How does the Iditarod Trail get established? Is it something that can be traveled all year? Who maintains it? Is it groomed? What makes it possible for people to actually travel the Iditarod Trail, weather it be human powered or dog powered?
I think people are mislead with the word “trail”, cause a lot of it, a lot of the time, does not exist. Well, OK, it exist’s but under heaps of snow and not human powered friendly in any way.
There are multiple ways the Iditarod Trail gets established enough for human travel. Snowmobile, otherwise referred to as a “snow-go” as I have learned from the Alaskan Villagers, is how the trail gets packed in. There is recreation traffic, like on the south end of the trail. There is inter village travel, from one village to the next on mostly the interior of the trail on the way to Nome. This does not connect all the dots and there are many sections that don’t see this traffic but then there is the Iron Dog Snowmobile Race which covers the whole Iditarod Trail and beyond. This race conveniently takes place one week before the Ultra Sport race. We generally learn a lot from these folks on trail conditions and with 50 teams of 2 they put in one hell of a trail. These guys for sure establish a lot of trail but they also fan out all over the place and take alternate routes creating sucker trails as well as never go over Rainy Pass. The Rainy Pass section of trail is put in by associates/volunteers of the Iditarod Dog Race as well as our very own Ultra Sport trail breakers.
In the time between the snowmobile race and the Ultra Sport a lot can happen and change the trail with good ole’ mother nature. The nice thing is at least you know there is some sort of base, otherwise you would sink to your waist, which is a great way to know when you are on or off the trail.
Going beyond McGrath to Nome puts you onto a big chunk of trail that only gets traveled by the Iron Dog so when leaving McGrath you are relying on trail from 2 weeks ago which may or may not still be there. This is when you start to figure out when the Iditarod Trail Breakers are coming through. This is a group of snowmobiles that go out to manicure a trail for the dog teams. They generally have about 6 machines that are working the trail safe for the dog teams. They often pull some sort of drag, cut out down fall/brush, and are marking the trail with reflective lath so the mushers know where to go. As a racer if you are waiting for these guys to come through, the trail must be pretty bad of not be there at all. On the South route of the Iditarod it is very common to wait for these guys and are often the first ones through all year, depending on timing it can be just a day or it can be 5 days. Plan accordingly, remember when one leaves McGrath it is over 2 hundred + miles in very remote terrain with nothing but your food drop sitting in the middle of the trail somewhere before hitting the Yukon River.
Over the years Tracey and I have broke into a relationship with the Trail Breakers, earning and gaining much respect, and I can say now that they are our friends. They have looked out for us and gave us some good advice as well as having a friendly beer with them (to me this is what the trail experiences are about) It might have been the year we were traveling almost as fast as them making and seeing them at multiple villages several days in a row that cracked the conversation. We feel pretty proud of this as we have heard some not so friendly experiences with other human powered racers. These guys work hard and it is amazing to see them in action!
Sometimes as you get closer to Villages you will feel like there is more of a trail and it can be cause the hunters are out checking there traps, which is another way the trail stays/is in.
When you hit the Yukon River you will start to pass through more Villages, they vary in distance but are roughly about 50 miles from one another. You can’t rely on inter village travel cause if they don’t have a reason to go to another village they don’t. Fuel is very expensive on the interior so they don’t just cruise around. Some villages have more supplies then others or have more dependable flights which will create more traffic to that particular village.
With Iditarod Trail Breakers on course this means The Iditarod Sled Dog Race got off which is one week after the Ultra Sport, and if you are someone going to Nome they will catch you. This is another great time to look forward to some trail traffic. You will end up traveling amungst the dogs on the remainder of the route to Nome. This is an exciting time on the trail, villagers engaged, spectating, and that is all that is talked about. This is one of the most exciting times in these Villages all year. With 50-100 people in some villages and a couple hundred in a bigger village there is not whole lot of excitment. The sad thing is it only lasts a couple of weeks and I will say that is true with the trail. Once the dog race raps up the trail gets snowed in deeper, traffic becomes less, wind blows it over to look like the rest of the landscape and you would never of known of all the snowmobiles, humans and dogs that have been through till next year.
Amazing trail, filled with amazing experiences, glad it is only doable human powered a few weeks every year!