October 17, 2018

Eye on the Trail: Kaltag and the Old Portage

Kaltag is an inland village that sits on the edge of the Yukon River. It’s history lies in gold, trading and hardship. Athabascans had hunting and fishing camps in the area near where the village of Kaltag is now located. They traded with the Inupiat coastal residents. In turn the Inupiat traded with the Russians. The trail the mushers are following today from Kaltag to Unalakleet was the main route used in trading.

In trading, Athabascans of the interior exchanged beaver, wolf, moose, and caribou for seal oil and whale skin with blubber offered by the Inupiat. The Inupiat acted as the middleman in the trading process offering the furs to Russian traders for tobacco, iron tools, firearms, ammunition and other European goods.

Long ago, small pox, measles and food shortages claimed many lives in the Kaltag area. Before the village was built, Kaltag was used as a cemetery. Later, surviving residents of three small settlements in the area moved to Kaltag. A trading post opened shortly before the gold rush of 1885-1885. Kaltag became an important center of resupply for the gold prospectors. Sadly erosion claimed the old cemetery and it caved into the river in the late 1930’s. An airport and clinic were constructed in the 1960’s. Kaltag incorporated in 1969. The population of Kaltag is 185. Kaltag School houses 17 pre-K to 12 students.

Information from the Kaltag School website explains that Kaltag, named for a Koyokon man Kaltaga, has two other names that are difficult for non-natives to pronounce. One means ‘where the current hits the bluff’ and the other means ‘place where the trail comes out to the river.’

A beautiful octagonal community center is a landmark of the village. The structure, 57 feet across from corner to corner, has no internal supports. The octagon has a cupola at the top with a window on each of the eight sides. Community events are held in the building. There is a smaller version of the octagonal building in Huslia.

From Iditarod trail notes, the official checkpoint gathering spot is at the community hall. Virginia Kalland, widow of Edgar Kalland who was a part of the serum relay to Nome in 1925, lives in Kaltag. Virginia owns one of Kaltag’s three stores.

As of sunrise on the coast in Unalakleet, nine teams are running on the portage trail. Nic Petit departed Kaltag at 01:34, Joar Leifseth Ulsom followed at 03:13 and Mitch Seavey at 03:15. The leaders are roughly 30-40 miles short of the Gold Coast. Petit rested nearly six hours before departing. Ulsom and Seavey rested shorter with an eye on making a move to over come Petit.

Following the leading trio,  six more teams departed Kaltag between 07:29 and 07:55 – Richie Diehl, Peter Kaiser, Ray Redington Jr, Wade Marrs, Matthew Failor and Travis Beals. It’s going to be a busy time in Unalakleet in the early afternoon. We expect a four hour gap before the next group arrives.