History

Breaking the Iditarod Trail

 

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The story of breaking trail during the early years of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has long deserved to be told, along with recognition of a few people who made racing through one of the most challenging stretches of the trail possible.

The first Iditarod, in 1973, became a reality after several years of joint efforts by Joe and Vi Redington, along with Dorothy Page, president of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee, and many, many others who were inspired by the dream and became dedicated volunteers. Joe’s main goal was to resurrect interest in sled dogs, which was dying out in Alaska since the arrival of snow machines. His other goal was to reestablish the historic Iditarod Trail. Originally Joe only planned for the race to go to the ghost town of Iditarod, but in order to get enough interest, the route of the race was extended from Anchorage to Nome. Breaking a 1,000-plus mile race trail through the Alaskan wilderness would be no small feat.

Frank Harvey setting a trail marker in Ptarmigan Valley

Frank Harvey setting a trail marker in Ptarmigan Valley

Thanks to connections Joe Redington Sr. had with the U.S. Army, they provided tremendous help breaking the trail to Nome as part of a winter training exercise. But even the Army was unable to break trail the entire way. A section of the trail, Rainy Pass, proved too much for the large equipment the army was using.
Frank Harvey, who lived at Donkey Lake near the Yentna River, happened to be in Skwentna one day and was sought out by Joe Delia to assist in breaking the race trail. The late Delia, a well known homesteader and trapper since 1948, also served as the Skwentna postmaster and was a volunteer race checker for 39 years. He knew Frank had the knowledge of this difficult area, the right equipment, and the expertise needed to get the job done.

Herbie Nayokpuk and his team in Ptarmigan Valley with the trail breaking team looking on.

Herbie Nayokpuk and his team in Ptarmigan Valley with the trail breaking team looking on.

That first year, Harvey assisted the Army by cutting brush, building ice breaks and bridges, and breaking trails several weeks prior to the start of the race, only making it to the bottom of Rainy Pass where the military wouldn’t advance further. At that time, it was suspected that the 1964 earthquake had rendered Rainy Pass unpassable. Harvey and the late Gene Leonard, from Finger Lake, continued breaking the trail through Ptarmigan Valley. Unknown to many, for the first several years the Iditarod race bypassed the most difficult section of Rainy Pass and detoured through Ptarmigan Valley.

The second year, Harvey accepted the responsibility of breaking trail between Skwentna and Farewell, through Ptarmigan Valley. Jay Peterson of Montana Creek, Ron Aldrich, Joe Delia and Gene Leonard also volunteered for this grueling task. In the early years, volunteering did not just mean time. Harvey and his team were responsible for providing their own equipment, gas, and other supplies. It wasn’t until 1975 that the volunteer trailbreakers could get reimbursed for their gas.

After the rivers were mostly frozen (winter water takes on three forms—shelf ice, overflow and open water) and snow conditions were adequate for their snowmachines, the crew would begin prepping… They would travel from Knik to Skwentna, on to Finger Lake, and through to the treacherous Rainy Pass or Ptarmigan Valley to the Rohn Roadhouse—considered the most dangerous part of the entire trip to Nome.

Ron Aldrich described this section of the Iditarod Trail well in his story from the January-February 1978 issue of the Iditarod Runner. “The meanest, toughest, most trying section of the whole trail lies between Anchorage and Farewell. The country lies on its side, cut with four of the largest, fastest-flowing glacier-fed rivers in the state. A land of extremes, changing from low-lying delta swamps, inundated with water during the summer, frozen solid in the winter, to mile-high mountains. More than a mile high, in fact. This 300 miles of pure cantankerousness is well known for its diversity. It is likely to be blown in by high winds and snowed in by thirty-inch snowfalls in a single night. Rivers overflow or open up following warm rains, and –130°F chill factors can have a devastating effect on travelers. Any or all of these things can happen within a week’s time, and it is no place for the tenderfoot or greenhorn.”

