by Donald Bowers, Jr.
After the long haul from Grayling to Eagle Island, this leg is more of the same—exactly the same, in fact. Just like its predecessor, it’s also 62 miles, and it’s also all on the Yukon River. Assuming yoursquo;ve rested your dogs at Eagle Island, you can assume another 6 to 9 hours to Kaltag.
There’s nothing really new on the river for this leg see plenty more islands, sandbars, sloughs, bluffs, and river bends probably also see a few stretches of windblown sandy trail in the last 20 miles before Kaltag.
Leaving the checkpoint you’ll stay on the west side of the river. Within a mile you’ll see a trail leading off to the left up a slough; this leads to Ralph Conaster’s cabin and the old checkpoint. Ralph’s airplane may also be parked at the mouth of the slough. Stay on the main stem of the river. Within a couple of miles you’ll see the south tip of Bullfrog Island, which is separated from the east shore by ten-mile-long Honeymoon Slough pass the north end of the island in another seven miles.
A mile or so past Bullfrog Island you’ll see Eagle Slide on the left bank; this is an easily recognizable 700-foot headland that has partly collapsed into the river. Just past the slide is the mouth of Eagle Creek; as with all streams entering the main river, watch for overflow. Yoursquo;ve come about 13 miles from the checkpoint at the mouth of Eagle Creek.
Four miles past Eagle Creek the river bends to the right (northeast). Steamboat Slough will enter from the left, followed in a mile by Leah Slough, which separates Quail Island from the west shore. The trail may run behind Quail Island, where you may see some sandy trails as you bump across the bars. In this area you may also start to see some windblown areas where the incessant down river wind has cleaned off much of the snow, leaving some stretches looking like the Sahara. The trail may also cross to the east bank and run there for awhile.
The north tip of Quail Island is about 9 miles past the mouth of Steamboat Slough, and about 27 miles out of the Eagle Island checkpoint. Three miles past the end of Quail Island you’ll see another headland on your left, and a mile and a half beyond that will be the mouth of Stink Creek. Opposite the headland and the mouth of the creek is a two-mile long, unnamed island in midstream, followed by three-mile-long Morgan Island. The north tip of Morgan Island is about 35 miles from Eagle Island, or about 25 miles from Kaltag. (Distances on the river never add up to exact totals because the trail is never in exactly the same place, even the islands and sandbars move sometimes.)
Three miles past Quail Island you’ll see yet another promontory on the west shore as the river bends back to the north. Opposite the headland is the mouth of Khotol Creek, actually a fair-sized river flowing from the east. By now you’ll also be drawing abeam the southern end of the Magitchlie Range, a distinctive range of hills up to 1,500 feet high about ten miles east of the river.
Five or six miles north of the headland and the mouth of Khotol Creek is the south end of Big Eightmile Island. The trail may go across the island or it may stay along the east bank. As you work toward the north end of the island (which is about 6 miles long) you’ll begin to see another pronounced headland ahead on the west shore. This will be Eightmile Point. so named because it’s about 8 miles from Kaltag. The trail will probably be running along the east side of the river by this time, crossing small islands and sandbars.
Not long after you pass Eightmile Point you’ll begin to pick out Kaltag sitting atop its high bank on the west side of the river. The trail will cross back to the west bank as you approach the town and you’ll make a short, steep climb up the riverbank to the town’s main street. The checkpoint is usually in the village’s eight-sided log-built community center in the middle of town. Just keep driving up the street until you see it. Water (possibly even hot water) is available from the town pump house about a block east of the community center. The pump house also has a real toilet.
You’ll be glad to arrive here. From here to Nome you’re on well-traveled village-to-village trails—and you’re finally off the endless white expanse of the Yukon. You might want to make sure your dogs get plenty of rest here. Veterans say it’s best to rest your dogs before you leave the Yukon, because they may not get much rest out on the coast.
The original Iditarod Trail never ran on the Yukon. It went directly from Iditarod to Kaltag across the marshy maze of the Innoko Valley. Old-time mushers on the way to Nome only saw the Yukon when they crossed it to Kaltag.