by Donald Bowers, Jr.
Important Note The Cripple checkpoint was moved for the 2000 race. It will be located approximately 45 miles farther toward Ruby, at the Poorman airstrip. This is the same location used by the Iron Dog snowmachine race for its checkpoint. This significantly changes the nature of this portion of the race. The distance from Ophir to Cripple is now about 105 miles instead of the previous 60, and the distance from the Cripple/Poorman checkpoint to Ruby will be about 65 miles, instead of the previous 112. The Trail Notes have been revised to reflect this change.
This leg is now a manageable 65 to 70 miles and can probably be covered by some teams in one leap. It is all on well-defined trails (mostly old mining roads) and there are no surprises other than some inevitable overflow and glaciering. You should expect to spend 8 to 12 hours on the trail depending on whether you camp inroute. For reference, this leg is a bit less than the run from Rohn to Nikolai, which is about 74 miles. As on the previous run, you must be careful not to run too far without stopping on this leg—it’s just long enough to cause problems. You can easily lose track of your progress and keep pushing until your dogs tell you that you’ve gone too far—after which it’s a long walk to Ruby.
From the runway, the trail will head up through the old Poorman town site and will begin to follow old mining roads. Shortly it will drop down the valley of Fourth of July Creek to the Sulatna River on a long downgrade. It’s about 15 miles from the airstrip to the river, depending on the exact routing. After crossing the old steel bridge over the Sulatna River, the trail runs up an old mining road like the one from Takotna to Ophir for 50 miles to Ruby.
The terrain is generally wooded rolling hills for the entire route, with black-spruce taiga (Russian for “land of little sticks”) interspersed with heavier forests on better-drained slopes and in river bottoms, as well as the inevitable open swamp and muskeg areas. The road from Sulatna Crossing to Ruby has some moderate hills with long but relatively easy grades, with a few excursions to timberline. Scattered overflow is common all along the leg, as are short glaciered and drifted sections, especially on the road to Ruby.
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From the checkpoint you’ll head sharply back up the hill behind the runway past the site of Poorman, a true gold mining ghost town that had its heyday in 1911, along with this entire district. There is still some mining in the summer from here to Ruby. Poorman was once at the end of a 70-mile road from the steamboat landing on the Yukon at Ruby, but the road is now maintained only for about the northernmost 45 miles, and then only in the summer pass a scattering of dilapidated cabins and old mining works in the trees as you work up the hill.
After climbing up from the runway back onto the high ground, you’ll start to pick up a cat trail running north, first along the uplands and then dropping down to the Sulatna River. This entire area is honeycombed with old trails, so watch the markings carefully begin to see some big hills north across the Sulatna River (you’ll cross them shortly). At the foot of a 4-mile downgrade along Fourth of July Creek, you’ll pull onto the old road along the Sulatna River, which you’ll follow for a couple of miles to the Sulatna bridge (also called Sulatna Crossing), an old steel bridge across the river.
The bridge has long been abandoned and is no longer safe for vehicle traffic, although ATVs, snowmachines and, of course, dog teams still use it. It’s an interesting crossing, 15 or 20 feet above the river. Just keep your leaders moving. The trail may jump off the road embankment for a little ways once you’re across the bridge, so watch the markers.
A mile past the bridge the road threads between a couple of lakes; this was the site of the old Sulatna checkpoint, which was discontinued in the early ’90s because it was too difficult to establish and set up. This section of road is still not a bad place to rest because it is mostly tree-lined and relatively sheltered from winds.
A mile past the old checkpoint site, you’ll cross Meketchum Creek, known for overflow. The old road bridge is sometimes unsafe to use and the trail may dip down across the creek. The road will cross two more creeks in the next five miles as it parallels the Sulatna upstream (northwestward), and then will start to climb up a long ridge north out of the valley pass a highway maintenance shed that marks the beginning of the portion that is maintained in summer all the way to Ruby. From here to Ruby you will have occasional mile markers showing the distance to Ruby.
In 1996 there was a relief station (an unofficial checkpoint) at Mile 38, at the point where the road crests the first ridge, 12 miles past the Sulatna Bridge. After the site of the relief station, the road descends into a looping switchback set into the side of the mountain; this is usually glaciered and you may have to drop to the downhill (left) ditch line to get by. There will almost certainly be some light overflow on top of the ice to make it slippery in spots.