Joe Delia, Jay Peterson, and Frank Harvey in Ptarmigan Valley

Joe Delia, Jay Peterson, and Frank Harvey in Ptarmigan Valley

Harvey’s team devoted many weeks every year to the trail, making sure it was safe and in the best condition possible for the mushers and their dog teams. It involved risking their lives in grueling conditions, relying on their snowmachines and the equipment necessary to handle the various challenges. Often times a trail established in a previous year would not be a safe route because of the wide range of winter weather conditions. This resulted in the trail breakers having to find and cut an entirely different route for the dog teams.
Many years later, Frank told his nephew, Rick Harvey, about a man he met who had snowshoed through Rainy Pass at the same time he and Joe Delia were overnighting at the Rohn Roadhouse in the winter of 1976. Harvey asked the man his opinion about whether they could make it all the way through Rainy Pass on snowmachines. The man responded that yes, it was possible. So the next morning, Frank and Joe took off, following the man’s snowshoe tracks, and found a way through the pass. They called Joe Redington Sr. to let him know they had a potential route through Rainy Pass. Joe’s response was, “Get that trail in, if at all possible.”

The hardships of breaking the Iditarod trail in those early days were far more than just setting and grooming a trail in the snow. The often dangerous situations of avalanches, challenging overflow on the rivers and even rescuing dogs and mushers from disaster, were experienced by Harvey, Peterson, Delia and Leonard. A few days before the race started each year they would return to Knik, repacking that portion of the trail to Skwentna to ensure a good, fast trail for the start of the race. These original Iditarod trail breakers truly put their lives on the line for the benefit of the Iditarod racers and made the race happen.

 

In spite of the distance and severe weather conditions in the grueling Rainy Pass and Dalzell Gorge, with the racers running on their heels, these trailbreakers lived up to their reputation. They were able to push the trail through, with the help of double track Alpines, customized to fit their needs, and Akhio sleds for hauling equipment, emergency parts and fuel. Being well equipped with the knowledge of parts and necessary tools, they would “overhaul” the machines while on the trail, even if it was 20 or 30 below zero, and often dealing with overflow problems due to open water. The snowmachines and men were tested to their limits.

Bob King wrote about Harvey and the crew in the March 1980 issue of Alaska Magazine, “When a breakdown occurs, the men use the tarps to make a shelter and perform the necessary work out of the bitter winds. Unfortunately this still doesn’t keep the metal tools and parts from freezing to their flesh in the extreme temperatures. ‘We try to avoid that by putting the materials needed on the heated engine blocks, but sometimes even this does not help,’ said Harvey.”

Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake in 1978

Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake in 1978

Since the trail-breaking job often needed to be accomplished with dog teams right on their heels, many close calls happened through the years. One incident worthy of mentioning happened in 1977 when Col. Norman Vaughan and his team came up missing near Ptarmigan Valley. The civil air patrol had been looking for Vaughan for five days. When Harvey, who had just traversed the new race route through Rainy Pass, heard the news, he remembered he had seen tracks near Ptarmigan Valley and, feeling that he knew where to find Vaughan and his team, went out searching with Gene Leonard. They found him in a severe state of hypothermia. Several of the dogs ran off, so after Frank and Gene got Vaughan taken care of they spent almost a week helping Vaughan find his missing dogs. A couple of the dogs showed up embedded with porcupine quills, but they found them all. Frank’s brother, Richard Harvey, met Vaughan years later at a book signing event. In the book Richard bought Vaughan wrote, “To the brother of the man who saved my life in Ptarmigan Valley. I will forever be thankful. Norman D. Vaughan.”

Harvey’s nephew, Rick, snow-machined into Shell Lake not long ago. During the evening, while exchanging stories with the “locals” about all the “old Iditarod trails,” everyone agreed that when trails are discovered in the area it is obvious they are Frank Harvey trails. To this day, many of these trails, ramps and bridges are still being maintained and used for the Iron Dog and Iditarod Trail races.

