by Donald Bowers, Jr.
This is a tough run with some short stretches of extraordinarily difficult trail. If you didn’t blow on through early in the morning, you should try to leave Finger Lake by three or four in the afternoon so you can have some daylight left for the worst parts. (It can be done in the dark, but it isn’t recommended unless you know what you’re doing.) Figure three to five hours for the run. You might consider latching your drag up and out of the way before you leave the checkpoint; plan on using your brake only. There are often all kinds of things poking up out of the trail.
After leaving Finger Lake, the trail climbs steeply over a ridge to Red Lake, runs along it for a mile or two, swings up a ravine, and then follows a series of climbing wooded shelves interspersed with open swamps. About ten miles from Finger Lake, the trail drops down a series of wooded benches toward Happy River, then onto the river itself via the dreaded Happy River steps. Then it’s down the river to its mouth, up the Skwentna River for a few hundred yards, and back up a steep ravine to the plateau on the south side of the Happy. The trail will cross Shirley Lake, then Long Lake (11 miles from Rainy Pass Lodge) and then run along the steeply sloping mountainside above the south side of the Happy River valley to the checkpoint. There are two nasty stretches of sidehill trail in the last eight miles.
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After you pull out of the dog lot at Finger Lake you’ll go directly over the ridge behind the lodge and down a steep narrow trail, then you’ll swing sharply left back up an equally narrow and steep trail, and then down an even steeper hill onto Red Lake. The trail runs along the south side of the lake for a mile or so then turns to the right up a steep ravine on the west side of the narrow valley. This ravine section can be narrow and twisting and steep in places; be glad you’re going up it and not down.
At the top of the ravine the trail will start to work its way west along the south slope of a rugged 5,000-foot ridge that guards the east entrance to Ptarmigan (and Rainy) Pass run from swamp to swamp and bump across beaver ponds and beaver dams, interspersed with twisting runs through the timber as the trail meanders along a series of forested benches hung on the lower slopes of the ridge.
About nine miles from Finger Lake, it’s time to slow down and get things under control. The trail will start dropping down the benches toward the Happy River gorge. Watch for some abrupt downhills with sharp turns in this descending section. The trail will be narrow and very twisting through some big timber. You may see a couple of the Iditarod’s now-famous yellow diamond highway warning signs that say either “Dangerous Trail Conditions Ahead” or “Watch your Ass!” When you see one of these signs, your first move should be to stomp on the brake and see what you’re about to get into, and then move forward very cautiously.
After a mile or so of dropping down toward the valley and zigzagging through the forest, you’ll plunge down a short but very steep hill; directly in front of you will be one of the warning signs and the trail will vanish over the edge of what looks like a cliff. It is a cliff. This is the entrance to the Happy River Steps. Stop the dogs at the top, say your prayers, revise your will, and then see how gently you can get the dogs to creep down the hill. Of course, you will be standing on your brake for all you’re worth.
The first “step” is a narrow ramp turning sharply to the left as you go over the lip and plunging diagonally down the face of a very steep slope. Unless you’re in the very front of the pack, there will be a rut worn in the middle of the ramp into which your sled will settle; keep it there even if it means laying your sled almost over on its side. At the bottom of the first ramp (maybe 50 yards), the trail will double back to the right on a small level area. There is a 50-foot cliff dropping off your left side in the turn; don’t look.
The second step is as long as the first, cutting diagonally down the hill in the opposite direction. There is a short level stretch as you turn to the right into the third step, which can be the scariest of all. You may want to lean your sled up to the right on one runner and hug the uphill bank for this one. If you reach the bottom of the third step in one piece, you will drop immediately onto the Happy River. Many drivers take a break in the sheltered Happy River Canyon and reassemble their nerves before pushing on.
You’ll continue down the Happy River canyon for a quarter mile and then turn right (west) up the Yentna River. Within a few hundred yards you’ll jump abruptly up the right bank and should see another yellow “Dangerous Trail Conditions” sign. The trail threads precariously along a ledge a dozen feet above the river bed for twenty or thirty yards; the downhill side of this stretch has been undercut by the river, and the narrow trail may be worn away by previous teams have to do everything you can to keep the sled balanced up on the right runner until you get to better ground. At the end of the ledge the trail heads up the Happy River Hill, an extremely steep eighth-of-a-mile grind up a narrow ravine back up to the plateau above the river. Once on top the trail levels out for a bit and then climbs another hundred feet or so before running west again through the forest. The next 15 miles to Rainy Pass Lodge alternate between beautifully easy and unbelievably hideous.
The trail is reasonably good and moderately hilly for a mile or so to Shirley Lake, then climbs up for another mile of forest running to Long lake. There can be some tricky spots in this area where the downhill side of the trail has been worn away and the sled will try to slip off and into the inevitable ruts left by the brakes on previous sleds. Long Lake (about a mile long) is 11 miles from Rainy Pass Lodge have a short, fairly steep climb up from Long Lake to run along the north flank of a ridge that forms the south side of the Happy River Valley (which is the easternmost part of Ptarmigan and Rainy Passes).
After about three-quarters of a mile the trail will start to get squeezed into a sidehill run along a mountainside. It will make some abrupt climbs and dives and will traverse a couple of potentially dangerous places where the downhill side of the trail (the right side) drops several hundred feet down a steep slope into the Happy River canyon. This part is known for its downhills with sharp left turns at the bottom. Keep your team completely under control for this stretch. Watch out for rocks and ruts and roots in the trail.
After a couple of miles the trail suddenly comes around the corner of the mountain and drops down into a long, wide-open meadow have easy running for the next five miles: along the meadow for a few miles, dropping down to cross a ravine and then climbing back up a series of gently ascending meadows on the other side. You’re still on the south side of the Happy River valley.
A couple of miles after crossing the ravine, you’ll reach the end of the meadow and start to descend; pretty quickly you’ll see another “Dangerous Trail Conditions” sign followed by a steep descent for a couple of hundred feet. For the next mile the very narrow and twisting trail squeezes along the north side of Round Mountain, with the Happy River several hundred feet below you on your right. There are a couple of very dangerous stretches along here where the trail is often glaciered over by side streams and you must skitter across the icy sections without slipping off the trail on the downhill side.
You will be using your brake a lot on this piece of trail and may spend a lot of time balancing up on your left runner. You don’t want your dogs to go too slowly through here or you won’t have enough steeringway to keep the sled on the trail in some places, but you don’t want them to go too fast down the hills or you might lose control. Finally you will make a breathtaking hundred-foot plunge down into a timbered ravine with Squaw Creek at the bottom. This means you’re past Round Mountain, which some veterans consider the toughest stretch of trail on the whole race under some conditions.
After Round Mountain you’re only a couple of miles from the checkpoint. The trail works up the wooded Squaw Creek ravine for a mile or so and then comes out onto the open brushy plateau at the end of the Rainy Pass Lodge runway. Soon you’ll pull up onto the runway and then turn left onto Puntilla Lake. The checkpoint is on the lake just ahead. Water is available from a hole in the lake ice. You can rest in the checkers’ cabin. If you’re there during the day, you might be able to buy a meal in the lodge if it’s open.