One of the most notorious sections of the Iditarod Trail is now a little less perilous.
Iditarod Trail Committee crews spent three weeks in October chain sawing, mulching and packing down a 20-mile section between the checkpoints of Rohn and Farewell Lake.
Even in the best years, the section of trail is one of the most difficult parts of the 1,000-mile sled-dog race that runs from Anchorage to Nome. Mushers heading toward Nikolai, approximately 75 miles west of Rohn, often navigate a trail full of obstacles -- including fallen trees from a series of wildfires, leftover stumps, narrow, wooded sections, a mudslide and a wall of ice known as the Post River Glacier.
However, last year's race saw the area mostly bare of snow -- battering mushers who made it through the section with numerous injuries, including broken bones. Several scratched. Others struggled through, stumbling into the checkpoint of Nikolai with sleds barely hanging together. Two mushers were airlifted out of the area -- Scott Janssen with a concussion and broken ankle; and Jake Berkowitz, who damaged his sled so badly he couldn't continue.
Race Marshal Mark Nordman said the race heard serious concerns from mushers about the area after last year's race. The 2009 Turquoise Lake forest fire in the region caused significant trail damage, burning so hot soil in the area turned into "gunpowder" according to Iditarod CEO Stan Hooley. Each year, the Iditarod sent out local crews to deal with the fallen trees and remove other trail obstacles, but rainy summers washed away the delicate soil, exposing large roots and rocks.
The trail was manageable on years with about a foot and a half of snow cover, Nordman said, but in years like 2014, where there was hardly any snow, traveling by dog team became dangerous. Not wanting to reroute the race, the race began to prepare for clearing the trail in August.
"We had to get in there because it was only getting worse," Nordman said.
The Iditarod chartered a C-130 aircraft to fly machinery used to clear the trail by Cruz Construction, which donated $85,000 to the project in in-kind services. A crew of eight worked to widen the trail and break up the stumps and other obstacles, chewing them up and packing down the trail.
The cost of the project was $260,000, according to Nordman. Much came from in-kind donations from Cruz Construction, Regal Air and Donlin Gold. The Iditarod also secured a $100,000 matching grant from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
In a press conference Tuesday, the Iditarod showed photos of the improved trail. Gone are the narrow, bumpy corridors, replaced by a wide, smooth trail. Nordman said they reopened a section of trail around the notorious Post River Glacier that often foils mushers headed toward Nikolai. Nordman said the trail would still go over the area if the ice buildup is small, but race officials now have the option to avoid it if necessary.
Nordman said the question of whether cleaning up the section of trail would diminish the challenging allure of the race was one asked by trail crews almost every day they worked on the project. His answer? Not at all.
"We're still going over the Alaska Range, still going over the (Happy River) Steps and the Dalzell Gorge," he said. "This isn't going to make teams get to Nome quicker or slower. You'll still have the experience of Iditarod because of this work."
Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser thought the idea of a safer trail through the area was "awesome." Buser fractured his ankle and femur traveling through the section during the 2014 race. Following the race he had his femur fused and a screw put into his ankle, which he said is now "almost back down to regular size."
"The older I get, the more I appreciate a good trail," the 58-year-old Big Lake musher said Tuesday.
'Too good to be true'?
Monica Zappa was a rookie during the 2014 race. The Kasilof musher said she wasn't sure what to expect going in, but that the section of Farewell trail was "horrible." She fell on a section of icy trail during the race and injured her hip. Nine months later, she still has some lingering soreness.
Zappa said the consensus from mushers after the race was that something needed to be done to prevent traveling along that section of trail during a bad snow year. She was glad to hear the Farewell section has been fixed, but still has concerns over other treacherous areas, like the Dalzell Gorge, which precedes it. She hopes that ultimately race officials openly disclose the challenges mushers can expect to face any given year.
"Part of me thinks this shouldn't be easy, we shouldn't still have any person from town be able to come in and rent a team and run the Iditarod," she said. "So there has to be some massive challenges. Maybe its OK to leave (the gorge) in there, it just depends on the year."
Another four-time champion, Jeff King, said he's anxious to see the new trail. He thought it sounded "too good to be true," a mantra he says he takes seriously. Still, he said he's "excited and impressed" the Iditarod found a way to make the trail safer.
"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," he said. "But I do welcome the idea. I hope they can drive a dozer down the Dalzell Gorge next."
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com