Virtual Trail Journey – Safety

Out in the middle of no where on the Nome to Council Highway sits the Safety Roadhouse.  Looking back toward White Mountain, you see nothing but snow, looking toward Nome you see nothing but snow.  Looking out over the Bering Sea, you see nothing except sea ice and jumble.  The checkpoint is located in the roadhouse.  Safety is named for Safety Bay where fishing boats sought shelter when the Bering Sea became dangerously rough.  The Safety Roadhouse is a popular stop for snowmachiners as they head from Nome to the Topkok Hills and summer travelers as they head to Council.  Handler had a great experience the day she visited the Safety Checkpoint.

John Norris, Chief Iditarod pilot had to fly from Nome out to Safety to deliver some drop dog papers.  There was room in the Cessna 180 for Handler to go along.   While they were at the checkpoint, Ramey Smith came through and dropped a dog by the name of Happy.  That left Ramey with 5 dogs, the minimum necessary to finish the race.  We loaded Happy into the Cessna where he immediately curled up on the engine cover and went to sleep.  From Safety, John and Handler headed back toward White Mountain looking for a herd of Musk Ox.  They saw the herd as well as several red fox running along the trail.  After sighting the Musk Ox, they circled out over the Bering Sea looking for seals.  They saw several soaking up sun on the sea ice.  As soon as the Cessna flew low for a better look, the seals dove through their holes back into the sea.  Those seals are slippery critters!  Flying back to Nome, they saw a large herd of Reindeer.  They also flew over some abandoned locomotives and a gold dredge which remain from the 1898 gold strike.  What a great day around Safety!

From White Mountain, it’s only 77 miles to Nome BUT if the wind blows or a storm hits, the 77 miles can be the most dangerous of the whole Iditarod Trail.  The highest ridge between White Mountain and Safety is Topkok at 500 feet above sea-level.  The trip to the summit is wide open to the wind and look out for ground blizzards.  I had to ask what a ground blizzard was and this is what I learned.  In a regular blizzard, there is precipitation that is being blown about.  In a ground blizzard, there isn’t any precipitation falling instead, the wind is blowing snow and ice crystals that are already on the ground.  This area is also known for its wind tunnels called “blow holes.”  In Trail Notes, Don Bowers warns that mushers and dogs can be in the midst of hurricane force winds with blowing snow and suddenly enter into a calm area.  Winds can go from calm to hurricane force within an hour or quit just as quickly.  Don’s best advice is to follow the markers if the visibility is bad.  Dogs will tend to turn away from the wind which means they’ll be running out over the beach onto the sea ice.  DON”T cross the driftwood line on the beach as open water lies not far off shore.  BE CAREFUL when visibility is bad.  It’s not a bad idea to make the run in daylight or hole up in either the Nome Kennel Club’s cabin or Tommy Johnson’s cabin.

With the burled arch in Nome only 22 miles away, most mushers don’t stop long in Safety.  But if they go inside for a bowl of soup, a cup of coffee, to wait out a storm or to use the facilities, they’ll find the walls covered with dollar bills – there must be a thousand of them.  It seems that long ago a tradition was established.  When visiting the Safety Roadhouse at any time of the year, sign a dollar bill then staple or tape it to the wall.  Before leaving Safety, the checker hands the musher his or her bib to wear when crossing the finish line.

There you have it – some good advice from trail expert Don Bowers for the trail between White Mountain and Safety along with stories about Handler’s experiences at Safety.  A couple of hours after leaving Safety, mushers will be running down Front Street in Nome to cross under the burled arch.  Stay tuned as Handler tells us about Nome.  Remember, in everything do you best every day and have a plan.

Born to Run,