Denis Douglas made it to the Yukon River (Ruby) two days before Iditarod front runners, Joe Runyan and Doug Swingley.
Booty Road – The First to Walk the Iditarod Trail
by Denis Douglas
The sun got hotter as I walked, and sweat rolled down my back soaking my shirt… No. I must be hallucinating again. Actually it’s about 40 below zero and I’m trudging down the Yukon River with a twenty-mile-an-hour wind blowing in my face. Such was my first walk from Knik to Nome.
Let me back up a little here. Two years earlier I was asked by a hunter to fly from Anchorage into the Farewell area just on the far side of Rainy Pass. The man was from Texas and had drawn a permit for a buffalo during the spring hunt. He shot a cow at about twenty yards and soon we had the animal field dressed and ready for transport to the plane. The weather was warm and as we pulled buffalo meat along what was left of the Iditarod trail on plastic toboggans I commented that it would be fun to walk the trail someday. He had the audacity to tell me I was nuts. Go figure.
So I thought about the idea for a couple of years. I thought a lot about it. Then I got bad news. A very good friend that I worked with didn’t show up for work. A couple of days later we found out that he had a brain tumor. To make matters worse, he had no insurance. Richard Redford was one of the nicest people you could meet and I wanted to do something to help. I thought I could raise money for Richard through the publicity I would get for my walk to Nome.
On the off chance that I might find equipment suitable for such a trek, I stopped by the local sporting goods store in Kenai on the way home from work. There I found a pull sled, two-man tent, Sherpa snowshoes, and a yellow North Face sleeping bag rated for 30 below zero. I should say here that a 30 below bag isn’t very good when it’s 40 or 50 below. The sled was about 40 inches long with a red and black nylon bag attached. It zipped up on the top and had aluminum poles and a harness. I bought the gear without giving much thought to the logistics of a trip to Nome. I’ve never been accused of being very smart. Anyway, I was late for dinner when I got home and as I deposited my gear on the living room floor in front of my wife, Melody, she said, “I have to admit, I admire your sense of adventure.” Two days later Melody deposited me and my gear in the parking lot of the Knik Museum near Wasilla. We said our goodbyes and I was on my way to Nome.
That was 25 years ago. I was a lad of 40 years and as mentioned earlier, not the sharpest kid on the block. That night as I slept in my new tent, it began to snow. Then it snowed a little more before it got serious and really started to snow. One of the first rules of winter camping is to zip up the door so the two zipper handles are at the top of the door. That allows you to slowly unzip the door while you sweep away the accumulated snow. I hadn’t learned that yet but I was getting ready to. When I unzipped the door, about three wheelbarrows of snow entered the tent, sleeping bag, boots, and … well it caused a little muttering.
Day two was a lot better until I was run down by a dog sled.
My trip started well before the Iditarod sled dog race, but I was lucky enough to be on the trail when a practicing musher rounded the corner behind me and ran over me. She apologized as she rode out of sight. I picked myself up and continued on. Kind of reminded me of the song, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
Luckily, things got progressively worse or I would have thought this trip to be a walk in the park. It was not. I was very sick and couldn’t figure out why I had diarrhea. As it turned out I had giardia, also known as beaver fever, although I didn’t find that out until I finished the trip and got back home. Anyway, usually by the time I felt the urge, it was too late to get the harness off and, yup, you guessed it. Now I don’t know how many of you have had the privilege of standing on your snowshoes bare naked at 40 below cleaning yourself up, but I’m here to tell you it sure takes a lot of fun out of a trip. A truck full of clean shorts would have been nice. I guess it’s kind of funny now while I’m sitting in my warm house writing, but it wasn’t very funny at the time.
Somehow I managed to keep going. I stayed in Skwentna for a couple of nights and headed for Rainy Pass. About half way to Puntilla Lake my world fell out from under me. I fell through the snow and into a beaver channel that evidently tied two ponds together. I was up to my belly button in water with my Sherpa snowshoes stuck in the mud, and my sled on top of me. It was eight or ten feet from where I stood to the edge of the hole and I could see the bright sunshine I had been enjoying a short time earlier. While I contemplated my fate, a pair of black hawk helicopters flew right over and I thought they would surely see my tracks, and more importantly, where they stopped at the edge of a hole. No such luck. Screwed am I, I thought. This would have been a fine time for a beaver to show up and try to swim between my legs.
