by Donald Bowers, Jr.
This leg is all on the mighty Yukon—upstream, and usually into the wind. It is long and often boring, but can just as easily be even longer and miserable when the wind is blowing and the temperatures plummet toward 40 below. It’s exactly 62 miles, as measured by Rick Swenson in 1997 on a snowmachine (one of the few years he wasn’t running the race). Figure about 6 to 9 hours for the run, depending on whether the wind is blowing and how many breaks you want to take along the way.
This stretch has absolutely no terrain—nothing but wide-open river and bend after bend, island after island, bluff after bluff. The west bank is always the high bank, with ridges sometimes rising more than 1,500 feet within a few miles of the river (which is less than a hundred feet above sea level). The east bank is low and wooded, punctuated by sloughs and creeks and islands. The trail stays mostly close to the west bank, but can run anywhere on the river depending on conditions.
There are no towns between Grayling and Kaltag, only scattered houses and cabins, almost all of which are summer-only. Virtually everything is on the west side of the river, and the trail spends much of its time under the west bank as well. In the summer the river is heavily traveled by all kinds of boats and barges, and fishing and hunting camps dot the shores. In the winter everything is abandoned and quiet, and there is little if any snowmachine traffic between Grayling and Kaltag. The only full-time resident on 130 miles of river is Ralph Conaster, whose spacious cabin at Eagle Island was the checkpoint until it burned down a few years ago. The checkpoint is now on the bank of the river near Ken Chase’s summer fishing cabin, since Ralph’s old cabin (where he’s now living) isn’t big enough.
The only hazards you might see on the river are occasional drifted-in sections and patches of rough or snow-free ice. There is always the chance of some overflow with glacier areas from water seeping from the high banks or flowing out of side streams. Once in awhile you may also see overflow from the river itself, but hopefully the trail will avoid it. It is critically important to stay on the marked trail on the big river. The Yukon is notorious for stretches of open water and thin ice. People run snowmachines into the river every winter, and some die.
The other major factor is the wind, which always seems to be blowing downstream, which means in your face. While it’s perfectly possible to get fine sunny days with light breezes, wind chills on the river can be very low, pushing 100 below in the worst cases. For long stretches there is no shelter at all and you must keep plugging. Make sure you have coats for your dogs, especially your leaders, since they will be bearing the brunt of the wind chill and breaking the wind for the dogs behind them.
You’ll head from the checkpoint right down the bank onto the river. If your dogs are going to have second thoughts, this is where you’ll find out. Once you’re down on the river and moving the first landmark is Fox Point island, 8 miles upriver. The trail will probably cross to the island and run along it for its five-mile length.
A couple of miles past the north tip of the island the river will bend to the left, and you’ll come to another island in about three miles, separated from the west bank by a narrow channel; the trail will stay to the west side of the river. The unnamed island is about four miles long; two miles past its north end you’ll see Simon Point, a prominent headland with a few cabins on the bank beneath it. (Remember that the west bank is the high bank.) Simon Point is a bit more than 20 miles from Grayling.
From Simon Point you’ll run up the river for 8 miles to the south tip of four-mile-long Alice Island. The trail will probably take the channel between the island and the west shore. There are a few cabins on the west bank at the entrance to the channel. At this point you’ll be drawing abeam the Kaiyuh Mountains to the east, a range of thousand-foot hills about ten miles from the river. The north tip of Alice Island is roughly the halfway point of this leg.
From Alice Island it’s four more miles to Blackburn Island. The trail will take the left channel as you head upstream. Just past the mouth of the channel, Blackburn Creek will flow in from the west, and you will see a tidy compound of compound of cabins on the bank beyond it. This is Blackburn’s. There may or may not be anyone there. If you see dog teams pulled up in front of the cabin, you might as well stop in. It can be a nice place to warm up before pushing on upriver. Blackburn’s is about 22 miles from the checkpoint at Eagle Island.
From Blackburn’s it’s five miles to the north end of Blackburn Island. The river will bend sharply to the left (northwest) and it’s five more miles to the south tip of Eagle Island, which is almost ten miles long. In 1997 the trail ran along the east side of the island, crossing the big sandbar at the island’s northern tip. From the sandbar, the trail will angle toward the west bank, past the mouth of Bear Creek. At night, you should see a lantern at the checkpoint not too far ahead.
The checkpoint is on the west bank about three miles past the tip of the sandbar, below Kenny Chase’s summer fishing cabin, which sits on a hill a hundred feet above the river. Kenny has run many Iditarods, including 1997 and 1998, and has graciously donated the use of his fishing site. Needless to say, facilities here are very minimal, but it’s not as if you have a lot of choices. The actual checkpoint is a Dodge Lodge weatherport tent perched on the sloping riverbank. If it’s anything like 1997, it will have glowing oil stove inside and straw-covered ledges cut out of the snow on which you can try to grab a nap. Kenny’s drafty summer cabin up on the hill is also available but quite a bit cooler. The outhouse is atop the hill near the cabin; it has a nice view, but you won’t spend very long in it when the temperatures are hovering near 30 below. Of course, there’s no water available and you’ll have to melt snow for water for the dogs.
A 1997 musher said that Eagle Island is so remote it’s actually beyond the edge of the planet: it’s as if yoursquo;ve gone to the edge, fallen off, and discovered that the Place Down Below really has frozen over. It’s definitely lonely and always cold. The local wolf packs howl all night to vent their indignation at all of their uninvited cousins intruding on their territory. You can rest assured you and your fellow mushers and checkpoint personnel are almost the only living humans in an area larger than many entire states. If you’re running the race to get away from it all, then this will be your favorite checkpoint. In any case, it’s a welcome respite in the wilderness, and you’ll be more than happy to stop there for awhile.