November 27, 2014

Rohn to Nikolai

by Donald Bowers, Jr.

Quick Overview

This leg isn’t as long as it’s alleged to be. Some people say it actually runs only 75 miles, but the real distance is probably closer to 80. It’s still quite a pull, but not as bad as it could be. (The published figure probably comes from the old trail routing over to Farewell Station and then to Nikolai.) On the other hand, there are some truly bad spots on this stretch, mostly within the first 20 miles. Expect a total of 10 to 15 hours for this leg; you’ll want to rest the dogs for several hours somewhere, or else take a lot of shorter breaks.

This run breaks into three natural sections: 20 miles along the south side of the South Fork of the Kuskokwim from Rohn to Farewell Lakes and up onto the Farewell Burn, 35 miles across the Burn itself to Sullivan Creek, and then 20 miles north from Sullivan Creek past Salmon River to Nikolai.

Detailed Description

The first 20 miles out of Rohn has some of the consistently worst trail on the whole race. Allow yourself at least three hours of good daylight when you leave Rohn—you’ll definitely want to see what you’re getting into. Also, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to run this stretch of trail in convoy with one or more other teams. preferably someone who has done it before. You can get into situations on this leg that can require all the help you can get.

From Rohn, the trail immediately breaks out onto the windblown gravel and sandbars of the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River have about a mile of really lousy going over bare spots, through driftwood tangles, across large stretches of slippery ice, and maybe even through some overflow and shallow open water.

This area is a natural wind tunnel and is a perennial Excedrin headache for the Iditarod Air Force pilots. The wind is often blowing hard out on the open riverbed, 40 miles per hour or more; it always blows from the east, or down the river. You might have some trouble keeping the team going in the correct direction on the ice if the wind is strong enough. Be prepared to grab your leaders and help them if the wind is really strong.

Markings across the river usually aren’t very good. You’re looking to cross the river on a diagonal to the southwest, picking up the trail on the far side where it re-enters the trees. There should be plenty of markers on the tree line. You can use your headlight even during the day to help pick out the reflective markers. Once you’re back in the trees the trail is generally okay for ten miles or so climb quickly up out of the river bottoms through a steep ravine onto a low plateau bordering the river on the south side. The plateau is well wooded, but you’ll make a couple of drops into small open side valleys flowing into the main river from the south (left). There will probably be glare ice and some frozen marshy areas as you cross these valleys.

Five miles out of Rohn on an otherwise straight trail, you’ll make a sudden swing to the right and then slowly start bending back around to the left. The entire side of the mountain overlooking the south side of the valley collapsed in the winter of 1997-8 and obliterated about half a mile of the trail, burying it under 30 to 50 feet of mud, rocks, and entire uprooted trees. The bypass trail may be a bit rough in places, but it shouldn’t be any trouble. What looks like a small hill on your left as your work along the bypass trail is actually the edge of the landslide—it was a Really Big One! Be happy you were here when the mountain decided to come down and visit the river.

About ten miles out you’ll come to the Post River. Don’t worry—you’ll know it when you see it. This is a major river flowing in from the south and you’ll have a hundred yards or more of gently sloping ice to cross, probably without much snow cover. It may have a light covering of water in places, making it Really Slick. On the far side you’ll have a quick left turn back up the bank and into the trees again; slow the dogs down as you leave the ice and don’t miss the turn up the steep bank.

Half a mile later you’ll come to what most people call the Post River Glacier, but which is really a separate, smaller stream. This little stretch is about a quarter-mile of pure nightmare even under good conditions, followed by some merely terrible trail for another quarter-mile or so.

You’ll come to the crest of a hill and will see a hundred-yard expanse of ice in the canyon below, with a side ravine feeding in from the other side. The side ravine will look like a sloping cascade of ice perhaps 30 yards wide with rocky sides. The hill down to the ice is short but steep. At the bottom you will make a sharp right turn.