The first order of business was to untangle myself from the sled. That done I bent down into the cold water and wrestled one of the snowshoes out of the mud and unbuckled it. The second snowshoe was a lot harder to get off because my other foot kept sinking into the mud. I was still screwed. Now I had to get myself and my gear out of the water and back up to the top if I didn’t want to die in a watery frozen hole in the snow. With one of the snowshoes I started digging a trail at an angle up the side of the channel. It seemed to take forever because I had to pack the snow with my body as I went so it would support my weight. Just before I broke out at the top, I went back and retrieved my sled and the other snowshoe. I dragged them behind me and made the final push to the crest. You have no idea how happy I was to be standing in the sunlight again with my clothes frozen to me, knowing that I had dry clothes in a bag in the sled. About an hour later I was able to break out of the last of my frozen clothes. I got dressed, set up my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag. It probably took a couple of hours for me to warm up but it seems I must have done something right because I woke up in the morning no worse for wear.
The Happy River gorge is beautiful. That’s all the good I can say about it and I’m certain there are a lot of mushers who feel the same way. A lot of sleds have been damaged trying to negotiate the gorge. As it turned out nobody had been through the gorge yet that winter. I was first. First isn’t always the best. Getting to the bottom of the gorge was kind of easy. At one point I unhooked my sled, turned it around and sent it down the hill backwards. About twenty minutes later I caught up with it. Didn’t hurt the sled a bit, but looking at the elevation I was about to climb I thought, Houston we have a problem. It was very steep going up the other side and as I said earlier, there was no broken trail. To this day I haven’t a clue how I managed, but I climbed to the top of the gorge with sled in tow. When I got to the top I was so tired I just ripped a couple of limbs off the trees and rolled my bag out on them and climbed in. I didn’t even wiggle until morning. When I woke up and looked around, to my surprise the snow was beat flat all around me. A pack of wolves had stumbled on to me and it looked as if they had spent the entire night walking around me. I’m sure I didn’t smell good enough to eat. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had noticed them in the middle of the night, but the wolves most assuredly would’ve thought that I was the biggest yellow caterpillar they had ever watched climb a tree.
I had never been to Rohn before but I did know it was on the far side of Rainy Pass. I was lucky enough to share a cabin at Rainy Pass Lodge with two or three men who were skiing part of the Iditarod trail. It was snowing hard and we just hunkered down to wait it out. We couldn’t even see the pass. About 2 a.m. the skiers decided to try getting through. I looked out the window and voiced my opinion that they were nuts. They looked at me and pointed out that I of all people had no business accusing anyone else of being nuts. They were back about two hours later.
The trail from the top of the pass winds around quite a bit and is very steep in some places. It runs along Dalzell Creek and through a lot of open water. During the dog sled race there are usually several snow bridges built. I got pretty wet after falling in a couple of times and almost everything in my sled was wet. One huge problem for me was that whenever the bottom of the sled got wet for whatever reason, it would load up with snow on the bottom and it felt like I was dragging a baby grand piano. I would have to turn the sled over and scrape the bottom with my ax in order to remove the ice and snow. It became a common ritual.
Next came the Tatina River and I was very glad to find it frozen. The wind was blowing so hard I literally had to get down on my hands and knees while I was blown down the river. Luckily I stopped when I was blown into a logjam. I really needed to find the Rohn cabin but I still had about five miles to go and without a broken trail leading to it, I spent a couple of hours winding around through the trees before finding it. I was cold and half starved but holy cow—there on a shelf in front of me were about ten cans of Spam. Spam was my favorite thing in the world to eat at the time. Mmmm, Spammmm. I ate the first can while it was frozen. Then the cabin started to heat up after I lit a fire in the stove. I fired up the Coleman stove that sat on the counter, chopped up Spam with the ax and started cooking. After eating two more cans of fried Spam and hanging up my wet gear, it was time for bed. The next day I went to work with the bow saw that hung on the outside wall and replenished the wood supply. It’s never a good idea to leave a cabin without firewood. The next person could have serious problems without it. I can tell you now—it was hard to leave Shangri-La.
The trail between Rohn and Nikolai is about 80 miles and breaks into three natural sections. Twenty miles along the south fork of the Kuskokwim River to Farewell Lakes and onto the Farewell Burn. It’s about 35 miles across the burn and then the trail crosses Salmon Creek before reaching Nikolai. There wasn’t a lot of snow on the trail and I often had to drag the sled over dry ground, sharp rocks and logs. This section of trail isn’t much fun, although I did spend one night with my friends at buffalo camp in the same area I mentioned earlier where I brought the hunter from Texas. The area is also where my wife shot a very nice buffalo a few years later. She used a 375 H&H magnum in a Sako with 300gr ammunition. Eat your hearts out boys.
