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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.