Alaska Iditarod Trip

We’ve been a little behind on our blog postings since finally ending our year of travel and settling in Bend, OR!

As most know, last year during our travels we headed north to Alaska for two months. Holly has family  (Edie & Larry) in Anchorage and they were nice enough to invite us up to explore completely new territory to us. Holly and I never dreamed of visiting Alaska. I grew up surrounded in the outdoors…hunting, fishing, camping, etc., so I immediately fell in love with Alaska.

While visiting Alaska in 2013, I got a good taste of the remote back-country referred to as the “bush.” Holly’s family has several remote bush properties, the only way to get there during the summer is with an airplane on water floats, I was fortunate enough to fly to a remote cabin for three days, completely disconnected from civilization, with the exception of a satellite-phone for emergencies. The other method of transportation to access these remote cabins, during winter only, is with a snowmobile, or snowmachine, as they say in Alaska & Canada.

I was invited back to Alaska by Larry for a snowmobile trip to a remote cabin. The trip was dual purpose, one – haul lumber to the cabin for future projects, two – watch the Iditarod racers on their way to Nome, AK.

I’m a pretty adventurous person, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this. This would be my second time ever on a snowmobile, which didn’t bother me. Things that did get my stomach churning was talking to Larry about our planned route….we would follow the frozen Yentna river to his cabin, 45 miles from the closest road! It can be quite difficult to travel during the winter in the Alaska bush, so the locals primarily travel via frozen rivers & lakes once the ice is thick enough to support weight. I was a little hesitant thinking about the trip, but I trust Larry since he’s lived up there for several decades now and has much experience. Also, the Yentna river ice was thick enough to allow heavy equipment transportation (bulldozers, excavating equipment, etc.) to remote properties, this is completely common in Alaska during the winter…another thing that blows my mind about how different the way of living is in the Great White North.

Enough with the babbling….now, info on the actual trip.

I flew into Anchorage on Thursday 2/27, we spent the remainder of the day gathering food, lumber and other odds & ends for the trip. On Friday 2/28 Larry’s friend, Ken, arrived at 8am to finish loading our gear in his truck. Larry & Ken had previously loaded three snowmobiles on the trailer and gassed everything up.

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Larry & Ken securing the snowmobiles on the trailer

We then headed north of Anchorage 1.5 hrs to Willow, AK. We parked the trailer and unloaded at one of Larry’s friends cabins on Shirley Lake.

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Snowmobiles uncovered and ready to be unloaded

We would pull a toboggan behind each snowmobile, carrying our supplies for the weekend. One toboggan with nothing but lumber for the cabin, one with six 5-gallon gas cans for the snowmobiles and one toboggan with our food, beverages, clothing, satellite phone, etc.

Once the toboggan’s were secured and ready, we set off on our adventure. We headed west toward the Susitna River, everything was frozen over, so it made travel easy on the river. After a while we got to what the locals call the Cruz trail, this was a 12-mile trail through the woods that cuts off a lot of extra miles of back tracking to make it to the Yentna River. The only down side, the Cruz trail was pretty rough, snow pack was fine, but it was in rough condition from other snowmobiles pulling large loads out through the bush, the trailers & toboggans can really mess up uneven trails.

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Stopping along the Cruz trail to check the lumber

After 12 miles of harsh trail conditions, we made it to the mighty Yentna river, this is the river that the actual Iditarod races travel on, we were snowmobiling on their very same race course, that was a pretty awesome feeling. The river had wooden course markers every 100 yards or so that the Iditarod racers used to navigate the river.

The sky was so clear and beautiful, I was awe-stuck at the sight of something pretty amazing…Mt. McKinley (Denali). The mountain was ~100 miles north of our location and just amazing to look at. Mt. McKinley in the tallest mountain in North America sitting at 20,237′ above sea level!

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My first sight of Mt. McKinley along the Yentna River

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Rest stop on the Yentna to stretch and double check our GPS coordinates

We made it to the cabin with some daylight to spare, it was about a 4 hours snowmobile ride from Willow to our cabin. Once we got in the cabin we had to get the wood burner roaring and start getting settled. There was about 3′ of snow on the ground around the cabin, just enough to make it difficult to walk around, but not enough to justify messing with snow shoes.

Around 11:30pm we stepped outside and I saw the Aurora Borealis (northern lights) for the first time ever, the sky was lite up eerie green and the longer you stood still, you could actually see the color dance around in the sky. Amazing!

Just so everyone gets an idea of remote cabins in the Alaska bush, most DO NOT of running water or plumbing of any kind….so that means, yes, an outhouse. Here’s a cool pic of the outhouse….

