April 20, 2014

Anchorage to Campbell Airstrip

by Donald Bowers, Jr.

Quick Overview

The first mile and a half of this leg is on city streets lined with thousands of spectators. The next six miles run east and south through the city greenbelts and parks on the extensive system of bike/ski paths. After crossing Tudor Road on an overpass, the trail winds east for several miles in a large wooded park area on the Tozier Track sprint dog trails; the end of the trail for all the teams and their Iditariders is at the Campbell Airstrip right next to the Bureau of Land Management Visitors Center. It’s a beautiful setting to end a spectacular day winding through a very special part of Anchorage.

Detailed Description

From the starting line in downtown Anchorage the trail runs down the middle of 4th Avenue on a lane of snow about 10 to 20 feet wide brought in by the city street department. The biggest problem here is the crowds, which can unnerve inexperienced dogs. You’re also dragging one or two sleds and three people (you, your Iditarider, and your handler) with only 12 dogs.

Some drivers use one big sled instead of a regular sled and a ‘tag sled.’ Regardless, you must have one other person besides yourself (not counting your Iditarider). With one sled, both drivers share the runners while the Iditarider is in the basket; after the Iditarider gets out, the second driver can hop in the basket if he or she wishes. Don’t go the single-sled route without checking first with race officials because the sled has to be a certain minimum size.

If you’re using a tag sled, your second-sled driver should do most of the braking for the team—you don’t want to step on your brake on the front sled and then have your second sled smash you from behind. The lead sled is more difficult to handle with a tag sled because you can get “clotheslined” across turns sometimes and not have much control. A reliable leader is essential here to keep the team headed in the right direction.

After a few blocks the trail makes a hard right turn onto Cordova Avenue; this is an easy place to spill the sled. The trail runs south in the center of Cordova Avenue for about 12 blocks, then drops down a half-block hill to Mulcahy Stadium, home to Alaska League baseball in the summer. Behind the stadium, the trail joins the 200-mile Anchorage bike/ski path network and greenbelt system, heading east along Chester Creek.

The trail is usually in good shape in the greenbelts, running through the woods and occasionally through culverts under major streets. Inexperienced leaders can balk at the culverts. At Northern Lights Boulevard the trail starts to swing south and crosses the busy thoroughfare on a pedestrian/bike bridge; there is a sharp left turn at the south end of the bridge.

The trail then winds through the woods past Alaska Pacific University. Look for the “muffin stop” run by local well-wishers on this stretch as the trail heads south along a power line behind a residential area—and be ready to grab a couple of fresh-baked heavy-duty munchies as you go by. The trail will turn right (west) off the power line to follow the south shore of University Lake. Watch for a sharp bend to the right about halfway along the shore—a number of sleds slide off the inside of the curve every year and spill.

After the lake, the trail heads south under an underpass, past the new Alaska Native Medical Center, and then flies over Tudor Road on a big curved million-dollar pedestrian overpass. (The sides are high enough to block the dogs’ view, so you shouldn’t have any problems getting them to cross it.) Be watchful coming down the ramp off the overpass; in some years it may have a drop off.

You’ll run east along the south side of five-lane Tudor Road for part of a mile. Watch for a couple of sharp turns as the trail leaves the road to work back south and east into the woods and onto the Tozier Track system of dog trails in the huge undeveloped area called Centennial Park. After about eight miles from the start, the trail comes up a hill to a culvert under the Campbell Airstrip Road; this is where the Idita-Riders and the teams end the first stage of “The Last Great Race on Earth.”

Note: In the early Iditarods there was no restart. The mushers and their teams continued on up the Glenn Highway from Eagle River and crossed the Knik River on the highway bridges before doubling back down the west side of Knik Arm to the old town of Knik and the actual Iditarod Trail. The highway was only a narrow two-lane affair then, and traffic wasn’t bad. By 1980, the state Department of Transportation decided that dogs and cars couldn’t safely share the bridges any more and wouldn’t issue the permits. Since there was no other way to cross the always-open, glacier-fed Knik River, the mushers had to load their dogs at Eagle River, truck them over to the Knik area, and then restart from there. They had four hours from the time they pulled into Eagle River until they left the restart. The actual restart point varied for a number of years depending on trail and weather conditions. Today the restart is staged in Willow Alaska.