December 18, 2014

Koyuk to Elim

by Donald Bowers, Jr.

Quick Overview

This leg always seems longer than it is. Plan on five to seven hours, more if the wind is blowing. The trail follows the main snowmachine trail to Elim and is usually well marked. However, the wind can blow hard in the Moses Point area and the trail can drift over very quickly. From Koyuk, the trail runs southwest just offshore on the sea ice for about 12 miles and then cuts inland to the west across the wooded peninsula behind Bald Head, a prominent cape.

Ten miles later the trail crosses the mouth of the Kwik River, makes a three mile overland run along the dune line, and then jumps two miles across Kwiniuk Inlet to Moses Point. It then runs along a narrow spit and across some tidelands for about 11 miles to the old Moses Point FAA station, now abandoned. From there, the trail usually follows a nine-mile unplowed state highway up and over the heavily forested bluffs and down into Elim. An alternate route has been followed in the past along the sea ice from Moses Point to Elim.

Detailed Description

You’ll leave Koyuk on the sea ice headed southwest along the shore. The trail generally stays just far enough offshore to avoid the shore ice which can be jumbled and rough see a prominent rocky headland ahead at about the ten-mile point. The trail will cut inshore just past it run for another couple of miles across low ground and then begin to climb over a series of small ridges, eventually getting back into the tree line.

You’ll cross the highest ridge at a 300-foot summit after a moderate quarter-mile climb. At night you’ll probably be able to see the red light of the Moses Point FAA radio beacon about 20 miles ahead. During the day you may see Mount Kwiniuk, a 2,000-foot mountain right on the coast five miles past Elim, 35 miles away.

After the summit you’ll descend quickly back to the lowlands, running through taiga and tundra and a few small ponds. About five miles from the summit you’ll drop down to cross the mouth of the Kwik River, only a few hundred yards wide. The Kwik River valley is a natural wind tunnel and the wind can be blowing very hard here from the north (your right).

There is a shelter cabin on the far side of the river if it gets too bad. The shelter cabin is about 25 miles from Elim. If you keep going, the wind will usually switch to blow more at your back and you should be out of it within ten more miles. If your visibility is seriously reduced or you are having trouble finding the trail at night in the wind, STOP at the shelter cabin and wait it out.

After the Kwik River, the trail passes the shelter cabin and then runs along the top of the beach for about three miles. Then it drops back down onto the open ice to the southwest to cut across the mouth of Kwiniuk Inlet to Moses Point. The over ice portion is about two miles. The trail is usually hard and fast, but there may be overflow from high tides or storms.

Moses Point is the tip of a long, low, narrow spit extending back to the west. Soon after you climb back off the ice, you will begin to see houses and cabins. This is old Elim, now used as a fishing camp. It was the main village until new Elim was built 30 years ago on high ground 15 miles west. It stretches for several miles along the spit. Once in awhile one of the cabins is used during the winter for hunting. It is possible to use these cabins for shelter if the wind comes up, but remember they are private property and be considerate.

The trail will wind through the cabins and finally bump down onto the ice of Kwiniuk Inlet behind the spit. From here the trail can get soft and punchy (with possible overflow) as it meanders for several miles west over to the abandoned Moses Point FAA station; you’ll see the old towers and buildings easily as soon as you leave old Elim. From about 1940 until the late 1960s this was a major airport and stopping point for airplanes heading to and from Nome. The only thing left operating here now is an unattended radio beacon.

You’ll wander by the old buildings and pick up a road headed west. You’re about ten miles from Elim. In recent years the race has followed the road all the way into Elim. The first couple of miles of the road across the flats are usually windblown and bare in spots. You may be able to run in the ditch alongside the road or perhaps on the shoulder. If you run on the bare part of the gravel road, you will trash your runner plastic in about two minutes.

At the end of the flats the road becomes solidly snow packed and you’ll begin a steady climb to get on top of the bluffs you can see on the coast to your left. This is a long, tough climb if you’re doing it in the heat of the day, so be ready to rest your dogs if they start to overheat. Finally you’ll reach the crest of the road (you’re back in the trees by the way—this part of the coast supports the biggest forest on the Seward Peninsula) and start down a long downgrade into Elim.

The checkpoint is usually in the big state maintenance garage; the checker will meet you on the road and guide you in. Water is available (sometimes “hot” water) and there are usually good munchies in the checkpoint plus a place to rest. Elim is normally well sheltered from the north wind, so your dogs can get some quality rest here if they need it. Some mushers don’t stop long at Elim, wanting to push on to White Mountain as quickly as possible. Others will spend the afternoon here to avoid the heat of the day.

There is one possible alternate route on the way to Elim. From the old Moses Point FAA station, the trail in the past has occasionally headed back offshore to run along the ice to town. This is usually an easier run than the hills on the road. The sea cliffs towering overhead are quite spectacular if you go this way.