In the eyes of veteran mushers such as Dick Mackey, Rick Swenson and Martin Buser, Frank Harvey, who broke trail for twelve years, is considered a “quiet hero,” indeed an “unsung hero” of the Iditarod.

 

Story by Karen Harvey & Rick Harvey

 
Karen Harvey and her husband Richard, have been Alaskan residents since 1973. They raised their four children in Alaska, who all have raised their families here as well. Karen has long had a passion to tell the story of her brother-in-law, Frank Harvey, and his contribution to the Iditarod from the beginning stages of the race. During the early days of the Iditarod trail breaking, Karen was also involved in the background by avidly following Bush Pipeline (radio program), passing information to Frank and other trailbreakers as it was available and assisting in gathering up the necessary parts, gasoline at times, and other items the trail-breaking team was in need of. She would meet up with mail plane pilot, Ruth Jefford, either at the Willow or Talkeetna airstrip, with the needed supplies to be transported to Skwentna.

Karen’s son, Rick Harvey, was introduced to “bush” life early in his teenage years. He spent one summer with Joe Delia in Skwentna when Joe was in need of a “helper” to rebuild his cabin after a fire destroyed it on Christmas Eve. Rick was in awe when hearing of the experiences of the trail-breaking team, relayed to him by Delia and his Uncle Frank. The love of life in the Alaska wilderness was embedded in him in his early years. An avid hunter, he is a principal fire & gas engineer for NANA WorleyParsons, registered in both the U.S. and Alberta, Canada. When his busy schedule allows, he spends time at his cabin south of Tok.

 

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3 replies »

  1. What a great and important story to be captured as part of the Iditarod’s history! I remember hearing about these guys rebuilding an engine enroute one year. Impressive travelers and huge contributors to the Last Great Race.

  2. Well done, the story of these great Alaskans, is a testament to the demise of preparation of the Iditarod event. Much has been lost in maintaining the historic trail, and ability of management to maintain the competitive challenge, only presented by the original route. I shared many memories with Rod Aldrich & many of this crew, and the ability of these hardy Alaskans to complete a trail with equipment far less tested and equipped then what is available on the current trail. This is a part of Iditarod that is being lost, management has not demonstrated its ability, evidently is not quailified to meet the challenges of the pioneer trail builders.

    I personally experienced these trail masters and the dedication to make each year better with trail improvement. My Iditarod trip in 1979, threw Rainey Pass was near disaster, from the top to Rohn, I lost my brake on the first downhill, completely broke off of my 21 dog team. The concentration, fortunately I personally built my sled to handle these conditions, with extra wide oak runners and stations. The weakest part became the lost brake, and the strongest was my training of lead dogs with strong command response, however that did not illuminate daring moments traveling at too fast a pace on many ocassions, with mishaps of locking the front of the sled under overflow ice sheets, with the team & tug line on the top, fortunately our tug line held and eliminated lost team disaster. I certainly wore some rubber off my boot soles as my only braking method, other the my ice hook, which created a challenge with a hand held ice hook brake with one hand & the other maintaining position on the sled. This was really enjoying the excitement of the moment with lack of team response on many occasions. The team excitement of the run gets them wanting to hall ass, with many moments of what the hell is next. My respect for the trail builders of this period has never been lost & appreciated. Rohn was a welcome site & I appreciate the respect you have given these great Alaskans who are unmatched currently with their personal dedication & skills to meet any challenge.

    Mush on Ron Aldrich & all you original trail builders, many of us wish to follow your trail in the future through the Aurora filed nights.

    Best wishes for the future, Del Allison 1979 Iditarod finisher & on to Barrow.

  3. This is a very cool story. Thank you for sharing and thank you for recognizing what Frank,
    Gene Leonard and Ron too did. Also, Joe Delia who has passed on.

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