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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Iditarod snowmobile Diary: Day 7

Josh Rindal of Spokane pauses at the
Josh Rindal of Spokane pauses at the "Nicolai 20 miles" sign in a thick stand of birch along the Iditarod Trail. The old, totally faded, sign to the left was put there by John Runkles many years ago. The new, yellow, BLM sign was also placed there by John, but about 20 years later. Rindal and Bob Jones of Kettle Falls were snowmobiling 1,400-miles along the route of Alaska's famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race in March 2014. (Robert Jones)

SNOWMOBILING -- Bob Jones of Kettle Falls and Josh Rindal of Spokane are repeating their effort to follow Alaska's Iditarod Sled Dog Race by snowmobile in February and March 2014.  

  • See the complete diary and photos from their 2012 trip -- which marked Jones's 14th time on the Iditarod.
  • Click "continue reading" to see Jones's diary from Day 7 of their 22-day, 1,400-mile adventure in 2014.

Below are links to each of the other diary posts and photos of their trip on the Iditarod Trail.

Day 7:  (March 6, 2014) Thursday 

Bear Creek BLM Shelter Cabin to McGrath, -21º

We awoke at 8am to a clear and COLD morning here at the Bear Creek Cabin.  Wood was in short supply.  We saved enough to take the chill off in the morning, and burned the rest.  About half of our heat came from burnables out of the garbage bag, discarded old socks, gloves, and plastic of all sorts.  But heat is heat, and we got the cabin warmed up and toasty.  I wrote in my diary until almost 1am before turning in.  Josh had been in for an hour.  We each got a great night’s sleep.  The non-stop hours on the rough trail  of yesterday had us both tired.

We aren’t sure of our plan of attack for today.  It’s about 35 more miles up the trail to the little village of Nicolai, and that trail is still in question.  There is no doubt that the trail approaching this point was 500% better than the first 30 miles we went over.  My odometer read 41.9 miles from Rohn when I checked to see if my machine would fire up this morning.  It did with no problem.

It felt so good to just fool around the cabin that we did! We made a trip out to the main trail with an empty tow sled and brought in a dozen little snags from the 1973 Farewell Burn to restock the woodpile.  Josh re-tied our gear in the sleds and we slowly made ready to get back onto the trail to Nicolai and then to McGrath. We left the little cabin at 12:30pm under totally blue skies.

The trail from the cabin to Nicolai was, comparatively, a dream.  We cruised along, and three hours and 35 miles later the little village came into view on the north bank of the South Fork.  The boats of summer decorated the riverbank, and the old log buildings were a welcome sight.  We had made it!   

To a rider of the Iditarod Trail, Nicolai is much more than just a little, primitive native village of a couple of hundred souls.  It is also the first real civilization to be found in the 300 miles which lay between here and Wasilla.  In that entire distance there really isn’t much other than a handful of scattered lodges.  The rugged crossing of the Alaska Range, and the great distances with no real facilities, serves to limit any on-the-trail traffic to that brief period of spring when the Iditarod comes through.  Both before and after the race the country is pretty much silent.

We rode up in front of the weatherbeaten old building that has served as the checkpoint since the first race in 1973, and a dozen people poured out to greet us, including everyone in the family of John Runkles.  Their Bison Camp, located 50 miles back down the trail, is slowly but surely relagating itself back into the wilderness.  Bison permits have become a thing of the past and,  John and Marty haven’t had a paying client in years.  The Runkles provided a hospitality second to none at their little piece of paradise on the trail, and we were invited to spend the night with them on many occasions in prior years.   Of all the wonderful experiences we have had along this trail, it would be impossible to pick a single favorite.  But a cozy night at Runkle’s Bison Camp, sleeping on a foot-think bed of sweet smelling spruce boughs, next to a little wood stove, and with a belly full of the world’s best moose stew, would have rate right at the top!  It was an experience unique in all the world!  The fine company and the great real-Alaskan stories were the frosting on that cake……

So into the checkpoint Josh and I went.  It felt good to have some heat and some hot coffee.  The race is over here, and they had just taken the musher’s tent down as we arrived.   All that remained was the sleeping platform of spruce boughs, compliments of John and Marty Runkles and family.  Nicolai has a reputation of making visitors feel like royalty here.  Musher Martin Buser even named one of his children after the place!

John and his two boys, Andrew and PJ, are getting a dog team together, and he invited us to ride out to their place to look things over.  They have about 20 energetic dogs tied to little doghouses in the back yard, and we got a real tour.  It wasn’t long before we were in the house, eating some homemade bread smeared with a thick coating of Marty’s rhubarb/blueberry jam and coffee.  People more interesting than the Runkles would, indeed, be hard to find anywhere, and it wasn’t long before three hours had raced by.  It was 6:30pm when we got onto our machines and headed the 47 miles to our destination of tonight:  McGrath.

Had the musher’s tent still been up we would likely have spent the night inside it!

The sun was a fireball-without-heat laying directly to the west and the trail goes straight westerly from Nicolai to McGrath.  Runkles told us that the trail was exceptionally good this year, and he was right-on:  Wide, flat and smooth.  Josh and I even got up to 50mph on some of the long stretches on the river.  Even with that trail it took us three hours to make McGrath.  We arrived at 9:30pm and it was -21º when we rode up in front of our little home-away-from-home-for-three-nights cabin.

Stephen Strick and his wife Melony have become good friends over the years.  He called a few months back to see when we would be getting to McGrath.  And he told me about a new cabin he had built in his backyard for us!  He was saving the first night’s stay just for Josh and I.

We found his place in the darkness, and it wasn’t long until Steph was showing us inside our little digs.  Over the door was a handmade sign saying ‘Man-Cave’.  And it was!  The most gorgeouse little place imaginable was going to be our home for the next three nights.  An oil heater set to 70º kept the -20º temperatures at bay and we moved in!  We wouldn’t need much:  Two cots already had bedding on them and a refrigerator was stocked plumb full of cold beer.  Beer signs made for perfect lighting, the walls were sawed birch from a little sawmill outside, and the place was really HOME!  WOW!  What a plesant surprise!

Stricks had been holding dinner for us for 4 hours, so we went over to the main house for a big spagetti feed.  And for more beers!  McGrath has always reminded me of being around Colville in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and it is always a great place to spend some time.   And it is always a hard place to leave.

After dinner we came back to the little cabin and drank beer and visited.  I looked at my watch and it 2:30am!   Steph had to go to work at 7am, so he told us goodnight.  Josh hit the bunk while I wrote in the diary for an hour.  What a treat this place turned out be!  We even have wireless internet!!

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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