by Donald Bowers, Jr.
This leg is all on the Yukon River and is generally easy running. The trail follows the main snowmachine route from Ruby to Galena. Plan on five to eight hours, depending on how long you want to rest your dogs, or if you do it during the heat of the day. Your biggest problem may be getting your dogs to go on the huge expanse of the mighty Yukon, which is a mile wide at Ruby and up to two miles wide downstream. More than a few teams have balked at starting down the river.
It is absolutely critical that you do not get off the marked trail on the Yukon. Like most big rivers in Alaska in the winter, the Yukon has spots and stretches of open water, some no more than a narrow leads a few feet long, some big enough to float a good-sized boat. There can also be overflow on a massive scale just under unbroken snow. When snowmachines pack down the snow and expose the overflow, it freezes quickly into a hard surface, while just off the trail you can go in up to your waist. Needless to say, the threat of thin ice is always present if you go exploring.This featurette is from the 2008 Iditarod Documentary. To purchase the full documentary, click here.
You’ll leave town down the street in front of the checkpoint, make a right at the bottom of the hill, and go directly onto the river. Depending on how the river freezes up, the trail can be anywhere on the ice. It’s usually straight and smooth, although it can get a bit punchy sometimes. Once your dogs are moving steadily on the river, you can sit back and enjoy the ride, which will probably be a boring one. This is a good place to rig out your sled seat if you have one. Some mushers have been known to climb onto their sled bags and take a nap while the dogs plod steadily down the white highway.
After you move down the river from Ruby and its enfolding hills, the left (south) bank will be low and swampy with heavy forests in places. The right bank will be a thousand-foot ridge that gradually descends as you head west, finally ending about ten miles before Galena.
Three miles downstream from Ruby on the left bank, at the west end of the ridges near Ruby, you’ll pass the entrance of Ruby Slough, which describes a looping 30-mile course through the bottomlands south of the river. It rejoins the river about 15 miles downstream, at the mouth of the Yuki River. Between Ruby Slough and the main river is Big Island. The trail usually stays on the main river, but it may deviate onto the slough and the island if conditions require.
For the first seven miles west of Ruby the river makes a gentle right turn around the delta of the Melozi River, whose mouth is opposite Ruby. At the seven-mile point, the river makes a 45- degree left turn and flows along the foot of the ridge on the north side, which rises 1,000 to 1,500 feet above the river. Two-mile-long Melozi Island will be on the outside (north side) of the bend.
There are a handful of houses and cabins on the north bank of the river for the next 30 miles, a few of which are occupied during the winter. Most of these have their own trails leading off the river; keep a sharp eye out for the trail markers and don’t deviate from the mainline.
Gales along the river sometimes blow dust and sand off the northside bluffs and onto the river. In 1998 there was a lengthy stretch of very dirty, runner-eating trail about ten miles out of Ruby. Additionally, the trail in 1998 deviated all the way over to the north side of the river for several miles in this area. In any case, this is a major village-to-village snowmachine trail and should be well used and easy to follow.
Ten miles past Melozi Island the trail will pass Yuki Island, a low-lying two-mile-long sliver in midstream. The mouth of the Yuki River is on the left (south) side of the Yukon at the west end of Yuki Island. The river will make a gentle bend to the left after the Yuki joins it, still running at the very foot of the right-hand ridge, now rising less than a thousand feet above you. At the mouth of the Yuki, you’re about 30 miles from Galena.
Ten miles past the mouth of the Yuki you’ll reach the east tip of five-mile-long Fish Island. The trail normally takes the left- hand (southern) channel and may actually run up on the island a bit. At the west tip of Fish Island you’re about 16 miles from Galena. From the west end of Fish Island the trail usually crosses the river to the north bank. This crossing may be interesting if the river has frozen up rough, and there may be some icy sidehill running as the trail hugs the right bank once across the main channel.
You can now see the end of the right-hand ridge just ahead. The trail will swing around the last riverside bluff and head northwest into Louden Slough, which cuts across the meandering bend of the main river. The slough is about four miles long, after which you’ll come back out on the main river and angle across to the left bank. After you cross the river there there are a couple of cabins on the left bank for reference.
The right bank of the Yukon at this point is a series of bluffs, called the Cave-Off Cliffs. At night you may start to see the red light of a radio tower on the right bank; this is near the site of the old Campion Air Force Station, an abandoned Cold War radar outpost. Once on the left bank you’ll follow the river gently left as it makes a 90-degree swing to the west; the trail will cut up and over the sandbars on the inside of the bend.
As you come around the bend you will see a few towers (and lights at night). These are radio navigation aids for the Galena airport. When you’re abeam the towers, you’ll be about four miles from the checkpoint. You may also see a road with vehicles on it on the north bank. This is a local road extending east from Galena for ten miles or so. (There are actually two Galenas: the old town on the riverbank where the checkpoint is located, and the new town a couple of miles east on higher ground.)
By this time you’ll see the lights (or buildings) of Galena, only to lose them again as you make a last quick pass behind a small island on the south side of the river. When the town reappears, the trail will cut across the river, up the steep river bank, and then into the checkpoint a couple of blocks west along the top of the bank.
In 1998 the trail did not go up into town, and all the dogs stayed down on the river in front of the checkpoint. This made for a walk up to the checkpoint, but there was a heated work tent on the river next to the dog lot that was ideal for resting. Due to changing community feelings in Galena, it is likely the dogs will stay on the river again for the Millennium Race.
The checkpoint is always in the old log community center right on the riverbank. Cold water may be available. There is a cafe a few blocks from the checkpoint if you get in when it’s open. The townsfolk are mostly Athabaskan Indians (as are most Natives along the middle Yukon) and they always provide a good feed in the checkpoint. One of the specialties is always moose stew.
The Yukon Mail Trail was as famous in its own right as the Iditarod. It ran mostly overland along the north shore of the great river, in the trees wherever possible to shield it from drifting. Modern river trails go directly on the river ice because snowmachines can easily punch through a trail no matter how bad the drifts.
The Serum Run of 1925 along the Yukon used the Mail Trail. The last surviving 1925 Serum Run musher was Edgar Nollner of Galena. He died in 1999 and is one of the honorary mushers for the 2000 race. He was active until just before his death and often visited the checkpoint during the race to chat with mushers.