April 24, 2014

Skwentna to Finger Lake

by Donald Bowers, Jr.

Quick Overview

Plan on four to six hours for the run to Finger Lake. Your next food drop after Skwentna will be Rainy Pass (another four or five hours past Finger Lake) also want to take a rest during the heat of the day. Most people combine the two and stay the afternoon at Finger Lake. Take enough food with you from Skwentna to keep the dogs happy. (Note: Many of the front-runners will quick-stop through Skwentna and then camp for a few hours on the trail between Skwentna and Finger Lake. Then they’ll blow through Finger Lake well by dawn on Monday enroute to Rainy Pass.)

It’s uphill most of the way to Finger Lake, but the trail isn’t overly tough. The trail leaves Skwentna southbound on the Skwentna River, cuts off the left bank to parallel the river in a swamp for eight miles, then swings west to cross the river at the site of the old Skwentna Roadhouse about ten miles out. It then climbs up into the heavily wooded Shell Hills for a mile and a half, down through open swamps and wooded areas to cross Shell Creek after another mile and a half, then on for another three miles across small lakes, swamps, and woods to Onestone Lake, where you’re about 25 miles from Finger Lake. After two-mile-long Onestone Lake, the trail works west along open swamps and meadows, through occasional treelines, and across a few lakes, steadily climbing to Finger Lake.

One caution: In the past few years this stretch of trail has seen vastly increased snowmachine use, including the hugely expanded Iron Dog snowmachine race a couple of weeks before the Iditarod. Beginning in 1998, the Iron Dog sent more than 100 racing machines with heavy-duty tracks along the trail, and they made no attempt to repair the trail after they went over it. Much of the trail from Skwentna through Finger Lake and on to Rainy Pass was reduced to an endless series of huge moguls, big ruts, bare uphills where the snowmachines spun out trying to climb up, and generally terrible trail conditions. This may turn into a miserable run, and you might have to take your time to avoid breaking your sled or injuring your dogs.

Detailed Description

When you’re ready to push on from Skwentna, let the checker know you’re leaving; you may want someone to help lead your team past all of the inviting piles of straw and Idita-trash to the outbound trail. From Skwentna the trail heads southwest up the Skwentna River for a mile or so and then turns left (south) onto a long series of swamps that parallels the river on the east side for about ten miles. The trail crosses the river at the abandoned Skwentna Roadhouse, one of the original Iditarod Trail roadhouses; some of the old buildings can still be seen at the side of the trail on the west side of the river.

You’ll then climb immediately up into the Shell Hills. Expect a narrow, twisting, climbing trail for a mile and a half, which will then open onto a long, narrow, gradually descending swamp (good place to rest). After another mile and a half, which includes some interesting downhill runs through the woods, you’ll cross Shell Creek, then climb back up for three more miles of up- and-down running through the woods and across swamps and small lakes to Onestone Lake. Depending on how much snow has fallen and how the trail is actually laid out, the run over to Onestone Lake can be bad in places (more snow usually equals better trail).

When you reach Onestone Lake the worst is over recognize the two- mile-long lake by the big rock in the middle of it as well as a few cabins on the south bank. A few miles past Onestone the trail will pass half a mile south of Shell Lake Lodge, about the halfway point of this leg. Somewhere in this area will be the last big trail party you’ll see on the race: dozens and sometimes hundreds of people will fly their ski planes, run their snowmachines, and drive their dog teams out to a huge bonfire blowout that starts on Sunday night and continues well into Monday. Feel free to stop for a few minutes to chat and grab a beverage or a bite to eat—lots of mushers do.

After the bonfire the trail runs across an almost boring series of long level swamps and meadows interspersed by quick jumps through thick stands of spruce and birch to get from one open area to the next be gradually but steadily climbing the entire time. Don’t get complacent because there can be some nasty, twisting surprises going through the treelines. When you pass a small lake under a hogback-looking rocky ridge, you’re within three miles of Finger Lake. The trail works around the south foot of the ridge and then drops down onto Finger Lake.

The checkpoint is on the far (west) side of the lake, on the lake ice in front of the lodge. You can usually get cold water in the lodge, and there might be a bite to eat in the lodge kitchen, as well as a place to grab a nap. The front-runners will probably blast through here early on Monday morning, only stopping long enough to check in and out and sncak their dogs. Slower mushers will try to spend the heat of the day here to give their dogs some quality rest and then move on to Rainy Pass late in the afternoon.

The Finger Lake checkpoint is located near Winterlake Lodge, the home of Carl and Kirsten Dixon. Kirsten Dixon cooks complimentary meals for mushers and sells meals to others. There is a tent to rest in on the lake and water is available through an ice hole. The Finger Lake checkpoint is situated near the steps to the Happy River.

Historical Note: The race trail doesn’t actually follow the original Iditarod Trail as much as you might think. The first eight miles or so from Knik are on the original trail, but after that the race follows modern trails and cleared seismic lines generally paralleling the original alignment on the south. The old-time trail crossed the Susitna River at Susitna Station and went more or less direct from there to the old Skwentna Roadhouse, and never went up the Yentna River or to Skwentna.

Through the late 1980s the race used the general alignment of the original trail from Susitna Station (which was a checkpoint on early Iditarods) as far west as Rabbit Lake (approximately abeam Yentna Station 8 miles southwest) before angling northwest on a seismic survey line to Skwentna. By 1990 the race was using the Yentna River, dropping the Rabbit Lake checkpoint and replacing it with a new checkpoint at Yentna Station. The change was made mainly because the river had become a major snowmachine highway and the trail up it was much easier to establish and maintain each year than the old overland trail. The overland route was last used in 1992 because of poor conditions on the river; it is still an option.

The race trail rejoins the original Iditarod at the old Skwentna Roadhouse and generally follows it until Finger Lake. After Finger Lake, the old Iditarod dropped back down to the Skwentna River, avoiding the Happy River Steps and the subsequent Happy River Hill, passing by the long-vanished Mountain Climber Roadhouse and coming off the Skwentna near Shirley Lake. Today’s race trail runs north of the Skwentna River after Finger Lake, rejoining the old trail in the vicinity of Shirley Lake. Rumor has it the current race trail from Finger Lake to past Shirley Lake was a trapline trail used by Gene Leonard, an early Iditarod musher and checker who had a cabin at Finger Lake for many years.

From the Rainy Pass checkpoint to Rohn the race trail is essentially on the original routing, with the exception of the Dalzell Gorge, where the old trail on the mountainside above the canyon has long since been ravaged by avalanches and the race trail goes down through the gorge as a matter of practicality.

It should be noted that even the original Iditarod sometimes changed its routing from year to year. For instance, the trail up from the Skwentna River to Shirley Lake took at least two different routes, and one alternate route from the vicinity of Finger Lake went all the way to the Puntilla (Rainy Pass Lodge) area on the north side of Happy River, bypassing the Steps, the Hill, and even notorious Round Mountain.