Many places on the road where it runs along hillsides and crosses creeks or streams will be similar to this because the culverts freeze up and the water flows out over the top of the roadway. Sometimes you can go across with no trouble, but sometimes you may have to dip into the downhill ditch line or balance up on a runner to keep going straight across the ice. The severity of the overflow varies from year to year, and you should receive some indication of what it’s like at the mushers’ meeting before the race.
The road will go above timberline or cross high, exposed areas for several short stretches on the way to Ruby (the first will be a few miles past the site of the relief station) and these will probably be heavily drifted and possibly windy. The wind may also blow sections of the road bare; find a way to stay on snow if you can because the crushed rock of the roadbed can slash runner plastic in a hurry. Keep your eye on the markers.
About eight miles past the site of the relief station (about milepost 30) you’ll come to Long, another old mining town; it is largely intact and some people still stay here in the summers, but it’s usually empty in the winter. Then the road climbs up a short grade out of town to the west and drops into the valley of Long Creek northbound, eventually starting a long, steady climb to the top of Hub Hill, about Milepost 18. A few miles of the road in this area are on top of the ridge more than 1,300 feet up, at timberline and subject to winds and heavy drifting. At the top of the hill you’ll have climbed about a thousand feet since you crossed the Sulatna River.
From Hub Hill you’ll head down a thousand-foot, five-mile downgrade along the ridge between Fox Creek on your right (south) and New York Creek on the left (north), back into the tree-line. At the bottom of this grade, where the road crosses New York Creek, there may be some heavy glaciering. In 1996 the road was basically obliterated for half a mile here by ice up to three feet thick. Watch carefully for trail markers and for the general outline of the road berm. You may have to pick your best way through. There will probably be some overflow on top of the ice and under the snow through here.
Shortly you’ll cross a small bridge over Thirteen Mile Creek (13 miles from Ruby) and begin a moderately steep climb (about a 600-foot rise in three miles) northbound back up onto the ridges. The crest will be three miles past the bridge. Then you’ll drift downhill for about four miles along the northeast (right) side of the Boston Creek valley underneath Boston Dome on your right. Expect a few more glaciered curves on the hillside.
The road stays up on the hillside and crosses the divide over to Big Creek, which it follows closely northbound on the left bank for three miles before heading north up a grade over the ridge to Ruby. Stay on your toes when the road leaves the valley and slants up the hill—there can be some abrupt drop-offs on the downhill side (your right) as you climb, so make sure you stay to the uphill side if there’s a choice.
Somewhere in this stretch the road will begin to be plowed. At the top of the hill above Big Creek, you’ll come to an intersection. The road to the right goes to the airport and will eventually come into Ruby, while the straight-ahead fork (which should be well marked) heads directly into town along a two-mile downgrade that is usually extremely icy in places. There is almost always a badly glaciered spot about halfway down.
By this time you start down the hill you’ll see the lights of Ruby ahead (or during the day, you’ll see the village with the great Yukon River at its foot) probably also start to see signs put up by the kids at the local school—some of them are funny, but don’t take your eyes off the trail. But you might be excused a peek or two—the sight of Ruby ahead is one of the welcomest views you’ll have on the entire trip. Yoursquo;ve just come through the longest wilderness stretch on the race, and you’re more than halfway to Nome.
The checkpoint is always in the village community center, a big log cabin on the east side of town overlooking the river a few blocks north be required to take an eight-hour layover somewhere on the Yukon; many drivers take it at Ruby after the marathon up from Ophir and Cripple. In any case, you’ll experience some marvelous hospitality here and it’s a pleasant place to kick back for awhile. The next three legs, almost 150 miles, are on the Yukon and should be fairly easy running. The old saying is that you should rest your dogs well somewhere along the Yukon because they won’t get much rest on the coast.
The trail from Ophir to Ruby was not on the mainline Iditarod Trail or the Seward-to-Nome Mail Trail, but it has plenty of history in its own right. From 1911 on, it was one of a network of trails connected to the Iditarod that serviced the mining districts between Ophir and Ruby, and it linked up to the Yukon Mail Trail at Ruby. Once you get up to Poorman, consider that once there were thousands of people living and working in the immediate vicinity, and the trail was a main thoroughfare summer and winter. Even after the road was built in the 1920s up to the steamboat landing at Ruby, there was still a substantial amount of traffic. However, everything faded quickly, and after World War II there weren’t many people left between McGrath and Ruby. The occasional mine still operates, but the whole region is now nothing more than a ghost of its former self.