by Donald Bowers, Jr.
This is one of the more interesting legs on the race, with quite a variety of trail and terrain in a very short distance. Moreover, there is always a possibility of two extremely different routes for the first ten miles. The race follows the main snowmachine “highway” from Elim to Golovin and it is usually well marked and packed.
The trail usually heads back out on the sea ice from Elim and runs a mile or two offshore to a cabin at Walla Walla, on the coast eight miles south of Elim. In some years, when there is open water just off shore, the traill will stay overland on the Old Elim Mail Trail.
At Walla Walla, the trail rurns inland and climbs over the Kwiktalik Mountains with a series of long, moderately hard grades. The final summit is 1,000 feet at Little McKinley, about eight miles past Walla Walla and ten miles from Golovin. This is considered the hardest climb on the last half of the race.
The trail then makes a fast descent to Golovin Bay, running northwest along the bay ice for the last five miles to Golovnin. (The bay was first explored by Captain Gloving of the Imperial Russian Navy in the early 1800’s. The bay and lagoon behind the town retain the original spelling; the town’s name ha been changed over the years.)
Plan on three to four hours for this leg. If the weather is bad, the trip over the mountain can be a long, hard one because it is almost all above timberline and exposed to the wind. The trail over Little McKinley can range from icy and windswept to soft and punchy.
If you’re running on the ice, you’ll leave right through downtown Elim and head out to sea imediately. Often the ice near the beach is jumbled up and the trail may thread through it, towering on the right the whole way. Walla Walla is just past the mountain.
If you get to run the Mail Trail, hold onto your bloomers. This stretch of the coast is heavily wooded and the trail can be narrow and winding in places and often bumpy. The trail will also cut across a lot of very steep slopes as it parallels the shore.
You’ll leave town alongside the airport and drop back down to cross Kwiktalik Creek, a mile past the end of the runway. Across the creek you’ll climb sharply several hundred feet to run on top of the rocky bluffs in back of the beach. At one point you’ll be almost 500 feet above the rocky shore below. The scenery is spectacular, whenever you have time to catch your breath to look at it.
After your foray along the cliffs you’ll drop back down toward the beach, then climb back up to run along the flanks of Mount Kwiniuk, under the Marble Cliffs. This will involve a lot of ups and downs and some fascinating hill side traverses. At one point you’ll negotiate a hundred-yard stretch along a narrow rocky ledge about two hundred feet above the boulder-strewn beach; the ledge is only a few feet wide and the drop to the beach is nearly vertical. By the time you finally ease back down to the shore you’ll be ready for a break; the Elim Mail Trail is definitely and experience.
However you manage to get to Walla Walla, there is a shelter cabin if the weather looks bad. From there, you’ll begin to climb westbound, first gently as you work into the tree line, then much more sharply once you’re in the forest. (Enjoy the trees—they’re the last ones you’ll see until you get to White Mountain.) The initial climb is two miles from the beach to the top of a 900-foot ridge. The view from up here, back to the southeast toward Shaktoolik and Unalakleet, is worth a quick stop. Besides, the dogs will probably appreciate the rest.
You’ll run along the ridge for a mile or son—above timberline—and then drop back down about 400 feet into the barren valley of the Kwiniuk River. The trail will cut up and across some side slopes and finally begin a steady mile long clib up to Little McKinley, which is actually a 1,000-foot saddle on top of a ridge. From Little McKinley you should be able to see Golovin on the end of its rocky peninsula, ten miles away. Weather permitting, you can also see all the way west along the coast to Topkok Head and sometimes even to Cape Nome. You can also look to the northwest and pick out White Mountain, 18 miles beyond Golovin.
After yoursquo;ve enjoyed the view, you’ll start down to Golovin Bay. The first three miles of this descent can be trecherous, with steep slopes, side hills, icy spots, and bare gound. Keep your team under control and go as slowly as you can. Finally the slope will gentle out and you’ll run down the valley of McKinley Creek to the beach. There is a shelter cabin just before you get to the beach, five miles from Golovin’ it’s not in very good shape, but it’s a place to get out of the wind.
If the wind is blowing, it will probably be from the north and northwest, and you’ll have already gotten a taste of it up on top of Little McKinley. It’ll be right in your faces as you drop down onto the bay ice. The trail up the ice to Golovin is usually hard and well marked. During the evening you’ll see the village lights for the whole distance; during the day you can see the village on its rocky point.
Golovin used to be a major checkpoint on the race but it has been largely superseded by White Mountain run right into the middle of town, sign in with the checker, and continue on. There is no checkpoint staff and you couldn’t ship anything here. You’re more than welcome to stop and spend some time here, though, and the locals love to visit with mushers. Just tell the checker if you want to take a break.
The original Iditarod never went to White Mountain. It headed due west from Golovin to cross the bay, and traversed the peninsula directly to the coast. It then ran up the shoreline to the old settlement of Bluff, then continued to the mouth of the Topkok River and along the cliffs of Topkok Head before dropping to the beaches for the run to Nome.