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Iron-dogging the Iditarod Trail:

Chilly good-bye: Diary, days 18-21

Josh Rindal and Bob Jones on a high ridge above the Walla Walla Cabin along the Iditarod Trail with Little McKinley in the background. (Bob Jones)
Josh Rindal and Bob Jones on a high ridge above the Walla Walla Cabin along the Iditarod Trail with Little McKinley in the background. (Bob Jones)

SNOWMOBILING -- The last leg of their adventure following the Iditarod Sled Dog Race started smoothly as Bob Jones of Kettle Falls and Josh Rindal of Spokane left Nome, Alaska, to run back 250 miles to return a borrowed snowmobile at Unalakleet.

But the biggest adventure of the trip that would total nearly 1,400 miles was on its way.
The first day was a sweet 106 miles to a cozy cabin, and the next day another swift 125 miles in cold, clear weather.
Then the blizzard hit. Bob got stuck in a whiteout. Josh fell through a snowbridge and soaked his feet in a creek.
Read on for the details and photos on how they holed up and survived thelast day and night of their irondogging trip on the Iditarod Trail.

Wednesday, March  21, 2012

Day 18.   -20º, Aurora Inn, Nome

We awoke to another cold, clear and windless day in Nome and got to packing for our ‘noon’ departure.

We sacked up the still-damp booties and made a run for breakfast and fuel at 10:30am.   The Airport Pizza is mostly a full-service beanery and the gas station is right across the street.  Chuck Fagerstrom is the president of the native corporation that owns the store, and his office is upstairs overlooking the pumps.  He stuck his head out the window and I hollered for him to toss down his credit card....

By the time noon rolled around we were back at the Aurora and all packed up and ready to head south.  It was noon and -10º.  Our 3-night stay had cost us 500 bucks!

The Iditarod Trail from Nome to Safety was flat and fast and we only took about an hour to get there.  Josh found a candy bar in a discarded musher’s bag.

The trail along the beach from Safety to Topkok Cabin was, for some reason we couldn’t ascertain, much smoother than it had been on our trip north.  And the Topkok Blowhole was saving its unsavory reputation for another day.  We took a half-hour break to have a snack and to warm up a little at the cabin. 

The trail over the Topkok Hills was simply a wonderful ride.   We zoomed into White Mountain to find that we still had five minutes to get fuel before their 6pm closing.  The heat inside the store felt good.  We weren’t really cold, but riding at good speeds in the minus 10 degree weather has a tendency to sap some heat.

We ate a couple of KitKat bars out on the ice in front of the village and then flew the sixteen miles across Golovin Bay to Golovin.  We were a little surprised to see the school where we had spent the night in the library on the way north:  It was big and it was beautiful.  It looked out of place amid all the little shacks in the village.

It was only twenty miles from Golovin to the little shelter cabin at Walla Walla, and we took advantage of the late-evening

light to take some pictures in the high country north of the cabin.  The sun sank below the distant hills at exactly 9pm.

We got to the cabin to find a native woman with her eleven-year old daughter with a small fire in the stove.  She said they were just warming up.  Her boyfriend was out on the sea ice checking his crab pot.   We were moving in when he rode up with two King crabs.  I got a couple of photos and we all went inside the little cabin to hear stories of fishing for the giant crabs.  He told us he usually has as many as thirty crabs when he checks he pot every other day.

Josh and I fixed dinner and it was midnight before we knew it.  My thermometer hanging outside under a billion stars read -10º when we turned off the lantern.

We had made a fantastic 106-mile ride today.  And we had had the trail all to ourselves from Nome to Walla Walla.





Thursday, March  22, 2012

Day 19.   -12º, Walla Walla Shelter Cabin

Iditarod Trail, Alaska

The barrel stove in the cabin had an airtight door and a damper in the stovepipe, which allowed me to have total-control over our fire in

the little 12 x 16 plywood shack we called home for the night.  It was dead-calm and dead-silent outside and warm and cozy inside.  There was plenty of dry spruce for firewood.  We wouldn’t have traded places on this night with anyone!  We slept like logs on the plywood bunks attached to one wall.

