September 2, 2014

Nikolai to McGrath

by Donald Bowers, Jr.

Quick Overview

This is a fairly easy (but sometimes deceptive) stretch which always seems to be longer than it is, mainly because it is often so boring and there are so many seemingly identical lakes and river bends. The trail cuts cross-country southwest from Nikolai toward McGrath, running along a series of lakes and swamps interspersed with wooded stretches to Big River. It then runs west down Big River for a few miles to the Kuskokwim River, then down the Kuskokwim to McGrath, with several shortcuts across the bigger oxbow bends.

This run normally takes four and a half to seven hours. It is usually a good stretch to do at night when the dogs will go faster. If you’re running at night or early in the morning and the weather is clear and calm, dress warmly and think about dog coats—it can get quite cold down on the Kuskokwim River for the last half of the leg.

The trail from Nikolai to McGrath crosses many open lakes and swamps for the first 20 miles. When the wind is blowing, these areas can quickly drift in.

Detailed Description

The trail leaves Nikolai on a village street. Have somebody lead your team to the correct road. In less than half a mile you’ll turn left off the road onto the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River, which you’ll follow for another mile or so before heading up the bank and into the swamps. Follow the Iditarod trail stake markers carefully to avoid turning down side trails on the river. It is also possible to miss a turn and go back up the South Fork for a half mile and go out the identically marked trail back to Rohn, so pay attention.

Once on the overland section, the trail is generally straight and fast, running mostly across lakes with occasional cuts through the trees. This is also the main snowmachine trail between Nikolai and McGrath and it is usually easy to follow. At night you should be able to see the light at the Air Force radar station atop Tatalina Mountain, 15 miles southwest of McGrath, generally straight ahead of you. During the day the mountain itself (3,200 feet high) may be visible. (you’ll be going just behind Tatalina Mountain on your way from McGrath to Takotna and on to Ophir.) The biggest lake you’ll cross is Guitar Lake, about nine or ten miles out of Nikolai. It’s almost two miles wide and is about halfway to Big River, which is the end of the overland section.

When you reach Big River, you’ll be halfway to McGrath, about 23 miles to go. Watch for a rough drop onto the river. The trail turns right (west) down the river, coming to the Kuskokwim in 4 miles; the river trail is usually hard and fast. For the rest of the way into McGrath you will see the Kuskokwim Mountains (actually big hills) rising on your right. The river flows generally along the southeast edge of the hills on the way to McGrath.

Just after you get onto the Kuskokwim you might see the old Big River Roadhouse, one of the original stops on the Iditarod, up on the right bank proceed down the Kuskokwim for about three miles before heading up the left bank to cut across a big double oxbow that swings to the north. This cross-country shortcut runs about seven miles through woods and up back sloughs before coming back out on the river. Once you’re back on the river, you’ll see some big cliffs ahead on the left bank.

After another seven miles running down the river, the trail will climb sharply up the right bank to a cabin. You are 13 miles from McGrath and at the upper end of Stewart Bend, a huge oxbow looping to the south cut across the bend by running along a back slough for a bit and then lurching almost vertically up and over a hundred-foot wooded ridge (very steep up, not quite so bad coming down the other side). Then you will come out on a curving slough that will arc you back to the left (south) for a mile or so, where you will rejoin the main river.

After the Stewart Bend cutoff, the trail runs southwest along the river for another three miles, then jumps up the left bank again, this time for a four-mile shortcut across another big oxbow sweeping off to the north. This shortcut runs across swamps and sloughs and across beaver dams and up narrow twisting trenchlike creek channels and through the woods. It has some very interesting stretches. Don’t get complacent or you’ll find yourself in the ditch.

When you re-enter the river, you’ll be one big bend and about five miles away from McGrath. At night you may see a red light on a radio tower. This means you still have one more big swing to the north before you make the final run south toward McGrath. By now you’re probably bored out of your mind and are hoping you never see another big river bend—sorry, you still have 150 miles on the Yukon after you get to Ruby (or Anvik, depending on which route you’re running).

When the river starts to bend back to the northwest, McGrath should appear on the left bank. The trail will be well marked to swing you across the river to the checkpoint, which is right on top of the 20-foot-high bank. The parking area can get a bit crowded, so let the checkers know immediately whether you’re planning to take your 24-hour layover here so they can park you out of the busy “transient” area.

McGrath has become a favorite for 24-hour stops in the past few years since the checkpoint has been moved to a house away from the airport. It can still get hectic if you’re in the front of the pack because this 500-person town is a major hub and the media stages out of here for the middle part of the race. However, McGrath has several advantages for a 24-hour layover. One of the nicest is a diesel-fired steam kettle outside the checkpoint that provides all the near-boiling water you could ever want. There are a couple of well-stocked stores where you can grab stuff you may have forgotten (or get some hardware and duct tape to fix your sled, if you didn’t have a replacement sled shipped here). The people of McGrath help to staff the checkpoint and there is usually a full-time cook in the kitchen who will whip up whatever you want before you crash in the sleeping room. There is also a coin-operated shower in the laundromat in the municipal building if your dogs are starting to think you’re one of them

Historical Note

The original Iditarod continued more or less directly from the Salmon River crossing to Big River Roadhouse. For the short stretch down Big River to the Kuskokwim, you’re almost on the old-time trail. From the roadhouse, the original trail stayed overland on the north side of the river and bypassed McGrath, which was then located on the north side of the river—it only moved to its present location when the Army Air Force built an air base there in 1940. The old trail eventually ended up in Takotna. If you get to McGrath and want to learn more, the Bureau of Land Management has an office in McGrath just a couple of buildings down from the checkpoint. Theyrsquo;ve got lots of information on the trail.

The McGrath checkpoint in recent years has been in a house a couple of blocks east of the airport, right on the river. It has become a popular place for mushers to take their mandatory 24-hour layovers because of the excellent facilities there, including a 24-hour kitchen for mushers and staff. Many mushers also ship replacement sleds here because McGrath is served by a major air freight airline and the cost is very cheap. The swapped-out sleds also can easily be shipped back from McGrath.