod Trail?

When the trail pops out on the Tatina River about five miles from Rohn, there is often slick, windblown ice sometimes pockmarked with holes. This year, there is neither. There is a thin-coating of snow packed to almost pancake-flat ice.

All in all, a typically tough trail is looking pretty good. What a year to be an Iditarod rookie --or even a veteran. And to think, this is the first race five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson will miss since 1997.

Craig Medred just returned from a week on the trail, covering the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Contact him at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com