Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Iditarod, Alaska.  Population: 0.

It wasn't always this way.

A hub of gold mining activity and speculation at the turn of the last century, the town of Iditarod was home to 700 people while the mining district somehow swelled to include a rumored 10,000 souls at the height of the rush.  Iditarod proper boasted a tramway, school, firehall, three lumber companies, four hotels, nine saloons and one very, very busy brothel.

As I drop down onto the slough I'm not that interested in the history of the place.  I want to know what's happening here NOW--specifically, where can a guy lay his head for the night?

I'm met by Bob and Jim, two longtime volunteers for the sled dog race.  They take me in to their home away from home--a two room cabin that they've rigged with electricity, lights, coffee maker, and FM radio, all courtesy of a teeny Honda generator. They feed me a hot meal, offer a bed indoors, and explain that while the trail into town may have been good, there is not yet a trail out of town.  Though plans were made for a team of snowmachines to break trail over from Shageluk, wires were crossed or plans simply feel through, and the trail, for at least the next few days, ends here.


This turn of events is a blessing in disguise, allowing me to spend time in one place--this place--without worrying about burning daylight or making miles.  The only direction I can ride, for now, is back the way I came.

I earn my feed and shelter by helping with various construction projects, by schlepping dog food from the airstrip to the makeshift checkpoint, by completing any menial task that Jim or Bob need done.  Along the way I learn a bit about the history of the place, and a LOT about what it takes to turn it into an ephemeral, functional, comfortable dog race checkpoint every two years.

On the second day of vacation the 'comms guys' show up, somehow creating not just a local phone line direct (via satellite uplink) to Anchorage, but a wi-fi hotspot.  I look on in wonder as all present whip out smartphones to text loved ones elsewhere.

On the third day the real zoo happens--vets and race officials arrive and heaps of busywork appears with them.  We all pitch in to get it done.  Although I've breezed into and out of dog race checkpoints a handful of times through the years, those were always in villages where infrastructure existed--buildings, tools, people, power, supplies.  Everything is flown in here via single engine planes, schlepped from the snowy airstrip on a sled or your back, assembled inside of or next to a single remnant cabin, then flown back out days later.  This 'town' won't likely see another visitor until the race comes back two years later.

Of note this afternoon: a minor 'dinging' of one airplane, with zero injuries and, apparently, no real cause for alarm.

Moments after the crash it's back to business as usual: Getting this place ready for dozens of dog teams and drivers to breeze in and out, or to stay for a day and rest.

"See that pile over there?  Bring it over here."

The law happened to be flying over, saw an upside-down aircraft in the snow, then dropped in to see what was what.

At sundown on the third day a team of snowmachines roared into town: The Trailbreakers.  They planned to eat, drink, and sleep the night, then head toward the Yukon in the morning.  A trail to follow west meant that my vacation here was at an end.