About half way between Nikolai and McGrath, I decided to stop and try to warm up. It was about 30 below zero and I was cold and hungry. The trail ducked down into what looked like a small crater about five feet deep and maybe 100 feet across. There were a couple of dead trees nearby and I chopped firewood. Soon I had a nice little fire going in the middle of the trail. It was somewhere around midnight and I was sure nobody would be out that late, except me. Next I lit my peak stove, melted snow for water and threw in a package of top ramen for dinner. Everything was nice and comfy for a little while. I’m nearly stone cold deaf and didn’t hear the two snow machines that dove over the edge of the crater. You could have knocked their eyeballs off with a baseball bat when they saw me. I jumped out of the way as the machines went through my camp fire, continued on over my stove and my dinner, and came to a screeching halt. Well, maybe they didn’t screech because of the snow, but they stopped fast. They quickly rolled the snow machines upside down to make sure they were not on fire, walked back and asked, “Did you crash a plane or something?” “No,” I said, as I looked at my dinner littering the trail. We talked for a while and off they went to McGrath. I think they were quite impressed with what must have seemed like a huge lack of gray matter on my part.
McGrath was named after Peter McGrath, a local United States Marshal and it has a population of around 350 people. In 1906, gold was discovered in the area and McGrath became a regional supply center. It’s located on the banks of the Kuskokwim River and the village is still an important transportation and economic hub for the area.
Word must have spread about the idiot who had camped out in the middle of the trail, because when I arrived at the McGrath boat launching ramp on the Kuskokwim River a friend of mine met me and took me to her office. She worked for fish and wildlife and offered a plate full of doughnuts and a cup of coffee. I was so cold I couldn’t form a word. It felt like I had a mouth full of marbles and I was shivering like crazy. After about a half hour I was able to drink a cup of coffee and soon after the plate of doughnuts disappeared. I hoped everyone else had their fill before I arrived, but at that time of morning I seriously doubt it. I know I enjoyed the doughnuts more than anyone else would have. After a couple of days in McGrath with my good friends, Ray and Sally Collins, it was off to Ruby.
Now Ruby is roughly 200 miles from McGrath and during the winter there isn’t much going on through that stretch. Takotna lies about 17 air miles from McGrath and is situated on the north bank of the Takotna River. It was founded at the farthest point on the river that a small stern wheeler was able to reach carrying supplies to miners. There are a little over 50 people who live there and as I recall the town had a small bar that entertained a good portion of the population. Shortly after leaving McGrath it started snowing. It snowed quite a bit and then it snowed some more just for good measure. I kept trudging through the ever deepening snow until I became so pooped I couldn’t walk another step and stopped for the night. It turned out I was only about a half mile from Takotna when I went to bed. Let me say this. You don’t just go to bed on the trail. First you have to clear the snow away and set up the tent. Then inflate the self-inflating mattress. Why they call it self-inflating I’ll never know. This is how you inflate a non-inflating self-inflating mattress. You climb into the tent and light the stove. Then, being very careful not to burn the tent down, you unroll the self-inflating mattress and hold it over your head until it warms up. With the valve open, you should hear a sucking noise as the damn thing starts drawing air. Then you blow into the thing until it’s fully inflated. Now it’s time to start dinner.
In Takotna, I stayed at a small B&B and it was here that I learned about shotgun logging. Yup. The son of the lady that owned the B&B had gone out to cut firewood and it seems one of the trees he had cut down refused to go down. It hung up in another tree and he was a little nervous about getting under it to persuade it to fall the rest of the way. Into the house he came to gather up his shotgun and a box of shells. “What cha huntn?” I asked. “Oh nothing, I got a tree hung up in another and need to get it down,” he said. Well nuts, I thought, I gotta see this, so I grabbed my hat and coat and followed him into the woods. About a hundred yards back, sure enough there was the unruly tree hung up just like he said. He blasted away at the treetop until he was out of shells and that’s when I let on that I had done a little logging in Southeast Alaska where I grew up. He wasn’t very talkative while we finished cutting up the tree but ya gotta give him an “A” for his idea.
I may as well tell you why I refer to the Iditarod trail as “booty road.” Most of the sled dog mushers carry bags of little booties that they put on the feet of the dogs when it gets extremely cold. The booties have a small Velcro strap attached that holds it onto the dog’s foot thereby protecting the foot from damage. It doesn’t take much damage to a sled dog’s foot to render it lame. These booties were all along the trail and I started to collect them as a novelty. They are all about the same size but there are many differing colors and patterns. As the dogs run, the booties often get loose and fall off. Usually a musher will reach down and grab the booties on the way by, but often times they miss. I have several zip lock bags full, and have no idea what to do with the booties given that my dog is too lazy to need them.
