UNALAKLEET — Long before the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race team reached the Bering Sea coastline, a team of workhorses arrived.
The five-member Iditarod trailbreaker crew reached Unalakleet at sundown Friday, kicking snow into the air, chain sawing into ice and hammering stakes.
The race depends on the trailbreakers. They travel ahead of the front-runners to mark the trail, improve conditions and warn of hazards. But mushers and trailbreakers rarely encounter one another. Before racers arrive at checkpoints, trailbreakers have typically already moved along.
“We like to be the ghost of the trail,” said team leader Spencer Pape. “Everybody sees the work we do, but doesn’t see us.”
Most years, the trailbreaking team consists of six snowmachiners. This year, it’s a five-member squad for the 13-day trip across Alaska, said Pape, trail logistics coordinator for Iditarod. They left Willow on March 3, three days before the start of the race.
Their primary job duty is to place trail markers — each one consists of a lath with a reflector and a ribbon, and its top painted orange — about every tenth of a mile, always on the left side of the trail.
“If you’re running about 30 miles an hour, you just do a ten-count,” Pape said. “Once we get here to the coast, where it’s typically known to blow real hard and a lot of ground blizzards, we’ll stick ‘em about half the distance of that,” he said.
On ice, trailbreakers cut slots with chain saws and hammer the lath in with an ax. Two of the five snowmachines pull large sleds filled with gear, tools and supplies. Another tows the groomer, a large steel contraption designed to shave down moguls.
“Yesterday, it was blowing 35 miles an hour on the Yukon, so it created big snow drifts,” Pape said. “Dragging the groomer, and the machines, helps break those snow drifts up and pack the snow.”
Pape said the team makes use of existing snowmachine routes between villages for much of the race trail. The team usually stays at checkpoint buildings that aren’t yet staffed by race officials or at safety cabins along the way.
Conditions vary every year. Pape’s job includes making on-the-fly calls about where the trail needs to be routed to make best use of snow conditions and to avoid hazards, like large cracks in ice or open water. Trailbreakers signal trouble by leaving laths crossed like X’s ahead of the trouble spots.
Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman greeted the crew in Unalakleet on Friday evening. He said trailbreakers do “just an amazing amount of work.” It starts months prior to the race, when crews clear downed trees and build snow bridges in tricky spots like the Dalzell Gorge.
During the race, Nordman said, the trailbreakers, who he said are paid only a small stipend, can be called on day or night by way of satellite phones and messaging. One year, when weather conditions prevented planes from flying into the Eagle Island checkpoint, the race leaned on the trailbreakers to haul supplies back up the Yukon River from Kaltag.
“It could be two o’clock in the morning, and if I say ‘I need you to go back,’ they’re there. There’s not a question about it,” Nordman said.
“They’re hardcore,” he said.
Pape, a 43-year-old hunting guide and heavy equipment operator from Palmer, said the crew enjoys a sense of camaraderie. The members of the team, which includes two rookies and three veterans this year, tend to have an easygoing personality and a good sense of humor.
Early on this year, it was deep snow that posed a challenge. But on Friday, Pape predicted that icy conditions along the coast will make for a lot of chain sawing and hammering in the days to come.
“From here on to Nome, I foresee a lot of work,” he said.
Pape, in his 13th year as crew member, pulled into Unalakleet ready for food and rest.
“It is very gratifying being a part of something as big as Iditarod and as big as the state of Alaska,” he said. “It is a love affair.”