I had a question about Rainy Pass so I was really happy to see Handler come into the dog yard. I’d taken careful notes on everything Handler told us about Rainy Pass but was confused as to how the checkpoint called Rainy Pass could be at 1,800 feet elevation but Rainy Pass is at 3,160 feet elevation. It seems that more than one place is known as Rainy Pass.
This is what Handler told me. Before climbing high into the mountains, the dogs and mushers come to Rainy Pass Checkpoint, which is located on Puntilla Lake at Rainy Pass Lodge – elevation 1800 feet. After leaving the checkpoint, the teams climb high into the Alaska Range to a valley that cuts through the mountains and is the highest point of the Iditarod Trail. This valley is the TRUE Rainy Pass – elevation 3,160 feet.
At that elevation one can see for ever on clear days. On the flip side, storms at that elevation can be very harsh. Visibility can be near zero making it hard to see the wheel dogs, let alone the leaders or the trail markers.
The run to Rohn from Puntilla Lake is 35 miles and takes four or five hours. From Rainy Pass Checkpoint on Puntilla Lake, it’s a steady climb to the TRUE Rainy Pass. After reaching the trail summit it can be a challenging downhill run to the Rohn Roadhouse. Martin Buser once said that it takes 2 days to climb to the top of the range and less than two hours to get down the other side. WOW!
The famous and feared stretch of trail known as the Dalzell Gorge is just seven miles out from Rohn. In the gorge, the trail jumps back and forth across Dalzell Creek on narrow ice and snow bridges that span open but shallow running water. In some places the valley is barely wide enough to accommodate the creek and the trail.
Iditarod deploys a trail crew prior to the race each year to attend to the trail from Puntilla Lake to Rohn. The crew takes care of brush, downed trees and other hazards on the trail. They build the snow/ice bridges that run back and forth across Dalzell Creek. From there, it’s up to Mother Nature to provide adequate snow and temperatures that preserve the snow.
Depending on weather and snow conditions, the Dalzell Gorge can be a nightmare or just a challenge. Once a rookie musher arriving in Rohn asked where the gorge was. The checker pointed back the way he came. The musher was completely surprised that he’d travelled the gorge without any problems and had enjoyed the technical and challenging sled driving. In other years when Mother Nature isn’t as kind, it’s a very different story with mushers employing all sorts of strategies. In 2014, Lisbet Norris used a very aggressive drag pad to help slow her team and navigate the downhill run. In the same year, Mitch Seavey had a very cautious lead dog that simply walked the team down through the gorge.
From where Dalzell Creek meets the frozen Tatina River it’s just 5 more miles to the Rohn Roadhouse Checkpoint. The river offers up its own challenges – ice and overflow. After that run, it’s no wonder the dogs and mushers are happy to see the one lone cabin that is called the Rohn Roadhouse Checkpoint.
Rohn Roadhouse Checkpoint has a population of zero. In the old days, there was a roadhouse near this location for the dog teams and drivers who carried mail and others supplies into the interior. After the airplane took over for the dog teams, the roadhouse wasn’t maintained and eventually fell down. In 1930, The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) built the cabin used as the checkpoint today. It’s a beautiful spot, sheltered from the wind by large majestic spruce trees. By the way, Handler says that lots of folks refer to the Rohn Roadhouse Checkpoint as the Rohn River Checkpoint – don’t be fooled, there isn’t a “Rohn River.”
If you want to read more about any section of the trail, you can do what I did – read the Trail Notes by Don Bowers, Jr. found on the Iditarod web page. And another thing, Handler didn’t have pictures of Rohn so we got permission from Julien Schroder to share some of his photos form 2019. Handler says it’s important to give credit where credit is due.
Well, there you have it – information about the TRUE Rainy Pass, the Dalzell Gorge and the Rohn Checkpoint. Next Handler is going to tell us about mushing through the Farewell Burn and the village of Nikolai. Stay tuned for that story and remember, in everything do your best everyday and have a plan.
Born to Run,