August 30, 2014

Ophir to Iditarod

by Donald Bowers, Jr.

Quick Overview

This is one of the emptiest legs on the entire race, a full 90 miles of lonely country and endless trail. The trail crosses a mix of terrain and vegetation, ranging from taiga (black spruce) to barren upland tundra to thick river-bottom forests to brushy ravines and hillsides to swamps and lakes. This leg has no major problems, although are always patches of minor overflow, plenty of hills, and some potentially rough trail across the uplands. Its biggest feature is, as somebody once said of driving through Texas, miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles.

You should plan for 12 to 18 hours, including a good several-hour rest somewhere along the way. Many drivers stop at Don’s Cabin, 36 miles out of Ophir. It’s a ramshackle plywood hut but it’s sheltered in the trees and has a stove. Another good camping spot is the tree line at the Windy Creek crossing, 10 miles past Don’s Cabin, or the Dishna River, a couple of miles past Windy Creek.

Leaving Ophir, the trail runs west down the Innoko River valley for five miles and then heads southwest toward Beaver Mountain Pass, slowly climbing through black spruce for ten miles. It breaks out above timberline briefly to cross the pass (actually a gentle, wide-open saddle) and then drops back into the tree line to cross a couple of creeks. Then it heads back up across Beaver Flats, a barren rolling upland flanking the Beaver Mountains, an isolated range of 4,000-foot mountains prominently visible five miles southeast of the trail.

After crossing the Beaver Flats, the trail re-enters the tree line and passes Don’s Cabin 36 miles after leaving Ophir. From the cabin, the trail continues southwest across lightly wooded uplands to Windy Creek and the Dishna River, the halfway point of the leg. From the Dishna, the trail climbs slowly back up through wooded country to another saddle and drops sharply down to First Chance Creek, which it then follows into the valley of the Iditarod River.

The trail leaves First Chance Creek a few miles before the river and runs south for 18 miles on the east side of the Iditarod River valley. It crosses several large creeks, swamps, and lakes, and runs up and down small hills. The old town of Iditarod is on a cut-off slough to the east of the Iditarod River. The checkpoint is across the slough from the few remaining buildings.

The weather can be a major factor on this leg, especially on the Beaver Flats, which are completely exposed. Whiteouts can happen quickly and winds can be severe. In fact, the materials for Don’s Cabin were flown in by a musher after he ran the southern route; he thought the trail desperately needed some kind of shelter in that area. Expect the trail across the Beaver Flats to have little snow; you’ll undoubtedly find yourself bouncing from one tundra tussock to another for many miles. The trail is generally well marked, with tripods augmenting the trail stakes across the uplands.

Detailed Description

You’ll leave the Ophir checkpoint on a continuation of the same road you followed coming in. After a mile or so you’ll turn sharply left (west) onto the runway, which may or may not be plowed for use by airplanes. (If you were to go straight and not turn onto the runway, you’d be in what’s left of Ophir.) A mile past the runway you’ll cross the Innoko River, which you’ll parallel for another four miles and then cross again, back to the south side. This is where the northern and southern routes divide turn left (the Iron Doggers will have gone right, up to Ruby); the turn should be very well marked.

The trail will probably not be the world’s best as you head south through the spindly black spruce. It is often bouncy and uneven and punchy because it never has much of a base—remember, it’s only used every other year, and then only for the Iditarod. About a mile after the turn, you’ll cross a small tributary of Beaver Creek which usually has some overflow, sometimes up to a foot deep. It’s rarely more than ten feet wide, though.

After the creek, you’ll slog forever up a very gently sloping valley through the taiga (Russian for “land of little sticks”). Beaver Mountain Pass, a gentle saddle just above tree line, is about ten miles from the turn. The summit is about 1,100 feet above sea level and the total climb from the Innoko River is about 800 feet. You should see the Beaver Mountains looming off to your left as you approach the pass. At the top, you’ll be five miles from the highest peak. Don’s Cabin is about 20 miles ahead.

After the pass, you’ll descend a gentle grade to the drainage of Tolstoi Creek, which flows northwest into the Dishna River and ultimately the Innoko. This entire mostly barren upland for 20 miles to the southwest is collectively called the Beaver Flats, and you’ll be running across much of it drop back into a sparse tree line along a small fork of the creek a couple of miles after the pass, then you’ll head back into the open country southwest for a few more miles to a bigger fork, also with a meager tree line but offering shelter if you need it. There’s one more fork a couple of miles on, but with few trees.

