Walking the Iditarod Trail – The Long Journey to Nome
By Denis Douglas
As you may recall from the first part of my story , I was walking to Nome following the Iditarod Trail with a goal to raise money for a friend who was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Richard Redford didn’t have medical insurance; if I succeeded in reaching Nome, then funds raised would help with his mounting bills. I had high hopes that the second half of my trip would be a little easier than the first half.
“Where ya goin?“ he asked. “To Nome,” I boldly stated. “You’re going the wrong way…”
After resting for a couple of days in Ruby, it was time to continue my trip. I fastened plastic runners to the bottom of my sled in an effort to keep overflow from sticking to it. I was on a mission to help a friend in need, but it wasn’t easy leaving the safety of town and heading back out into the cold. The trail had been obliterated by a windstorm and most of the trail markers had either been run down by snow machines or taken for firewood.
About three miles downriver is Ruby Slough. There were tracks going that direction, so I followed them. About seven miles down I met a man on a snow machine towing a large sled full of firewood. “Where ya goin?“ he asked. “To Nome,” I boldly stated. “You’re going the wrong way. This is Ruby Slough, you need to go back and get on the Yukon River again.” “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yup, lived here my whole life.” “OK, thanks,” I said, as I turned back toward the Yukon. Doing something like this when you’re in a car or riding a snow machine is one thing, but going the wrong direction is not something you really want to do while dragging an eighty pound sled! It cancels out any humor you might have accumulated along the way.
About five miles from the Yukon River I spotted an old man on a dog sled heading toward me. I moved off the trail so he could pass and resumed my march. Soon after that I heard someone cursing me and asking why I didn’t tell him this wasn’t the Iditarod Trail. I moved aside again and told him as he passed that I was lost and didn’t know he was racing anyway since everyone else was long gone. He continued muttering to me until I became somewhat irritated. ‘Watch this, old man,’ I said to myself as I started running. I ran right up behind him causing him to push his dogs a little faster. I ran a little faster and it was clear that the old man was afraid I was going to pass him. I was in very good shape after walking from Anchorage to Ruby, but soon I started to lag. I know now that Norman Vaughn was very pleased that he was able to pull away from me.
I spent that night next to the trail. After getting my tent set up and inflating my non-inflating/self-inflating air mattress, I was ready for bed. It was perhaps thirty below and as I started to enter my tent, I saw a headlight in the distance from the direction of Ruby. I could tell it was a musher and decided to wait and see who it was. It took forever for the sled to get near and it was obvious the musher was having problems with her team. The lead dog was crossing back and forth across the trail while the musher yelled, “Gee, gee, damn you!” “Haw, haw you @&%#*.” Back and forth they went until they got to my tent. The dogs had had enough of her and walked off the trail and laid down. Now the lady, and I use the term very loosely, tied into me. “Why in the @#% are you camped near the trail? You need to get off the river and up into the woods where my dogs can’t see you. Grab my lead dog and lead him back onto the trail &$%#@.” I obliged and bid her happy trails as she slowly made her way down the river.
Early the next day I arrived at Galena. Galena is the name of a natural mineral: a source of lead and silver that used to be mined nearby. While I talked to the veterinarian who was working the Iditarod sled dog race, a large man wearing an Air Force uniform pulled up in a pickup, got out, picked up my eighty pound sled with one hand, and slid it into the back of the truck. That’s when this became a ratio and proportion matter. He was twice as big as I was. Not wishing to anger the man, I politely mentioned that the sled was mine and that I would probably need it for the rest of my trip. “Get in,” he ordered, “the base commander has made you his personal guest for as long as you need to rest.” I jumped in.
I was intercepted and the lady had in her possession sandwiches and hot coffee.
To my delight, I was given a room in the officers’ quarters. Everything was WWll vintage and looked as if it had just been purchased. I hung up my tent, sleeping bag, and clothes, and soon the room looked like a Chinese laundry of yesteryear. I was taken to the chow hall and fed a very nice dinner. My money was no good when I needed to buy film and a few other items to resupply my sled. Next stop was the Officers’ Club where I met members of the Fire Dawgs. These are the people who rescue fighter pilots if they crash. I was having a great time visiting when one of them said, “Hey! We have a special drink here, and if you can chug it without taking a breath you will be an honorary Fire Dawg.” Not one to avoid a challenge, I said, “OK.” The bartender set a large glass on the bar and filled it with every manner of alcohol known to man. There was just enough room for two tablespoons of coca cola when he was done pouring. Well…. I drank it and shortly thereafter headed to my room for the night. I slept very well and the next day I was awarded my Fire Dawg card.