Do NOT go straight across the ice and directly up the icy ravine on the far side. It is feasible, but strongly not recommended. The trail should be marked to bypass the ice to the right. You will then climb a nearly vertical fifty-foot hill, swing briefly left through the trees at the top, and then come down onto the upper part of the icy ravine you saw earlier.

The trail turns uphill on the ice for about fifty yards, bending right around a sharp rock outcropping (keep your sled clear of this) and continues up to the end of the ravine through a field of rocks the size of softballs (usually with no snow cover) then come into a short open tundra area that is often bare of snow before regaining the trees and a semblance of normalcy.

When you first come down into the upper ravine onto the ice, DO NOT let your dogs turn left, or downhill! If they do, you cannot stop them and must hang on for dear life (hopefully stomping on your brake for all you’re worth) as you scream down the icy chute and return to GO to start everything all over again, ideally without wrecking your sled in the process.

Once you are back in the trees the trail will begin to climb slowly up to a saddle on the south side of Egypt Mountain. This area is called the Buffalo Chutes because the local herd of several hundred wild bison wanders through here and grazes in some of the small pothole marshes and lakes in the woods. You may or may not see the buffalo; they have not been known to bother anyone.

For the next ten miles through the Buffalo Chutes you will probably see stretches of bare dirt, rock, and ice, some very narrow trails through the woods, and a couple of areas of frozen overflow that can be bad enough to obliterate the trail. Watch carefully for trail markers and don’t take any wrong turns. You can mark your progress by watching Egypt Mountain slowly drop behind you on your right. Once you are by it you will be approaching Farewell Lakes Lodge.

One of the potentially worst stretches of overflow is after you are by Egypt Mountain, only a couple of miles before the lake. The trail will enter an area of several acres of swamp and trees that may be flooded with ice. The trail exits up the hill to the left, although in some years it is entirely possible to miss it and continue on down the icy swamp, ultimately coming to the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. (In 1997 six teams were tangled up in this mess for an hour and a later musher missed the turn completely, got lost, and ultimately took almost two days to get to Nikolai.)

The first large lake you reach will be Farewell Lake. You won’t go directly past the lodge, but at night you might see the red light on the FAA radio beacon tower at the east end of the lake, at the Farewell Lake Lodge (closed during the winter except for a caretaker). For the next five miles you will run from lake to lake with some excursions through the forest.

After you leave Farewell Lake, you’ll see one more “Dangerous Trail Conditions” sign just before a short, steep downhill onto another lake. Also somewhere after Farewell Lake, just after you cross a creek in an open area, you’ll duck back into a treeline and pass the old Pioneer Roadhouse, one of the original stops on the old Iditarod. It’s a good place to take a break and explore for a few minutes; ruins of a couple of the old cabins are still there.

After leaving the lakes, the trail will start to work up a series of low wooded hills and ridges. You will crest one last forested ridge and suddenly be in the Farewell Burn. This was the site of Alaska’s largest forest fire, a million and a half acres in the summer of 1978 be running through it for the next 40 miles.

The trail through the Burn was almost impassable for several years after the fire, with snags and all manner of obstructions, but it has been cleaned up by the Bureau of Land Management and isn’t usually much of a problem. You will run from ridge to ridge for 15 miles or so on a generally good trail. The visibility from the tops of these ridges is forever because there are no trees; at night you can sometimes see the lights of other mushers for 20 miles in either direction. At night you can also see a single light on top of a mountain far to the west. This is the light at the military radar site on top of Tatalina Mountain, 15 miles southwest of McGrath pass right under it on your way from McGrath to Takotna in a couple of days.

During the day you can easily see the hills west of McGrath, and Mounts McKinley and Foraker looming above the Alaska Range far to the northeast. (At sunset or dawn the view from the Burn can be positively breathtaking as the sun ignites the lofty summits of Denali and Foraker above the dark landscape below.)

