October 25, 2014

McGrath to Takotna

by Donald Bowers, Jr.

Quick Overview

This is normally a fast two-to-three-hour run on a well-traveled snowmachine trail. The trail crosses the Kuskokwim, runs up the Takotna River for a mile or so, then swings up the left bank for an overland run west toward Takotna across a gradually rising and mostly open area. About halfway it will climb up and run along heavily wooded Porcupine Ridge, after which it will drop back down to the Takotna River for the last couple of miles to the checkpoint. As with most Iditarod trails, it is usually best at night or on cold, cloudy days when it has a chance to set up. On hot afternoons it can become punchy and very slow.

 

This featurette is from the 2008 Iditarod Documentary. To purchase the full documentary, click here.

 

Detailed Description

You’ll leave the checkpoint via a ramp angling down the riverbank; make sure the checkpoint handlers line you up for a straight shot down the ramp—your departure can be very spectacular if you get cut over the bank onto it. At the bottom you’ll cross the half-mile-wide Kuskokwim River directly to the mouth of the much smaller Takotna River, up which you’ll run for maybe a mile, cutting up off the river once and then back onto it, before finally heading up the left bank (west).

The trail gradually climbs westbound for about eight miles across a mostly open stretch of swamps, muskeg, and scattered treelines. About five miles after leaving the Takotna River you’ll cross the small Tatalina River, but it may not be obvious. Once you start the climb up Porcupine Ridge, you’ll have a couple of miles to the top, about a 400-foot rise on reasonably moderate grades. The trail may have ruts and moguls from fast-moving snowmachines, which can make for slow going. Watch for a couple of glaciered areas as the trail works up the bottom of the ridge.

You’ll run through the forest along the top of the ridge for a couple of miles. At night you will see the flash of the strobe light from the runway at the radar site at Tatalina, about 30 degrees off to your left and five miles away. (Don’t worry—you haven’t gotten turned around and headed back to the airport at McGrath, which has similar strobes.) During the day you can see that you are headed directly for the summit of Tatalina Mountain (3,200 feet high and 2,400 feet above you).

After a run atop the ridge you will swing to the right and start down the mountain to the Takotna River on a mile-and-a-half downgrade with a total drop of about 500 feet. (At night you should see the lights of the village in the valley ahead.) Watch for a couple of possibly icy areas on the lower slopes before you drop down on to the river. (Wach for a rough drop onto the river.) Once on the river you should have a fast couple of miles on up to the checkpoint, which is always located in the community center on Takotna’s main street pull up the right bank to the street about a quarter-mile before the checkpoint.

Takotna only has about 75 people but it offers some of the best hospitality on the trail. Many mushers plan their 24-hour layovers here because it is relatively quiet and away from the bustle of McGrath. There is usually a cook on duty in the kitchen who will whip up a meal for you. In the past few years the village has even made a point of giving every musher a steak dinner. (There seems to be an ongoing contest between McGrath and Takotna to see which place can do more for the mushers—and they’re both winning.) About the only disadvantage to Takotna for a layover is that there are no stores (there is a bar), and it can be a hassle to ship a replacement sled there if you intend to swap sleds on your 24.