by Donald Bowers, Jr.
From Yentna Station to Skwentna is all on the Yentna River, with the last few miles up the Skwentna River to the checkpoint. The river stays between well-defined banks for about five miles upstream from Yentna Station, and also for the last 15 miles into Skwentna. In the middle 15 miles it branches out into a maze of channels and sloughs, any of which can have a trail for local traffic. This is normally a fast run with no hills, provided the trail is in good shape; most teams make the leg in three to four and a half hours.
The trail out of the checkpoint usually stays close to the north bank of the river for three miles before swinging across to the south bank just before Rebel’s Roost, a saloon and resort for snowmachiners on the north bank above the river. There is usually a marked trail back across the river to Rebel’s Roost; watch the Iditarod markers closely unless you want to go over and join the big party the Roost always throws.
At Rebel’s Roost the river makes a near-90-degree turn to the left (west). About two miles past the bend the banks drop away and the river heads northwest again, spreading out through a number of different channels. There is usually one main channel, although it can change from year to year because this is a big, glacier-fed river. When there is sufficient snow, the trail will stay on the main channel, but it can wander up back sloughs and across sandbars on the south side of the river for part of the distance; watch the markers carefully.
After about 18 miles you’ll be on the main channel approaching MacDougall, which is a series of lodges on the north bank. A couple of miles later you’ll pass the mouth of Lake Creek, which flows into the Yentna from the north start to see cabins and a few lights along the river.
Once you pass the mouth of Lake Creek (with Lake Creek Lodge on the north bank) you’ll be 15 miles from Skwentna. After Lake Creek the riverbanks become taller and the river settles back into a single channel; the trail here is usually hard, wide, and fast. Watch for a few marked side trails leading to cabins and lodges and stay on the main line. About three miles from Skwentna the trail will swing to the left (south) side of the river and run up a fairly narrow half-mile-long slough which will come out at the mouth of the Skwentna River then turn left (south) and run for a few miles up the Skwentna to the checkpoint. You won’t miss the checkpoint because it’s a beehive of activity; the checkers will check you in and show you your food bags and give you a bale of straw. Toss the food bags onto your sled and snag the straw bale with your snow hook and someone will lead your dogs to your spot. This is probably the biggest and busiest checkpoint on the trail because all of the teams hit here at once on the first night of the race. There may be thirty or forty other teams on the river with you.
The actual checkpoint is in Joe and Norma Delia’s two-story cabin high atop the east bank. Joe has been the postmaster of Skwentna since anyone can remember, and was the checker for the first 25 Iditarods. (He retired as checker after the 1997 race, but his place is still the checkpoint.) Water is available from a hole in the river ice. After you get the dogs fed and looked over by the vets and bedded down, and after you get your food drop bags sorted out and get everything ready to go in three or four or five hours, you can head up to the big cabin for a good meal (and more Tang) and maybe a couple hours’ nap in a corner while your parka and boots dry out next to the wood stove.
Increasingly, some mushers are only making a quick stop in Skwentna and then moving on up the trail before stopping for a few hours. You can plan for this if you like by having your food drop set up so all you have to is grab the bag you need, throw it on the sled, and leave after you get through the check-in-check-out formalities and the vet check. (You will have shipped more food to Skwentna than you need because of race rules, so you won’t want to take all of your food with you.) You can also get some straw and tie it on top of the sled so you can bed your dogs down when you stop.
Remember that anything you want to save and send home (like extra booties and so forth) can be mailed from the post office, which is adjacent to the checkpoint. Just turn one of your food bags inside out, stuff everything into it, and put your name and address on the bag. If the post office isn’t open, give the bag to the checker along with a five-dollar bill (or leave it on the post office porch with at least a few bucks of postage money attached). You may have postage due when the bag gets back, but it beats having to throw everything away. (This procedure will work at many of the checkpoints on the race, but some postmasters in the villages are getting sticky about having the full postage when you mail your bag. No one can convince our illustrious Postal Service that mushers on the Iditarod living out of their sleds for a couple of weeks in the wilderness aren’t likely to have exact change for postage, much less the time to wait around and mail their bags in person.)