When you come down into a sheltered gulch with a tent camp on your left (people may be there on snowmachines) you will be 41 miles from Nikolai. This is called the Buffalo Camp (for obvious reasons). You are usually welcome to stop here for awhile if you wish; the owner lives in Nikolai and is a friend of the race. You will climb another ridge or two past the Buffalo Camp and then the trail will drop onto a mostly level plain for the rest of the way to Nikolai.

If the wind isn’t blowing and there has been sufficient snow, this level stretch of the trail is a speedway and you can make superb time all the way to Nikolai. However, if the wind is blowing (from the north, like it was in 1997) the trail will probably be drifted in as soon as you drop off of the ridges.

The trail runs basically straight ahead (west-northwest) for about ten miles after leaving the hills and is marked by permanent reflectors. If the trail is obscured when you come to an open area, look carefully for the markers on the next treeline. The fire didn’t burn everything in this area, and the trail runs through stands of swamp spruce and willow bushes.

About ten miles past the Buffalo Camp you will see a sign on the right for the BLM Bear Creek cabin, about 30 miles from Nikolai. This is the first of the bush shelter cabins you will see on the way to Nome (actually the old cabin at Rohn falls into this category as well). It’s less than a mile off the trail and is an excellent place to stop for a few hours. It’s a snug log cabin with space to park the dogs, bunks inside, a good woodstove with plenty of firewood close by, and a real outhouse.

The cabin is usually a five- to seven-hour run from Rohn, and about three to four hours from Nikolai. The cabin is normally set up for “easy-off- easy-on” access from the main trail. (Note: In 1998 the sign wasn’t there, but the turnoff was marked by a six-foot tripod festooned with reflective markers and survey tape. If you miss the first turnoff, you can run back up the “out” trail, which joins the Iditarod a mile or so west.)

After the long straightaway (a couple of miles after Bear Creek Cabin), the trail will begin to curve in and out of treelines—still maintaining the general west-northwest orientation—for another half-dozen miles until it comes to Sullivan Creek, 21 miles from Nikolai. There is a good bridge across the creek (which is usually open and too deep to ford), but the approach has some nasty blind turns and a couple of ditches that are often open. Just take it easy in this area and you’ll be across with no problem.

After Sullivan Creek the trail continues to wind generally west-northwest, in and out of treelines. There may be minor seepage-type overflow from the adjacent muskeg on some stretches, but it normally isn’t much problem. Permanent markings for the next 9 miles to the Salmon River fish camp can be very sparse; if the trail is blown in and you can’t find the Iditarod trail breakers’ stakes or survey tape, you should not try it at night. (Several teams got lost here for varying amounts of time during a 60-mph windstorm in 1997.)

The Salmon River fish camp is easily recognizable: it consists of the first structures yoursquo;ve seen since the Buffalo Camp and the Bear Creek cabin. The trail turns right (north), off the river and through the camp; don’t continue down the Salmon River. (Many streams in this area have stretches of open water even in the dead of winter.)

From the camp the trail is marked and maintained by local villagers for the last 12 miles north to Nikolai; it is normally flat and fast, running through woods with occasional cuts across open swamps, sloughs, and lakes. A couple of miles before Nikolai you’ll drop down onto the South Fork of the Kuskokwim. Follow the Iditarod trail stake markers carefully on the river; there are several side trails before you get to town.

Once you reach Nikolai, you’re through a lot of the bad trail on the race (although anything can happen on down the line, and often does). Your team will be bedded down in the area surrounding the school and village public works building. Cold water is available in the village public works building, and maybe in the school or in the washateria in the municipal building. In some years hot water may also be available, but don’t count on it. A snack bar is sometimes set up in the school gym and there’s a small restaurant upstairs in the game room of the municipal building. You can catch a nap upstairs in the village public works building and dry your soaked gear in the boiler room. As a rule, if yoursquo;ve made it to Nikolai, you’re through the toughest trail and you—and more importantly your dogs—have managed to make the mental transition to the long-haul trail mode. Many veterans say if you can get to Nikolai with your team and your wits intact, yoursquo;ve got a good chance to finish the race.