August 20, 2014

White Mountain to Safety

by Donald Bowers, Jr.

Quick Overview

This can be one of the most dangerous stretches on the race when the wind blows or a storm hits. It can make or break champions, not to mention back- of-the-packers. Mushers have nearly died within what would normally be a few hours’ easy running to Nome. In reasonable weather, this is a pleasant five- to eight-hour run; in the worst conditions, it can be impassable.

The race uses the main snowmachine trail to Nome. It is well marked at the beginning of the race, but inevitably many markers are knocked over or blown down. Some parts have been permanently marked. Markers are absolutely critical for this leg because visibility can be near zero in storms and ground blizzards.

The trail leaves White Mountain on the Fish River for about three miles, and then leaves the river to cut overland to the southwest, crossing low, rolling tundra and several streams before reaching the Klokerblok River. It runs up the river and across some low ridges, and then crosses into the drainage of the Topkok River.

The trail then turns west and climbs over a series of barren ridges to a 400-foot saddle just northwest of Topkok Head, overlooking the coast. It then descends sharply to the beach, reaching the Nome Kennel Club shelter cabin at the foot of the hill, 30 miles from White Mountain.

For the next 12 miles the trail runs along or just behind the dune line and the “driftwood line” on the shore. This stretch is wide open and is subject to winds of more than 80 miles an hour from the north, as well as blinding whiteouts. The trail will join the Nome-to-Council road (not plowed in the winter) at the Bonanza Ferry bridge and then follow it for the last 12 miles to Safety.

Trail conditions on this leg can range from excellent to abysmal, and usually include glare ice, overflow, drifted snow, bare tundra, sand, and exposed gravel on the road. You MUST check the weather carefully before leaving White Mountain; you may want to wait it out, stop at a shelter cabin, or at least convoy with another musher (preferably someone who has run this stretch before).

One consideration is that the wind will most likely die down right after sunrise (if it’s going to die down at all), but will probably come back up by noon and continue to blow through the afternoon and evening. In such situations, it is best to ask the locals at White Mountain or call race headquarters in Nome. All other things being equal, try to leave White Mountain about three hours before sunrise, so as to be heading up Topkok to catch any lull in the wind plus have daylight for the worst part of the run.

Detailed Description

You’ll head out of White Mountain to the northwest, up the Fish River. If the wind is blowing from the north, you’ll hit it as soon as you round the bend and leave the shelter of the hill behind the town. Watch the markers carefully so you don’t miss the turn off the river to the left (southwest). If you keep going straight, you’ll be on a trail to Council, 20 miles upstream.

Once on the overland trail and away from river, you’ll be running mainly in the open, with just an occasional clump of willow bushes. The trail may be drifted if the wind is blowing, but it should be well marked. One problem you will probably encounter is that the trail is often marked on the downhill or downwind side; this means many trail markers are inadvertently knocked over by teams in front of you that slide or are blown into them. The markers are not put back up for following teams. It is entirely possible to go for a mile or more without seeing a marker on some stretches of trail because the markers have been knocked down.

About five miles after leaving the river you’ll cross Cumberland Creek, which has a substantial treeline; this is locally called Timber and offers some shelter from the wind if things get too bad. More importantly, you must ensure you are on the trail at this point because there is only one place to cross the creek for several miles in either direction. There may be some light overflow crossing the creek itself.

A few miles past Timber you’ll enter the valley of the Klokerblok River (one local pronunciation is “kootch-i-block”), which is usually somewhat out of the wind. Depending on overflow and ice conditions on the river, the trail may run up the river or above it on the slope to the right. After a few miles you will cut up the left bank and climb up a short, steep slope run southwest along the sidehill a hundred feet above the river for several miles, dropping down to cross side creeks (any of which may have overflow and glare ice).

Finally the Klokerblok will swing to the west and you will continue southwest, dropping back down into the valley of Topkok River. In the valley you’ll see an abandoned A-frame shelter cabin that has been partly submerged in icy overflow. Watch for glare ice and light overflow here. In recent years this cabin has not been usable; do not count on being able to stop here. If you must have shelter in this area, continue down the Topkok River to the coast (about four miles), where there is an easily located cabin.

There are no trees past the A-frame all the way to Nome (and none at Nome, either). Everything from here on is barren, with only the occasional clump of scrub bushes. At the A-frame, the trail will swing up the hill to the right, off the Topkok River. You will quickly begin to pick up the wind if it is blowing. You will be heading southwest; a north or northwest wind (the usual) will be blowing from your right. The trail will climb a couple of 400-foot ridges and run generally sidehill, roughly paralleling and slowly separating from the Topkok River in the valley to the left.