By 11:30am it had warmed up a little and we were ready to head south.  We ran the eight miles to  Elim and fueled up.  While I was at the store a native came over and told me he was looking for a tow sled exactly like mine, and he wanted to know if it might be for sale.  We talked it over and he said he would take delivery in Unalakleet.  Now if we can ship our gear right to Spokane (or Kettle Falls) from there, for a decent price, he just may have found himself a sled.  Another native came over to shake my hand and he told me he was the father part of the father-son search and rescue crew who came out when my machine caught fire north of Elim in 2007.  My partner that year, Harley Douglass, continued on to Nome on the trail while I caught a ride back to the village in a snowmobile-towed dog sled.  From there I flew into Nome on a commercial flight.  The old man pulled on my sleeve and led me to his snowmobile.  He pointed at the only thing they had been able to salvage from my burned-up machine:  My pintle hitch was now mounted on the back of his!

The Kwik River Blowhole was taking a little break from causing misery for travelers, and we made it across without freezing to death.  There was just enough cross-wind, coupled from the breeze we were causing by running 20-25 miles and hour, to cool us down in spite of all of our layers of clothing.   We were mighty glad to get into the plywood shelter shack near the south end.   It was cold in the building, but at least we were temporarily out of the nasty wind.

After a quick break we ran the fifteen miles into Koyukuk to make the final fuel purchase of our trip.  Full tanks would get us to Unalakleet in the morning.

The trail across the frozen Norton Sound seemed a little less rough than when we came over it a few days ago.  The cross-drifts had been run over a few times, which probably softened them up a little.  It took only 2 ½ hours to make the 46-mile run.

We cut off Shaktoolik and made for the Blueberry Hills above the sea.  At 7:30pm we pulled up in front of the Foothills Shelter Cabin.  We could easily have gone the remaining 23 miles to Unalakleet tonight, but we wanted to take advantage of the peace and quiet of one last evening in a little cabin on the trail.

We had been rewarded with a gorgeous next-to-last day on the fabulous Iditarod Trail.  The 125 miles we covered were, for the most part, flat, are and smooth.  The sun had shone out of a dark blue sky all day.  And the winds were at a minimum. 


Friday, March  23, 2012

Day 20.   -6º, Foothills Shelter Cabin to Unalakleet

Iditarod Trail, Alaska

Holy Shit!  The wind was picking up a little when we arrived last night.  But, as we rode along, it had been right at our backs.  So we didn’t notice it.  

Shortly after we turned in at 11pm things changed rapidly in the breeze department.  This little cabin is new, and it’s squared-on-three-sides logs are held together with Timber-lock lags, and it’s solidly built. That was the good news.

The bad news was that the wind buffeted the little structure with enough velocity most of the night to make it actually shake, and the stars slowly disappeared behind a high-overcast sky.

The only good weather news was that there wasn’t a snow-storm to go with the wind, which means that there wasn’t any ground blizzard raking the country -- yet. And we only had 23 miles to go to get to our destination at Unalakleet.

Before we rode out at noon the good weather news had taken a change for the worse and snow began to cut a horizontal path through the country.  We slowly felt our way along.  Where the trail cut through little patches of spruce it was well defined.  Where it got into the more open areas it tended to disappear entirely.  We made slow progress by riding from trail marker to trail marker.

It is now 4:20pm and I’m writing this from a small room in the back of the old and long-abandoned Northern Commercial Company cannery at Egavik.

