Into the Wild

The First Man to Walk the Iditarod Trail

This is a great story by the man, who walked the Iditarod first. Oh, there are a few hardy souls these days that walk parts of the Iditarod  to McGrath, even fewer go on all the way to Nome. This year’s Invitational was especially challenging with temps around -40, Fahrenheit or Celsius, your pick.

Last Frontier Magazine

Denis between Iditarod mushers Joe Runyan and Doug Swingley.

Denis Douglas made it to the Yukon River (Ruby) two days before Iditarod front runners, Joe Runyan and Doug Swingley.

Booty Road – The First to Walk the Iditarod Trail

by Denis Douglas


The sun got hotter as I walked, and sweat rolled down my back soaking my shirt… No. I must be hallucinating again. Actually it’s about 40 below zero and I’m trudging down the Yukon River with a twenty-mile-an-hour wind blowing in my face. Such was my first walk from Knik to Nome.

Let me back up a little here. Two years earlier I was asked by a hunter to fly from Anchorage into the Farewell area just on the far side of Rainy Pass. The man was from Texas and had drawn a permit for a buffalo during the spring hunt. He shot a cow at about twenty yards and soon we had the animal field dressed…

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For the third time in its 45 year history the Iditarod race has been relocated to Fairbanks due to treacherous conditions in the Alaska range. What a pity.

The stretch from Finger Lake to Nicolai entails the most scenic and perilous landscape of the historic sled dog race. Unfortunately, the mushers don’t have much time to admire the beautiful scenery. Depending on weather conditions and time of the day they may not even get a glimpse of the scenery.

As a caretaker at Rainy Pass, one of the checkpoints on the trail, I witnessed one musher arriving just around sunrise on a beautiful winter morning. The first words from underneath his ice-caked fur hood were: “Whoaa, I never knew there were such beautiful mountains around”.

Arriving at Rainy Pass Lodge means the mushers and their dogs have mastered one of the first hurdles: the Steps. Steep, sometimes icy inclines in and out of the Happy River (what’s in a name). A few more nasty side hills and there you are at Puntilla Lake.

Straw, food, water, a dry cabin for the mushers to rest.

After Puntilla Lake comes the long climb to Rainy Pass, the highest point on the trail, and then the hair-raising descent into the Dalzell Gorge. It’s easy to tip your sled, crash into a tree, and in the worst case loose your team. Take a wild ride down that gorge with Jeff King. Past Rohn, a public forest service cabin, overflow, open water and the Farewell Burn are the last obstacles of the Alaska Range before the racers reach the open tundra.

All that drama will be missed this year and replaced by a long slog up the cold Yukon.

Iditarod is certainly a long hard race, but there are others that may be more challenging in terms of endurance, remoteness, and extreme conditions.

There is the Yukon Quest between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. 1000 miles. Long cold stretches between checkpoints. Four out of 21 competitors have scratched so far. Some participants of this race go on to race the Iditarod afterwards. This is prime season for long distance sled dog racing.

And then there is the, a Beringia, a 1,500-km sled dog marathon in Kamchatka, Russia. 19 mushers signed up this year. It will take about 24 days for the winner to cross the finish in Ust-Kamchatsk. In 1991 the event set the Guinness world record as the world’s longest sled dog race, with a route of 1980 kilometers.

There are great sled dog races all over the world. I hope they all will be held in the future, as it keeps a great tradition of alive.

One Man's Paradise

The Last Great Race

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Dogs and ponies

All is quiet…

Iditarod has moved through Rainy Pass. It’s been a very fast race this year. Some mushers have pushed for long runs and little rest, some camped out at the checkpoints, some went stealth camping in the wilderness to get rest and keep the competition guessing. A few more days and the winner will arrive in Nome. The race goes on, until the last musher reaches the finish, which may be weeks…

In 2014 I was a caretaker at Rainy Pass Lodge, a hunting lodge and Iditarod checkpoint in the Alaska Range. As the crow flies it is about 120 miles to Anchorage. There is no road access to this remote place. Food and supplies are brought in by bush plane, when needed, or when the weather allows.