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Snow melted off the roof of the outhouse, then froze again in place, I thought it was neat

On Saturday 3/1, we decided to head over to another cabin Larry owns to check things out, we cruised through the woods and crossed over more frozen lakes to access Bulchitna Lake. Bulchinta Lake is pretty large, large enough to allow airplanes with snow skis to land on it, several planes were parked on the ice as folks were hanging out in the their cabins waiting to watch the Iditarod. The lake was smooth as could be, so we played around on the snowmobiles for a while before heading back to our main cabin.

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Bulchitna Lake, yes, there’s water under that snow & ice. The Alaska Mountain Range lurking in the background

Back at the main cabin, I had to get this pic showing what the snow is like…

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Jeep Cherokee that stays at the cabin year round, the snow seemed deep to me, but Larry said usually you can’t see the Jeep at all, it’s just a bump in the snow!

Sunday 3/2, we headed up the Yentna River to Skwentna, AK, this is a “town” of something like 11 people that live there year round. Talk about tough folks! We stopped in at the Skwentna Roadhouse, they sells hot food and provide lodging for people year-round, most of their business comes from the fishing season during the summer, many people fly out to this area to fish the big salmon that make their way up the Yentna River. We got a fresh cooked burger & fries for $14, not bad for 65 miles out in the bush!

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Hanging out in the Skwentna Roadhouse “parking lot”

After the tasty burger in Skwentna, we headed northwest to Shell Lake. Shell Lake is a very large lake way the heck out there. We traveled over frozen swamps to get up there, and had amazing views of the Alaska Range the entire time.

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Shell Lake area had less snow that Bulchitna & Skwentna…the frozen lake had sections were there was NO snow cover over the think ice, this made me feel a little uneasy since we could literally see water through the ice, but it was thick enough, no problems!

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Standing on Shell Lake with the Alaska Range in the background

We stopped in at the Shell Lake Lodge for a drink, there were a few other folks hanging out waiting to watch the Iditarod later that evening.

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We started making our way back to the cabin after visiting Shell Lake, on our way back we were starring straight at Mt. McKinley & Mt. Foraker!

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Mt. McKinley (20,237′) a little right of center, Mt. Foraker (17,400′) dead center.

We passed back through Skwentna on the way back to the cabin….Skwentna is the second official check point of the Iditarod. The check point was setup and ready for mushers….still hard to grasp that the check point is stationed ON the frozen Yentna River!

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Dog food bags waiting for racers, no racers had passed though at this time

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Another cool thing that makes you think about their way of living…here’s the Skwentna official USPS. Mail gets flown in by float plane in the summer and ski plane during  the winter. Residents get there however possible to get their mail….boat or plane during summer, snowmobile or plane during winter.

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Now, time for the dogs! The Iditarod route passes within one mile from the cabin where we were staying. When it was about time for the racers to come though, we headed down to the river on our snowmobiles and waited. The locals have a huge bonfire on the frozen river ice, that’s right, the fire is on the ice above the flowing river! It doesn’t matter, though, the ice is so thick that only a few inches of ice melted from a bonfire that burned all night.

The dog teams would come by and it was just amazing. We were so far out in the middle of nowhere, you could see the mushers headlamps several miles down the river, we would wait 5-10 min before the mushers actually got to us. The dogs looked to be loving life, you could tell they were born to run and enjoyed it completely. The dogs were racing and working, no time for rest, but would still look at us on the sidelines and almost smile at us, I imagined them saying “Hey! Check us out! This is AWESOME! BYE!”

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The bonfire on the river

Monday 3/3, we packed up and headed for Willow. The trip was fast on the way back since we didn’t have the lumber to mess with. I was still impressed by the beauty of Mt. McKinley on the way back, we had the clearest sky’s of the entire trip.

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Mt. McKinley on the right & Mt. Foraker on the left

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Larry & I with the mountains

Final pic of us taking the Cruz trail through the woods on the way back….

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I had an amazing time and hope to do it again next year. We rode 170 miles on the snowmobiles all weekend and I experienced things I never dreamed would be reality. Alaska is such an amazing place, I hope every outdoor lover can visit it someday, it WILL change your view on much of your world, I guarantee it.

Thanks for reading.

– Eric

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Comments
One Response to “Alaska Iditarod Trip”
  1. drub84 says:

    Hey Eric. Great blog journal of your trip. THanks for sharing. Love those pictures of the mountains. I’m a bit jealous of you! Frankly, I LOVE SNOW!!!! 🙂 Miss ya, and with the best for you and Holly.

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