After the last fork of Tolstoi Creek, you’ll head up and over the tundra again. You’re about 10 miles from Don’s Cabin and shelter cross an imperceptible divide and then begin to follow a small creek draining west-southwest toward the Dishna River. There will be a distinct ridge of hills a couple of miles off your right; Don’s cabin is roughly abeam the foot of the last hill. The trail will run generally on the east side of the small creek and you’ll be gently descending start to see some trees along the creek; you’re pretty much past the worst open area of the Flats.

After what seems like too long, you’ll see Don’s Cabin on the right side of the trail. There won’t be much there—just a dilapidated plywood shack—but it’s way ahead of whatever’s in second place at this point. The cabin had a rudimentary stove at last report but not much else. Yoursquo;ve come 36 miles from Ophir and you still have 54 miles to go to Iditarod.

After Don’s Cabin the trail swings southwest and runs back up across lightly wooded uplands for six or seven miles, dropping back down to cross Windy Creek. Windy Creek is bordered by heavy timber and is a good camping spot, as is the Dishna River about two miles farther on. The Dishna is the halfway point of the leg—only 45 miles remaining. Windy Creek and the Dishna sometimes have spots of open water and overflow.

After the Dishna, which is a fair-sized river, the trail climbs gently through wooded country for about six miles to the foot of Hill 1925, which will be on your left. Then you’ll have a moderately steep one-mile downgrade to First Chance Creek, which drains into the Iditarod River. The trail will wind along the creek for about seven miles through brush and timber. There may be some overflow.

First Chance Creek will swing abruptly northwest as it exits its small valley to join to Iditarod and the trail will leave it and continue south- southwest across open swamps, small lakes, hills, and wooded areas. The trail will run along the east side of the Iditarod River valley all the way to Iditarod, staying from three miles to half a mile from the river itself. At times the trail will run in the flat river bottoms, and in other places will skirt along some of the low ridges to the east. When the trail leaves First Chance Creek, you’re about 20 miles from Iditarod.

After leaving First Chance Creek, you’ll run overland for a couple of miles to Twin Island Creek, then on some low ridges for another four or five miles to Moose Creek. There may be some overflow on these creeks, which drain into the Iditarod River from the east.

After Moose Creek you’ll have about 15 or 16 miles of running across low hills, swamps, and lakes to Iditarod. In this stretch you’ll cross three unnamed creeks about equally spaced before you come to Caribou Creek, which has a heavy tree line and is about three miles from the checkpoint know you’re at Caribou Creek because there will be a prominent hill directly ahead of you (about three miles). The hill is on the west bank of the river and Iditarod is on the east side.

The old town of Iditarod is on the southeast bank of a slough that was formed when the Iditarod River cut off an oxbow bend several decades ago. In the town’s heyday of 1909-1910, and before the river changed course, steamboats docked right in front of the town all summer, having made the weeks-long trip from the Bering Sea up the Yukon, the Innoko, and finally the Iditarod.

The checkpoint is on the northwest side (inside) of the old oxbow slough, where there are a few old cabins still standing. The checkpoint is usually set up in an old house that was used by a trapper until not too many years ago. He thought the country was getting too crowded, what with the Iditarod every two years, and decided to move on. There will also be the standard Dodge Lodge quonset tent and probably a fancy communications trailer from race sponsor GCI as well.

Facilities here are sparse, since no one (except the trapper) has lived in Iditarod since the 1930s. The nearest town is Flat, about 8 miles southeast of Iditarod, which boasts maybe half a dozen people year round. (Flat does have a runway, though, and is connected to Iditarod by a rudimentary road.) you’ll have to melt snow to make water, but there will be plenty of Heet for your cooker. You might be able to snag a nap in the old trapper’s house or maybe in the Dodge Lodge or even on the straw next to your dogs if it’s not too cold. The trapper’s old outhouse should still be serviceable. And you might want to use the videophone provided by GCI to talk to someone back home if you can stay awake.

Even with the bustle of the checkpoint, this is still a lonely, haunted place. It’s hard to believe there were 10,000 people here in 1910, and the town had electricity, telephones, newspapers, banks, and hotels. Fortunes were made and lost here, and legends about the boom days could fill entire books. All that is ancient history, and the wilderness has reclaimed almost everything. Wolves howl at night amid the old collapsed buildings, reminding you that this is their territory now. The only things that are about the same as in 1910 are the unending snow and cold, the Big Dipper swinging silently around the North Star amid the northern lights—and your dog team.