In the off-season it becomes real quiet there. Less than a handful of staff take care of the horses and the property throughout winter. All that changes in March, when three races come through and bring droves of competitors and spectators, press and support staff to the site. First, it’s the high-octane Iron Dogs, then the human-powered runners, skiers and bikers, and finally the furry stars of the Iditarod sled dog race.

I did not know much about the the sport of dog sledding then. It was an amazing experience. First, I was so surprised how small these dogs were. How could they pull a sled, a musher, and supplies for more than 1000 miles across Alaska? Where did they and the mushers sleep?

The dogs are amazing, so are the mushers. A small community of resilient spirits from all walks of life. Tragedy struck this year, when some of them lost their homes in the Sockeye wildfire. Nevertheless, this could not stop them from participating in this year’s race.

Everybody in this field has a story…

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Dogs and ponies

First musher into Rainy Pass checkpoint

142 miles into the race in less than 24 hours, not much sleep.

Rainy Pass is ahead of the teams, the highest point on the Iditarod.

In fast race years the first teams arrive in the dark, before sunrise. This year they get to see the mountains surrounding Puntilla Lake in full splendor. Nic Petite was first this year into Rainy Pass Lodge. Good luck.

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Iditarod 2014 – Puntilla Lake

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Dogs and ponies

It’s on!

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Iditarod is on!

It’s pretty amazing to see how anxious and motivated these sled dogs are. Maybe they won’t jump as high a week into the race, but running is in their blood.

The mushers? Not so sure. Probably happy to be done with training and having left the circus in Anchorage behind. They also know, what to expect. Long days and nights, little sleep, trying to keep their team healthy, resting just enough, and making good decisions along the way.

Will it be a hat trick for Dallas Seavey, three in a row, or can another musher break his winning streak?

 

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Dogs and ponies

Cabernet

Hello. My name is Cabernet. I am a big dog! I mean BIG! I am wearing an XL harness, the only XL harness in my yard and I could drag my musher down the strip, if I weren’t such a nice boy.

I live next to Palenque, a nice lady, who is flirting with me all the time, well, who isn’t? My trail buddy is Spongebob. We get along alright. No reason to fight. We are wheel dogs, meaning we are the engine of the whole shebang. Our musher puts us usually on the second sled. With our other four buddies we pull 2 adults for 20 miles every day, no sweat.

I am not the youngest any more, so my eyesight is slowly fading, but I am not complaining. I do love to run in the morning, I have a good appetite and I am in pretty good shape for my age. True, those young folks like to run a bit too fast for my taste. I am more an endurance kind of guy. I could go at my pace all day.

I guess you figured out by now that I am a mellow guy. Don’t get me wrong, I am getting excited about work. You’ll see me with all 4 legs in the air, when we are stopped for too long. The other day we had this photographer Benjamin visiting us. He took a cool shot of me and my buddy Spongebob. I think, we look great.

Cabernet & Spongebob - ©2014 Ben Gately Williams, gatelywilliams.com

Cabernet & Spongebob – ©2014 Ben Gately Williams, gatelywilliams.com

That’s me in a nutshell.

Did I mention I ran the Iditarod in 2007? Quite a trip. We burned up the sled on the way… That’s a whole different story.

See you on the trail, Cabernet

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Clumber

Clumber

Hello, my name is Clumber. As you can see I am not a Clumber Spaniel, no, I am true Alaskan Husky. I got my name from Jeff (Jeff King that is, who won the Iditarod four times). My mom’s name is Spaniel, so I guess Jeff thought it was a cute idea to name me Clumber. Clumber, Spaniel – get it?

You should see me lead. I love doing that! I could do that all winter. I am pulling like a wheel dog, and I don’t stop until my musher asks me to.

Most of the time I am running lead with my son Classic. He is still learning, but I show him the ropes. I also love to run with good looking girls, like Aphrodite or Hunter. Boys? Not so much, especially this Knox guy. I always give him the evil eye and a good bark and when he waltzes by my house.

What’s up with the food lately? They give me this chicken skin stuff. I can’t stand it! It’s cold outside they say and I should eat more. Hey, I have done this for 10 years, just give me my kibbles and beef and I’ll be fine.

Oh, and if you could fix my house when you get to it, that would be great. There are a couple holes that need to get patched up. Don’t even think about fixing it with those flimsy trail markers. I’ll have those for breakfast.

Let’s go already!

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