Virtual Trail Journey – McGrath

From Nikolai it’s a southwest run to McGrath which should take five to seven hours. In his Trail Notes, Bowers considers this to be an easy run but it can be very boring for both the dogs and the drivers. There are so many bends in the Big River and Kuskokwim River that seem to be identical, and so many lakes that seem to be identical, it’s as if the trail goes on and on covering the same ground. These river bends are called oxbows and thankfully, there are shortcuts across them. Many teams choose to do this run at night or early in the morning. It can get VERY cold so dogs are happy to wear coats and mushers want to wear their warmest gear too. The first musher to reach McGrath receives the Spirit of Alaska Award from Penn Air.

McGrath has a population of 400 with a few more than half being Native Alaskans – Athapaskan (Athabascan) and Eskimo. There are two stores, one for groceries and one for dry goods, along with a restaurant. The school in McGrath has 51 students. Nearly all the houses in McGrath are hooked up to the village water system but most have their own septic systems. There is village garbage service and electricity is provided by McGrath Light & Power. The village has a public library, a regional health clinic and a well developed air strip. A person traveling to or from McGrath would go by plane, boat, snowmachine or during Iditarod – dog team as there are no roads leading to the village. There are some local roads and winter trails are marked for travel to Nikolai and Takotna. People and businesses in McGrath receive cargo and supplies by air and water. Being a major supply center, there are many cash jobs but some people still rely on subsistence activities. They hunt moose, caribou, bear and rabbits; fish for salmon; trap; tend gardens and harvest berries and other natural crops.

The Kuskokwim River is almost always open from June thru October. Summer temperatures in McGrath range from 62 to 80 but in winter the temperatures run between -64 and 0 degrees Fahrenheit. When Handler was in McGrath in 2006, the temperature was 35 degrees below zero – sort of a frosty morning for the dogs but they had lots of straw. When it’s that cold, the snow talks back, “CRUNCH,” when you walk, run or drive on it. This area receives only about 10 inches of precipitation per year including 80 to 90 inches of snow.

Now for a little history. I did a Google search one day after lead dog training and found some good info at www.alaskatravel.com/alaska/mcgrath.html. Before the gold rush, McGrath was a meeting and trading place for Kuskokwim Athabascan. Then, because this was all the farther north barges could travel on the Kuskokwim River, it became a regional trading center after gold was discovered in 1906. It wasn’t until 1907 that the town was established and named for Peter McGrath, a local U.S. Marshal. From the time gold was discovered in 1906 until 1925, hundreds, even thousands, of people walked or mushed on the mail and supply trail know as the Iditarod Trail through McGrath on their way to the Ophir gold mines in the Innoko Mining District. Initially, McGrath was across the river from its present location but in 1933 a major flood caused residents and businesses to move to the other bank of the river. In 1937, the Alaska Commercial Company opened a new store. With planes becoming safer and more popular for delivering people, mail and supplies, an airstrip was cleared in 1940. About that same time, the first school was built. McGrath was an important refueling stop during World War II. For the most part, gold mining operations in the area shut down many years because of low prices. Today McGrath is an important communications, transportation and supply center for interior Alaska. It also serves as the center of the huge Iditarod School District.

Well, there you have it – some history and information about McGrath, the Iditarod Trail and what its like to live in the village. The next checkpoint on the trail is Takotna. It’s rumored that Takotna is the best little checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail – handler will tell us about that village next. So, stay tuned and remember in everything do your best every day and have a plan!

Born to Run,
Sanka