by Donald Bowers, Jr.
This leg is probably closer to 32 miles than the posted 38. It follows the old mining road over to Ophir, built in the 1920s to connect Takotna and Ophir with Sterling Landing, a steamboat landing on the Kuskokwim River. It is now maintained by the state; the stretch from Takotna to Ophir isn’t plowed in the winter. Like other Bush roads, it doesn’t connect to the state highway system.
The first part is a 9-mile climb to the top of the divide between the Kuskokwim River drainage and that of the Innoko River, which flows into the Yukon. The rise is about 800 feet on easy grades. Then the road crosses the divide and runs downhill along Independence Creek for another 8 miles, then follows the south bank of the Innoko River for the last 15 miles into Ophir, with possibly a few overland shortcuts across bends.
You’ll leave Takotna on the main street and will start climbing almost immediately. After a mile and a half you’ll come to a fork in the road; keep right. The road will steadily climb up and around the ridge on a series of gentle switchbacks. There are no surprises since this section is semi-maintained for another few miles. After several miles you will see a well-used driveway heading to the right to a house on the top of the hill. Past this point the road is unmaintained and is actually running along or just below the crest of the ridge, with gentle ups and downs. During the day this part of the trail is very scenic. Your highest elevation will be about 1,200 feet.
Just before the divide, the trail will jump off the road to the right and up a bank, cutting across a switchback rejoin the road in another few hundred yards headed downhill. Between here and Ophir there will probably be some short glaciered areas where the road will be partly covered with a sloping sheet of ice from springs on the uphill side. The trail may dip into the downhill ditch line to get by, or may skitter along the ice. Sometimes there is also overflow on the approaches to the bridges across the creeks flowing into the Innoko, and sometimes the trail will bypass the bridges and cross the creeks themselves.
The run down the Independence Creek valley is normally uneventful cross Independence Creek on a bridge identified by a state highway sign (all the bridges have signposts). The road will then run along the south side of the Innoko River to Ophir, passing a couple of cabins and a mining camp enroute. Depending on the year and the snow cover, the trail may cut overland across a few bends to avoid badly drifted or glaciered stretches. Everything will be well marked with four-foot Iditarod trail stakes.
Two and a half miles after crossing Independence Creek, you’ll cross Yankee Creek, then Ganes Creek (four miles more), then Little Creek (another half mile). Between Yankee Creek and Ganes Creek the road will skirt the Innoko River; look for some old buildings and an abandoned gold dredge. Ganes Creek is about five miles from the checkpoint. When you pass a mining camp with a number of buildings on the left side of the road, you’re a couple of miles from the checkpoint. When you see a sign saying “State Maintenance Ends” the checkpoint is just ahead.
The checkpoint is in Dick and Audra Forsgren’s cabin, which dates to the 1930s. It’s actually a mile short of Ophir itself, of which there isn’t much left except an airport and a couple of buildings. (Ophir had its heyday in 1907 and 1908, boasting a thousand inhabitants.) Dick and Audra fly out every year to help man the checkpoint, and it’s a fair bet Audra will have a steaming pot of stew on the old wood-burning stove in the cabin. This is one of the classic Iditarod checkpoints, and pulling in at night, with lantern light glowing in the windows, is like something out of a dream.
Whether you’re on the northern or southern route, this is your last vestige of civilization for a very long while. The trip from here to Cripple and on to Ruby (or down to Iditarod and over to Shageluk and Anvik) is arguably the longest, emptiest, loneliest stretch of trail on the race, and the checkpoints at Cripple or Iditarod are basically nothing but tent camps in otherwise uninhabited locations.