December 10, 2018

Wild Rohn: The Story Behind the Remote Checkpoint

Planes Rohn remote airstrip. Iditarod

Planes parked at opposite ends of Rohn’s remote airstrip.

 

The Dalzell Gorge cascades down from the Alaska Range into a narrow river valley, which the Tatina river still carves at a geological pace. Down-valley, the river passes Egypt Mountain, an iconic cornerstone at the north end of the Alaska Range where the valley dramatically opens up into the wide expanse of the Alaskan interior. It remains open for hundreds of miles north, until it gives rise to the Brooks Range. But hidden between these environments, in the sub-alpine spruce forest, sits Rohn checkpoint.

Rohn checkpoint Iditarod 2018

Lisa checks in Tom Schonberger under the burled arch she helped build

This is an area with no humans inhabitants. Instead, it’s rich with wildlife. “Tonight if you’re here you’ll hear the great horned owl,” Lisa Jager tells me. “We think that there’s a couple that are mating because there are two of them that call.”

Lisa began volunteering at this checkpoint in 2002. Since then she’s seen wolves, bison, moose, caribou, fox and sheep in or round the checkpoint. It’s a wild place, with a cabin, no running water, and subtle remnants of Alaskan history.

In the early 1900s, the original Iditarod mail route came through this valley. There was a cabin then, too, though the Tatina eventually washed it away. For the ease of the mail carriers, shelter cabins and roadhouses were built about twenty miles apart, because people figured dogs could travel that far between stops. Eventually, a trapper built another cabin in the same stand of trees. Today, all that remains from that era is a crumbled trapper cache and handmade dog chains still attached to the platforms from the original dog houses. Right now, the latter is buried in snow.

Historical photos of the original Rohn shelter cabin Iditarod 2018

Historical photos of the original Rohn shelter cabin

Because there is no community here, Lisa and several others put in many volunteer hours both on off-season to keep the checkpoint Iditarod-ready. As the race approaches, the pilots fly in straw and drop bags to a short, narrow airstrip. The trail-breakers bring down tents from Rainy Pass. Volunteers haul supplies from the runway, buck wood, clear downed brush from the dog yard, do trail maintenance, and set up tents. This year Lisa and a few others built a new burled arch to mark the checkpoint for the mushers. It’s a lot of work, but it’s those quiet days––before the race arrives, when it’s just a few people working together––that Lisa finds most special. “It’s just a nice place to come because I’m a firefighter now by work, and so I have no pager, no phone, and no Internet, so it’s just simple life here.” She smiles. “Plus it’s beautiful.”

Rohn checkpoint Iditarod 2018

The cabin at Rohn checkpoint

Though this valley is often a place of solitude, for a few days a year this little remote cabin becomes the epicenter of a small community. “It’s nice because we can make our own village. You not only get racers and media, but bison hunters and people that are just riding the trail. So you meet all these fascinating people, and then you have adventures because you never know what’s going to happen.” Community, nestled into remoteness and adventure, makes the trail for Lisa––and she’s not the only one.

While volunteering in Rohn that first year, Lisa met her husband, Terry, who has been running this checkpoint for 25 years. This chance meeting on the trail has opened the door to a marriage filled with adventure. Many years, the two of them snowmachine over the pass to Rohn to kickoff their Iditarod time. Fully aware of what the Dalzell Gorge can do to a sled, Terry brings with him a full tool kit and is ready to help any musher in need of repairs after a dicey run. The dedication they invest into this checkpoint keeps the excitement alive for the mushers, other volunteers, and themselves. For Lisa and Terry, this valley, hidden in the foothills of the Alaska Range is a celebration of the elements that brought them together.

 

Check out aerial footage of Aliy Zirkle mushing into Nikolai, the checkpoint after Rohn!