After each ridge you will drop down to quickly cross a creek with some scrub willows before climbing sharply up again; there is some shelter in the creek bottoms from the wind if you want to take a break. Finally you will begin to climb the highest ridge—this is Topkok. The summit is about 500 feet above sea level, followed by a moderately steep one-mile descent to the beach; the down-trail can be icy.

From the A-frame to the summit is not quite five miles, almost all of it totally exposed to the wind and subject to ground blizzards. It is very important to stay on the trail because you can easily turn south in reduced visibility conditions and come out atop the high cliffs of Topkok Head. (The trail used to run along the cliffs but was considered too dangerous; the current trail is intended to keep dog teams and snowmachiners away from the rocks.) This is another reason to try to do this stretch in daylight—you may not have many trail markers to navigate by and you’ll need all the extra visual cues you can get.

A major factor to consider in this area is that the wind can be extremely localized—and quite violent. You are moving through a series of natural wind tunnels, called “blow holes”, any of which (or all of which, or none of which) may be blowing at any given time. You can easily move through a hurricane-force gale with blowing snow and come suddenly into a calm area—or vice versa. Moreover, the wind can start up within minutes and reach hurricane force within an hour, or quit just as quickly.

At the eastern end of the area, the wind will be in your face as it comes across the inland mountains and fans out; as you move further west, it will swing to become more of a direct cross wind and then finally to be more at your back. The wind may or may not be accompanied by blowing snow; there is usually more blowing snow later in the day after the sun has had a chance to hit the snowpack and loosen up the surface layer. There is ALWAYS blowing snow if the winds kick up after a fresh snowfall.

From the summit of Topkok you should carefully look ahead along the beach line to the west. If you can see the beach clearly all the way to the old buildings of Solomon (about 15 miles on), you should be able to cross. If you see blowing snow, or if you can see Cape Nome and the hills clearly but there seems to be a haze obscuring the beach area, you will have problems—your visibility at ground level might be zero once you’re on the beach. At night there are no lights on this section, so you will have no indication of what lies ahead. It is entirely possible for the wind to be blowing on Topkok and not down below, or the other way around—or both.

At the west foot of Topkok, you are about 25 miles from Safety. The Nome Kennel Club maintains a snug shelter cabin here that has saved many a musher and snowmachiner. Again, if you see blowing snow ahead, you might be advised to hole up here for awhile if you’re not familiar with the area. There is another shelter cabin 6 miles farther on, called Tommy Johnson’s cabin. The six miles between these cabins is traditionally the worst blow hole in the area, although the wind can blow just as hard until well past the Bonanza Ferry bridge, 12 miles from the cabin. In most years the trail from the Kennel Club cabin heads west across Taylor Lagoon, a two-mile-long lake just behind the dune line. This is often blown clear of snow and is usually a skating rink. If the wind is blowing, you will probably not be able to control your team on the ice and will be forced to work over to the dune line, making your way along it through the scrub bushes and driftwood until you pick up the trail again past the lake.

Once past the lagoon, the trail will run along or just behind the beach and dune line. It will have bare spots and you will often be crossing exposed grass clumps and beach sand and skirting driftwood snags. The trail will be marked with 8-foot-high posts every few hundred yards, interspersed with wooden tripods and hundreds of Iditarod trail stakes. Everything is hung with reflectors. This is probably the best marked stretch of trail in the world, and it’s sometimes still not marked well enough. It is critically important that you stay on the markers across this stretch if the weather is bad.

In strong winds, your leaders will tend to turn downwind if visibility is bad or they don’t have a distinct trail to follow. You can very easily get turned out onto the beach and onto the shore ice. If the blow hole is roaring and you can’t see where you’re going, and you notice the wind is at your back before you reach the Nome-to-Council road, something is very wrong and you may be in serious trouble.

Usually your last warning will be the driftwood line on the beach. You must NEVER cross the driftwood line in poor visibility. There is one place, however, where the line is broken, about 11 miles past the Kennel Club cabin where the Solomon River breaches the spit and dune line to empty into the Bering Sea. To repeat, you MUST go marker to marker when visibility is bad.

If you find yourself out on the ice, or even think you may be out on the ice, STOP!!!! There is often open water as close as a quarter-mile offshore in this area. If you must move in such a situation, head directly into the wind until you come back to the beach.

