April 24, 2014

Iditarod to Shageluk

by Donald Bowers, Jr.

Quick Overview

This leg is every bit of its official 65 miles, and its unendingly hilly terrain makes it seem more like 100 at times. You can plan on 7 to 10 hours for it, more if you want to stop and rest somewhere. There is absolutely no human habitation for the entire route—no cabins, no mines, nothing. The people of Shageluk rarely have any need to go over to Iditarod and Flat and vice versa, so this trail is normally only put in every other year, and then only for the Iditarod. Much of the area between Iditarod and Shageluk was burned in a forest fire years ago and some areas still have not grown back. In short, it will be pretty lonely and maybe even a little spooky. This is a good leg to find another driver to run with, just for the company if nothing else.

There are no real problems on this leg—just the hills. The trail leaves Iditarod heading downstream (north) on the Iditarod River for a few miles and then turns west and begins to climb over an endless series of ridges before finally dropping down into the broad valley of the Innoko River, on which Shageluk is located. Some veterans say there are nine big hills, some say thirteen, some say more. The first one is within ten miles after leaving Iditarod and the last one is within ten miles of Shageluk. Most of the bigger climbs are in the 500- to 1000-foot range, and some are fairly steep in a few places. Some of the downhill’s are a bit sporty as well.

The trail is fairly narrow at times, although it tends to get better in the last 30 miles into Shageluk. The trail will cross several rivers draining northward into the Innoko, which describes a huge loop from Ophir, swinging north, then west, and finally south to Shageluk before it merges with the Yukon near Holy Cross. The Innoko Valley to the north of the hills across which the trail runs is a vast, uninhabited, mostly wooded expanse of endless swamps and marshes and countless serpentine rivers interspersed with low hills, covering an area larger than many entire states.

The trail will cross the Little Yetna and Big Yetna Rivers, a couple of the many good-sized tributaries of the Innoko; the Big Yetna is approximately at the halfway point. The western half of the trail is generally better than the eastern half, following a cat trail for much of the way into Shageluk. Also, timber coverage increases the farther west you go.

The original Iditarod Trail angled northwest from Iditarod across the Innoko Valley to Kaltag. That section of the old trail hasn’t been used since the 1930s and is not likely to be resurrected any time in the near future. The current trail from Iditarod to Shageluk also dates back to gold rush days, but was never used as extensively as the Iditarod. Parts of it on the western end were more recently used as hunting and trapping trails by Shageluk villagers. Finding the entire trail and putting it in for the first running of the Iditarod southern route was very difficult and relied on the knowledge of a few Shageluk elders who had used it in its heyday more than half a century earlier.

Detailed Description

You’ll leave the Iditarod checkpoint heading west on the slough toward the Iditarod River, then over the bank, onto the river, and downstream (north) for couple of miles. Then you’ll jump onto the left bank and bend around the bottom of a hill until you’re headed west, right at the first ridge. After a brief run across some lowlands along the river, you’ll charge right up the hill with no preliminaries, then down again, then up the next hill. Then you’ll run along the ridgeline to the north and west for awhile before dropping back down and repeating the whole process.

There aren’t really any landmarks to mark your progress since all of the ridges and hills look the same. Eventually you’ll come to the Little Yetna River about 20 miles out of Iditarod, maybe a two- to three-hour run. You will have gone up and down so many ills you’ll think yoursquo;ve come halfway across the state. The river is in a fairly good-sized valley that opens to the north and you should be able to tell when you’re there.

After the Little Yetna you’ll climb right back up a ridge on the other side and run along it generally westbound for seven or eight miles before dropping down into the valley of the Big Yetna. The Big Yetna is about twelve miles past the Little Yetna. It is 34 miles out of Iditarod and is essentially the halfway point of the leg. It’s easy to confuse the Little Yetna with the Big Yetna, which makes for a bit of a disappointment when you finally do cross the Big Yetna more than an hour later.

The Big Yetna has a very distinct crossing come down a steep bank, cross the 50-foot-wide river, and then climb a ramp up the far side. The trail up the west bank is marked profusely with reflective markers, but they may be higher above you than you’d expect. Make sure you look up to see the markers. It’s easy to get deflected to the right, down the Yetna River. Just remember that you don’t run down any rivers on this part of the leg.

After crossing a couple of miles of open bottom lands headed westbound, you’ll work into a westward-trending side valley and then climb back up another ridge. When you come down from this ridge you’ll be in yet another westward-trending valley. At this point you’re about 20 miles from Shageluk. The trail runs along the valley (actually a small unnamed tributary of the Innoko River which drains west and then south) for about ten miles.

When you start the climb out of the valley to the west, you’re about ten miles from Shageluk. This is the last hill, but it’s a long one, several hundred feet within a couple of miles. Then you’ll run up and down along the ridges for another few miles before starting a long descent down to the Innoko River valley. At night you’ll probably see the beacon at the Shageluk airport, which is about five miles north of town alongside the Innoko River.

Once you’re down off the hill, you’ll run across some rolling country for a couple of miles, then across a couple of lakes, then down into a deep- banked slough. Shageluk is on the far side of the slough, perched on high ground overlooking a wide curve in the southward-flowing Innoko River climb up out of the slough, run through outlying parts of town for a short distance, and eventually wind up on the main street.

The dogs will probably be parked around the school, which is at the end of the main street. The checkpoint is usually in the log cabin community center about a block from the school. Cold water is available. You have to take an 8-hour layover somewhere on the Yukon, and Shageluk is considered to be on the Yukon for this purpose—and you’ll probably be ready to rest by the time you get here.