Josh missed the trail in a little arroyo but was able to get across in the fresh, deep, wind-blown snow.  I wasn’t so lucky.  I followed Josh and got off the trail and was stuck immediately in almost bottomless powder.  Josh fell through up to his waist in front of my skis and found that under all the snow there was a creek.  He got in water up to his knees and his boots were full before he could get out.  We shoveled and stomped and shoveled and slowly built a ramp back up onto the trail.  With Josh pulling on the uphill ski and me standing on the elevated running board we inched out of the mess.  My machine was inches from being on its side.  The worst thing was that the machine was in a position that I couldn’t get at my camera!  It might have been my best all-time Iditarod photo!

I told Josh to run at a ‘walking speed’ so that we wouldn’t lose sight of one another.  Visibility was down to 25-feet in most places.

Thirteen miles north of Unalakleet lies an ancient abandoned cannery known as Egavik.  I had stopped and taken pictures there during other trips to Nome.  This year we were in a bit of a hurry going north, so we didn’t stop.   Today we rode past in the blizzard.  We had made exactly ten miles since leaving the Foothills Cabin and it had taken us nearly two hours.

But within a mile of going past the old cannery it became evident that we couldn’t proceed any further on the trail.  Visibility was, for all practical purposes, zero.  We were in the middle of a total white-out.  We couldn’t see.

I hollered above the wind to Josh that we had better turn around and check out the shelter potential at the deserted cannery.  We turned around and very slowly felt our way back until we could just barely make out the faint image of the main building looming in the blowing snow.

We parked our machines in a little area next to the main, two-story building that was being kept blown out by the wind and hoped they wouldn’t get buried too badly there.  The only door we could find was on the ocean side.  It was open and there was a giant pile of snow blown inside.  The old cannery building was holding up pretty well, considering it had been here for well over a century.  The first rooms we came to contained all sorts of old discarded junk.  But in the back we found a smaller room that was sealed off from the both the weather and the remaining portion of the building.  This room had an old wood stove that looked to be in pretty good shape, and there was a big pile of sawed-to-length driftwood and dry spruce stacked in the hall outside.  A calendar on the wall read August 1999.

The little room was clean and it was dry.  But, most importantly, it was out of the fierce wind and blowing snow right outside.

We decided this was going to be our nest until things calmed down and we could be able to continue on to our destination of Unalakleet,  only thirteen miles away.  But thirteen miles on a good trail on a good day is a far cry from thirteen miles in a total ground blizzard.  We had found a temporary home.

We stoked up the old stove and soon had it radiating heat.  Josh took off his water-filled boots and stuck his bare feet into the front door to get them warmed up.  It wasn’t long until the place was feeling like home!  At 5pm the storm still raged, and it was looking like we would be camping at Egavik tonight.  We could have done a lot worse!

8:30pm.  Just finished a great dinner of Seafood Chowder Mountain House with hot chocolate for desert.  The typoon outside has been the same all day.  The hills we know that lie in the distance are completely invisible in the snow storm.  I used the Sat phone to call Maggie at the Sleep Inn to let her know our situation.  She said it’s the same in town.  No one is traveling and the airlines are shut down.  The people she had staying at her hotel were scheduled to leave today, but they will be there for at least another night.  The duration of these storms is totally unpredictable.  Sometimes they last for several days.


Saturday, March  24, 2012

Day 21.   Temperature? Who cares

End of the line in Unalakleet

We got up and made the last 23 miles to Unalakleet.  Our gear is spread out in the lounge portion of the Sleep Inn, and we are the only clients.

I'm in a pizza place working out details. Things are pretty much downhill from here. Instead of paying freight on a broken snowmobile and another that needs repairs, I am looking at selling BOTH of my machines AND the two sleds, mailing all of our gear to Kettle Falls, and going out of here light -- with my camera and shaving kit.

I'll go on a diet when I get home.


See Bob Jones's Iditarod Diary and photos, days 1-6.
See Diary and photos for days 7-10.
See Diary and photos for days 11-12.
See Diary and photos for days 13-14.
See Nome Sweet Nome: Diary and photos for Day 15.
See Diary and photos for days 16-17.

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Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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