The winds along this stretch are not an empty threat to make the race look more dangerous for publicity purposes. In 1994 back-of-the-packer Beth Baker got separated from her trail-sweep snowmachine escort and inadvertently headed out onto the ice. She finally got her team stopped only a few hundred yards from open water. The winds and blowing snow were so bad searchers could not find her until the next morning, and by then she had badly frostbitten her hands in the minus-130-degree wind chill; she had to scratch.

In 1992 Bob Ernisse and the group he was with became stalled in a whiteout in the middle of the blowhole, couldn’t get back to the shelter cabin, and tried to camp out. Ernisse’s sled bag and sleeping bag were partly open and he became hypothermic as the wind packed snow into every open space; his friend Bob Hickel found him in the morning and saved his life. He got to Nome in a medivac helicopter. (Ernisse came back and finished the race in 1994.)

If you are at the back of the pack, the trail sweeps will probably be able to escort you across the blowhole and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to wait for them. Otherwise, your best bet may be to go with someone who is experienced. Once again: The winds in this area are nothing to trifle with. They have killed people in the past (fortunately no Iditarod mushers) and will undoubtedly do so in the future. In many cases the winds can be safely navigated, but it is not something to try if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Of course, this stretch can also be a pleasant stroll along the beach—you’ll just have to pay your money and take your chances. The author has seen it both ways: In 1996 it was calm and clear, and in 1997, with rookies Sonny King and Suzan Amundsen in close formation, it was 75-mile-an-hour gusts strong enough to literally knock over the sleds and dogs all the way from the east foot of Topkok to Tommy Johnson’s (fortunately without too much blowing snow).

Remember that the wind can take heat away from your dogs at astonishing rates, even if the temperatures are relatively mild and the dogs have thick coats. Consider putting dog blankets at least on your upwind dogs (in this case, the dogs on the right side of the gangline) before you head through an operating blow hole. If you must stop for any length of time in the wind, try to get the dogs behind some kind of shelter. And don’t forget that the wind also tremendously accelerates dehydration, so your dogs will be working up a powerful thirst (and so will you).

After you pass Tommy Johnson’s, you will be running along a narrow spit between the ocean on your left and a narrow lagoon on your right. Five miles past Tommy Johnson’s you’ll cross the main breach in the dune- and driftwood line where the Solomon River flows from the lagoon to the sea. The wind can still be blowing strongly enough here to create whiteout conditions. You MUST stay on the marked trail, especially crossing the Solomon River outlet.

As you approach the Nome-to-Council road you’ll see the Bonanza Ferry bridge, where the road crosses from the mainland to the spit. Just north of the bridge you’ll also see the Last Train to Nowhere, the skeletons of three old steam locomotives next to an old water tank. These were the pride and joy of the railroad from Solomon to Council, which was never finished and operated only for a few years in the early 1900s.

Once past the bridge you’ll climb immediately up onto the road. The road isn’t plowed during the winter, but more than likely the gravel roadway will be blown clear of snow and you’ll have to run on the shoulders or even in the ditch. You will have mile markers from here to Nome. Safety Roadhouse is at Mile 22, about 12 miles ahead be running along a narrow spit between the Bering Sea on the left and Safety Sound on the right. Once you’re on the road, it’s hard to get lost, and in any case the wind is usually less intense and more at your back.

You’ll see some old cabins and ruins along the road all the way into Nome. Some are still used as recreational cabins by Nomeites. In 1898 and 1899 the beach you’re running along was almost shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of people trying to make their fortunes from the gold-rich beach sand. There’s still pay dirt there if you want to come back in the summer and give it a try, and lots of people do. There have never been any permanent claims allowed on the beach, which is public property. As long as you’re actively working a spot, it’s yours.

At the end of the spit you’ll see the Safety bridge ahead; the trail will bypass the bridge to the left. The lone warehouse-looking building ahead on the far side of the bridge is Safety Roadhouse, the last checkpoint on the trail before Nome.

Most drivers don’t stop very long at Safety, just long enough to pick up their bibs for the last 22 miles to Front Street. You were able to ship something here if you wanted; the dogs would probably appreciate a snack. If you’re not in a major hurry, you can step inside the roadhouse for a bowl of soup or a beverage (and to use the facilities). Note: If there is a storm in progress, you might consider waiting here for awhile because you have almost no shelter between here and Nome.