Four new shelter cabins await mushers on Iditarod Trail

Iditarod mushers regularly endure bone-chilling temperatures, piercing winds and blowing snow during their 1,000-mile trip to Nome.

Both five-time champion Rick Swenson and Libby Riddles, the first woman to win, busted through fierce ground blizzards near the end of the race to make history. Dozens of others have struggled to survive raging storms in temperatures far below zero.

This year, mushers will have four new spots to seek shelter from the storms.

A partnership between the state and the federal Bureau of Land Management has erected four new shelter cabins along the Iditarod Trail in these locations:

• The foothills along the Norton Sound coast between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik, an area regularly battered by fierce winds whipping across the sea ice.

• Moose Creek, near the end of the 90-mile remote slog between the ghost towns of Ophir and Iditarod.

• Tolstoi, in the same stretch of trail but closer to Ophir; and

• North Fork Innoko River on the trail's northern route that is followed in even-numbered years. The cabin is near the abandoned town of Cripple, not far from where top contender John Baker got lost for several hours last year.

The shelters are 16-by-16-foot cabins of spruce logs with bunk space for six and a wood stove.

The project cost $800,000, money appropriated through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act intended to stimulate the lagging economy across the United States. Much of the cost involved transporting materials and crews to the site by helicopter after reaching staging area by fixed-wing aircraft.

"That's the cost of putting these things where they do the most good," said Doug Ballou, a resource manager at BLM. "In the Lower 48, we'd be talking about rest areas on the interstate."

"One of the long-term goals of the Iditarod Trail is to provide safe travel along the trail -- not just for the race but for the villagers who use it as part of a wider network. It's the road system for rural Alaska, and it can be life-saving."

Working with the Youth Restoration Corps, the project also provided jobs for Alaska Job Corps carpenter trainees. The Youth Restoration Corps based in Kenai hired locals from towns and villages adjacent to the cabin sites -- including Nome, Unalakleet, McGrath, Shaguluk and Ruby -- as carpenter trainees.

"The idea," Ballou said, "was to put money in local pockets of people who lived nearby."

An average of nine workers were on each crew. The cabins went up between June and the end of August.

Three Alaska Job Corps students were recognized by the BLM for their work at the remote field camps along the Iditarod Trail:

• James Evangelestomp, the lead student carpenter for two shelter cabins.

• Mike Prince, who worked at all four cabin sites and served as lead student carpenter at two of them.

• Beckie Behm, who was camp cook at all four Iditarod shelter cabin sites.

"Every one of the students enjoyed it," said Cleve Robinson, construction industry supervisor at the Alaska Job Corps center in Palmer. "They got to feel a sense of ownership."

Most Iditarod shelter cabins between Knik and Nome are accessible only in winter. Reservations aren't required, though users are expected to share the cabin with others if necessary.

One of the more renown cabins is the historic Rohn cabin -- sometimes called the Rohn Roadhouse -- built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps to shelter stranded pilots on the north side of Rainy Pass is near the Tatina River. In the early decades of the Iditarod, Rohn was the favored spot for mushers taking their 24-hour layovers after crossing the Alaska Range.

These days, most mushers wait until farther down the trail before taking their long break.

One day, perhaps, some of the new cabins will have an equally storied history.

"We fully expect them to be on the ground for 100 years," Ballou said.

Good thing. The cabin between Iditarod and Ophir in the Innoko River country is near the place where three Iditarod dog teams were stranded in a deadly blizzard that killed two dogs, nearly claimed the life of another, and forced all three teams out of the race during the 2009 race.

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.

2011 Iditarod coverage