The 2013 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race kicks off March 3, a 1,000-mile journey through the Alaska hinterland that takes some five dozen mushers through far-flung villages, and even a ghost town (check out the Iditarod Trail map). The race begins in Willow, just up the Parks Highway from Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla. The famed Iditarod Trail quickly travels into the wilderness, and mushers soon passing through one remote outpost to another.
There's Skwentna, with a smattering of homes, a U.S. Post Office and a few businesses around a good airstrip -- the closest thing to a true Alaska village in the Susitna Basin north of Anchorage. Up the trail is the Perrins Rainy Pass Lodge, founded before WWII. It might well be one of the most welcomed sights on the Iditarod Trail, at least for a musher. The lodge's setting at the entrance the Happy River Valley below Rainy Pass in the mouth of the Alaska Range, is nothing short of spectacular, and the lodge itself is very comfortable.
The first traditional Alaska village along the Iditarod Trail, Nikolai shines like an oasis for mushers and dog teams tired from the climb into the Alaska Range to the south, pummeled by the drop down to the north, and sometimes just beaten by 75 miles across the rough and desolate Farewell Burn. Predominately Athabascan, the village traces its roots back thousands of years.
Mushers pass through McGrath, Takotna and Ophir before coming upon the ghost town of Iditaord. One hundred years ago, this was the booming hub for gold miners in the Innoko River country. Most of the gold was gone by the 1930s. Iditarod returns to life only briefly now to welcome mushers on its namesake trail.
Then it's on to Shageluk, with a population of about 100. The Ingalik Indian community, one of the first permanent villages in the Innoko River country, has welcomed Iditarod Trail travelers since a winter route was first pioneered west toward the Yukon River. Today, most of Shageluk's residents are still dependent on a subsistence lifestyle.
More villages await up the trail, and then the Bering Sea coastline opens up. As the first checkpoint in Norton Sound and along the Bering Sea, the bustling village of Unalakleet hosts the “Gold Coast Award,” which includes a prize of $2,500 in gold for the first Iditarod musher to arrive.
Mushers travel along the coastline toward Nome, passing through several more villages, including Golovin, where they leave land briefly for a short run across Golovin Bay, placing them about 70 miles from the finish line. In the 1890s, a trading post at Golovin attracted prospectors on the hunt for gold across the Seward Peninsula.
And then there is Nome, the town that is experiencing a bit of a gold-rush resurgence -- have you watched "Bering Sea Gold" on Discovery Channel?