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.

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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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Into the Wild

Iron Dog 2014

One year ago I spent a mostly silent winter at Rainy Pass Lodge, Alaska, a remote hunting lodge in the Alaska Range. The lodge is an official checkpoint on the Iditarod trail. Every year three races come through Rainy Pass: Iron Dog, the longest, toughest snowmobile race; Iditarod, the last great race on Earth, and “Iditabike” the craziest of them all?

Anyway, after many months of silence and solitude, a few snowmobile riders would show up on the weekends, getting gas, having a snack and a cool drink, warming up at our fireplace. They trained for the Irondog, a snowmobile race from Anchorage to Nome and back to Fairbanks.

The rattled across Puntilla Lake at neck-breaking speeds only to disappear in the willow thickets, returning a few hours later, telling stories about moose, open rivers, and whiteouts. We, the caretakers never ventured that far from the lodge. These guys covered 24o miles a day and more, on their training sleds.

Then, one weekend, at night the refueling station was setup on the ice, volunteers had shown up, trail crews had come by and we were all waiting for the first race team to show up. I let the following pictures do the talking:

IronDog3 IronDog4 IronDog5 IronDog7 IronDog8IronDog6 IronDog9

And then,
when all was settled and done,
it was silent again…

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One Man's Paradise

Rainy Pass – Windy Corner

Yesterday was the first day I strayed further than 2 miles from the safe heaven of our lodge. We went by snow machine to Rainy Pass the highest point on the Iditarod trail. It was a wonderful change in scenery. On the way to the pass we crossed the Happy River, and passed through snow covered tundra. At one point I believe i got a glimpse of Mount Russell, the perfect pyramid. There were glaciers in the distance and many peaks with no names. We were all bundled up so that no skin was exposed, as the temps were in the single digits and we were riding into a 30 mile per hour wind. It takes only a minute or less to get frostbite in those conditions. The last few miles we climbed a winding, narrow valley to Rainy Pass Lake and the marker indicating the location of the pass.

Drifting Snow

Drifting Snow

A few days earlier the walkers, bikers, and dog teams came by this location. With no spectators or media this must have been quite some experience. The pass itself appears to be a wind funnel driving snow along the surface, giving the landscape the appearance of a snowy beach or a thermally active area.

Winter waves

Winter waves

This little excursion reminded me once more how precious and life-saving our shelter at the lodge really is that allows us to spend the winter in this unique environment.

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