Ophir was the next popular winter destination, with a recent population of zero. It was once the site of a thriving gold strike in 1906, and supposedly named by miners after the wealthy land of Ophir mentioned in the Old Testament. It was in Ophir that I met the loafer of Ophir. Now the loafer from Ophir was one of the most colorful people along the Iditarod trail. He arrived in Ophir in the early seventies and mined the area through the late eighties. The loafer always dreamed of hitting the jackpot. He would always open his cabin to guests and usually became the checker for the Iditarod. Sadly the loafer died on March 25, 2015. Ophir has got to be one of the most brutally cold places on earth. Or so it seems when you’re travelling on foot dragging a sled that weighs about 80 pounds. These days there is an award given to the first musher into Ophir. The award consists of a trophy and $1,000 in gold nuggets given in his memory. The award is usually given in Ruby.
Ophir to Cripple is a long stretch. The Cripple checkpoint was moved several years ago and it is now approximately 105 miles from Ophir. The trail runs along the Innoko River and crosses it three times. Have I mentioned the cold yet? Let’s talk about equipment needed for a trip like this. First, let me remind you that a 30 below rated sleeping bag is not really very warm at 30 below. When it gets down to 40 or 50 below one realizes the error in judgment. Keep in mind that if the thermometer reads 50 below, the sleeping bag is very close to the same temperature when you climb in. It usually took me about two hours to warm up enough to sleep. No problem because by then I was usually unconscious. I can’t tell you how many times I wondered if I had pushed too hard and wouldn’t wake up in the morning.
I developed a method of warming my sleeping bag before I climbed in and it went like this. The plastic water bottle I carried had a wide mouth lid. I would melt snow almost to the boiling point and pour it into the bottle. Then I would put a wool sock over the bottle and pitch it into the sleeping bag. By the time I got into the bag it would be up to say 30 below. That’s 20 degrees warmer than 50 below for those readers who flunked arithmetic. After getting into bed I would place the hot water bottle between my legs very near my icicles… It didn’t take long to warm up and fall asleep. A word of advice. My water bottle was exactly like the bottle that I used to pee in during the night. Rather than get up and brave the cold, I would just roll up on my side and pee into the bottle and dump it out the door. It was on one of these occasions that I realized the bottle contained a warm liquid. From then on I would place that bottle under my arm pit to help stay warm. Don’t ever throw it out until it gets cold. Oh ya, and always use your headlamp to make sure you have the right bottle if you get thirsty at night.
Cripple to Ruby is about 70 miles. It was probably the worst part of the trail for me, if I could actually pick a worst. I had misjudged my food and fuel supply for my stove. It was during this stretch that I saw myself in a coffin. I’ve been told this is considered an out of body experience. Not a good place and I don’t think you want to go there. Here is what I saw. It had been several days since I left Ophir, and two days since I ran out of food and fuel for my stove. As I traveled I would get so wrung out I would stop and lay down on my sled. I don’t know when this vision came to me but the way I saw it I was travelling along and just to the right of me was a coffin. It was a beautiful coffin. I could plainly see the wood grain and brass handles. Lying in the coffin was yours truly, while my wife Melody was cupping my face in her hands and crying her eyes out. It was a beautiful day and the funeral was being held outside on a floor of some sort. There were a lot of flowers and friends of mine milling around. I had a real strong urge to reach out and touch the coffin but I did not. I would look away. After looking at it several more times and seeing my wife crying her little eyes out I decided I couldn’t do that to her, looked away, and never saw the coffin again, but I was still a couple of days from Ruby and things were getting bad. The last thing I had to eat was a piece of jerky I found in one of my pockets. The military style face mask I was wearing was frozen to my face and I had to push the jerky through the nose hole in order to eat it. At one point a small airplane flew by and I waved to the pilot. “You idiot,” I thought, “You’re going to die but you could have given the emergency hand signal and someone would have rescued your sorry butt.” After a few minutes the plane went by again on its way to Ruby. Again I just waved to the pilot. “You dumb ass. I deserve to die because I’m dumber than a box of rocks.” Little did I know that Melody had contacted a friend of mine in Ruby who sent a friend of his up to look for me. Long story short, I walked into Ruby after 13 days. I was in sorry shape. I sat in front of my friend Ron’s wood stove for about an hour before we could get the face mask off my head. Ron still to this day says that I ate nearly everything in his cabin. The first item I devoured was a fresh pan of bread. Then I ate everything else faster than he could hide it. I had arrived in Ruby about two days before Iditarod mushers, Joe Runyan and Doug Swingley. They were running together and Mr. White Keys was getting set up for the half way celebration. I sat at the table with both mushers while they ate a dinner fit for a king and accepted the trophy and $1000 in prize money. For me, the prize was living to tell my story.
Look for the continuation of Denis’s story, Ruby to Nome, in the May/June 2017 issue of LFM.