July 22, 2014

Unalakleet to Shaktoolik

by Donald Bowers, Jr.

Quick Overview

The actual distance on this leg is usually about 37 or 38 miles. (As with some other legs, the official distance sometimes reflects the longest possible routing, or old routings.) The race follows the main snowmachine trail to Shaktoolik; it is normally well traveled and well marked. The first 25 miles cross a mix of woods, taiga, open areas, and exposed ridge tops; the last 12 miles are completely in the open on the barren coastline. This leg usually takes four to six hours, but can be much longer if the weather is bad. The trail leaves Unalakleet northbound and runs just in from the beach, turning inland after five miles to pass behind rocky 850-foot-high Blueberry Point. It comes almost back to the shore at the fishing camp of Egavik before climbing up the Blueberry Hills, reaching the thousand-foot summit at the 18-mile point. At the top the trail turns west and makes a three-mile drop back to the beach, then follows a slough and the dune line northwestward for the last 12 miles out to Shaktoolik. The primary concern on this leg is the weather. Shaktoolik is windy even in good weather, but under some conditions the winds can blow from the north at more than hurricane force, with temperatures well below zero and chill factors worse than minus one hundred. If the winds are howling, the trail from Unalakleet to the top of the Blueberry Hills will be relatively sheltered (except on the ridge tops), but the last 12 miles out to Shaktoolik can be extremely difficult with drifts and ground blizzards.

Detailed Description

You’ll leave Unalakleet northbound on the slough behind the town, passing to the east of the airport. The trail will probably be icy. Watch the markers carefully and don’t end up on the gravel beach road after you pass the airport; it’s usually plowed and you will destroy your runner plastic before you even get out of sight of the town.

The trail runs generally inland of the road for about five miles until the small settlement of Power, where it leaves the shore and starts to climb, turning inland to pass behind 850-foot Blueberry Point. In a few years on early races, the trail ran along the sea ice under the bluffs, but has not done so recently climb steadily to about 300 feet, passing through a wide, mostly open saddle east of Blueberry Point about three miles after leaving the beach, then descending gradually back toward the shoreline in a wide valley come back almost to the shore at the fishing camp of Egavik, about 12 miles from Unalakleet. The trail will cross Egavik Creek (watch for overflow) and then make a short but relatively steep climb directly up a 300-foot ridge. This is the first (and easiest) of three hills before you reach the summit of Blueberry Hills.

You’ll run along the open ridge line for a mile or so and then descend almost back to the coast, crossing a small creek about three miles past Egavik. Then you’ll turn slightly northeastward away from the shore along a small wooded valley to get around a 750-foot hill on the coast. (Note that trees in this area tend to grow only in sheltered areas.) After a mile or so you’ll turn back to the north, climbing up over another several-hundred- foot ridge before returning almost to the shoreline to cross another small creek about six or seven miles past Egavik. This is the second hill.

The last hill is generally considered the second most difficult climb on the last half of the race. It’s about four miles long and runs right up the spine of the Blueberry Hills; you’re gaining a thousand feet in elevation. Much of the trail is in woods, but some stretches are exposed and can be heavily drifted. The grades are generally steady, but there are a few short, steep pitches. You will also make a few dips down into ravines.

As you near the top, the trail will become more open; you’ll pass what is called the false summit, descending sharply into a ravine and then climbing back up to the real summit. For the last mile or so, you can see out to the west from the ridge tops; at night the lights of Shaktoolik will be visible, 15 miles away.

Once on top, the trail will make a left turn (to the west); don’t miss the turn or you’ll be following another trail that continues along the top of the hills and bypasses Shaktoolik. A quarter-mile past the turn is the beginning of the three-mile descent to the beach. The first couple of miles are basically one big downgrade with many curves, not overly steep but unrelenting and mostly in the woods. The trail can be icy here and the curves are lined with trees, which have wrecked many a sled. Make sure you have your team well under control before you drop off the edge of the planet headed down for the beach. Don’t let them speed up too much on the way down or you may find yourself in major trouble.

You’ll bottom out in a small valley and climb sharply back up over one last wooded hundred-foot ridge to the beach. There are a couple of cabins where the trail hits the shore; if the wind is howling ahead (and you’ll know it), you might consider stopping here until things let up a bit. Generally the north winds on the coast die down (if they’re going to die down) just after dawn but will often pick back up by afternoon.

Once on the shore, there aren’t any more trees, and precious few bushes. The trail will run northwestward along a slough behind the dune line, which will be on your left. If the slough trail is drifted in, it is sometimes possible to make your way along the dune line. The slough trail can be rough and icy. About halfway to Shaktoolik the trail will come up out of the slough and onto the dune line. By this point the trail is actually an ATV path. The first buildings you will see ahead are Old Shaktoolik, abandoned since the 1960s. The trail will go past them and continue to New Shaktoolik, a couple of miles farther on run right up the main street of town to the checkpoint, which is in the National Guard armory.

Cold water is available from the village power plant and pump station next door. The dogs will usually be parked on the south side of the armory, which is the only place they can be sheltered from the north wind. Most people don’t plan to spend much time at Shaktoolik, because if the gales come up you can easily spend a whole day or longer here. Just remember that the next leg is 60 miles of complete bleakness across the sea ice of Norton Bay, and the sooner you get it behind you the better you’ll be.