According to the Iditarod Trail map, it’s 84 miles between Galena and Kaltag. The trail follows the Yukon River and passes by the villages of Koyukuk and Nulato. Somewhere around here I spotted a dog sled moving across the river in my direction. I was intercepted and the lady had in her possession sandwiches and hot coffee. She had been watching and waiting for me to come into sight. We visited while I ate the sandwiches, then off I went. This kind of hospitality was the norm all along the trail.
Kaltag is located on the right hand side going down the Yukon River, with a population of about 190 people and was historically used as an Athabascan cemetery, however, much of the old cemetery has fallen into the river. The old portage trail from Kaltag to Unalakleet is now used as part of the Iditarod race trail. I only spent one night in Kaltag before pushing on to Unalakleet, 85 miles away.
The trail passes through the Old Woman checkpoint. There isn’t much at Old Woman and, since the sled dog race was long over, I had nobody to visit. The trail gradually climbs through a wooded valley and into alpine country. It’s beautiful and a sight to behold on a sunny day. The trail meets the Unalakleet River and sort of follows it into Unalakleet on the edge of the Bering Sea, with a population of about 708 according to the 2016 census. While in Unalakleet I was asked by one of the teachers to speak to the students about my trip. I told them about Richard and why I was walking from Anchorage to Nome. We unpacked my sled and examined my gear. At one point a student asked why I had an ax. “Well,” I said, “I might want to build a fire.” “But why do you have an ax?” the student asked again. “Just in case I need firewood.” “Why do you have an ax?” asked the student, a third time. Then it dawned on me what he was getting at. There weren’t a lot of dead trees to cut down and most of the firewood was covered in snow. Basically, he was letting me know I could ditch the ax and lighten up my sled! Toward the end of my class visit I offered a dollar to each of the kids if they could repack everything into my sled. I didn’t have to pay.
It was a nice day, for a change, as I left Unalakleet and headed north toward Shaktoolik. The trail runs just above the beach for about five miles and then turns inland and passes behind 850-foot Blueberry Point. As I recall, the trail wasn’t extremely challenging although it had its ups and downs. About 12 miles north of Unalakleet, the trail starts a four-mile climb (which really sucks) to Blueberry Ridge. Out of energy at this point, I had to stop for a breather several times. Though the sun was out, the wind blew steadily. There were open areas and snow drifts slowing my progress down. Besboro Island was visible during most of this leg of the trip. The trail back to the beach was fairly windblown in spots and icy in others. I was glad to get down from the ridge and out of wind for a while.
Sometimes I would walk all day and through the night if conditions were right. This was one of those occasions. With the exception of a few drifts, the trail was very good, and the lights of Shaktoolik shown brightly against the sky all night. I stopped a couple of times to eat and drink water, but for the most part I kept walking. As I walked, I started noticing walls constructed of lumber. They were wind walls designed to help keep the snow from drifting in town. This was a very good indication to me that it might get a little breezy around this area. Very astute of me, huh? I was allowed to stay in the school library that night and gratefully enjoyed a warm sleeping bag for a change.
As I said before, I was sick. Giardia can kill people. More often than not, by the time I felt the urge, it was too late.
The wind was blowing as I left Shaktoolik and it increased in velocity all day long. I knew there was a safety cabin ahead located just before Norton Bay. Not knowing if there would be firewood or not, I started gathering trail markers. I picked every third one and by the time I reached the cabin I had enough for a small fire. It didn’t last long and certainly didn’t warm the cabin. I didn’t expect much and that’s what I got; I set my tent up in the cabin and went to bed.
The next morning I awoke to what could only be considered gale force winds. I wasn’t looking forward to crossing Norton Bay in these conditions, but the thought of spending the day and another night in this cabin caused me to make a bad decision. Still suffering from giardia, and about 20 pounds lighter than when I started my trek, I was in no condition to tackle this stretch of trail, if it could even be called a trail. About five miles onto Norton Bay, a man on a snow machine stopped and insisted that I not cross in this weather. I assured him I would be fine, but he was so insistent he all but forced me to stop. He tied my sled to the back of his machine and basically ordered me to get on. He dragged me back to the safety cabin and left for Koyuk. This was a real letdown and my desire to not stay in the cabin was overpowering. I just couldn’t do it. Again, I headed across the ice toward Koyuk, vowing not to let anyone have power over me again. I should have listened to the man, but intelligence isn’t one of my strong points some days.
I’ve been told that I must have suffered a short circuit in the head. There was no place to hide and I was at the mercy of the brutal elements. The wind blew snow into my eyes and it felt like they were being sand blasted. I would walk with my eyes shut as long as I could and then shelter my eyes with my hands while I tried to see ahead. My progress was slow and painful. At one point I decided to stop in the lee of a pressure ridge and fix a freeze dried meal. Fat chance. I wrapped my rain fly around me and as I tried to light my stove, the snow drifted around me. It didn’t take long to realize that I was getting buried alive. I kicked my way out and continued on without eating anything.
About two thirds of the way across Norton Bay the wind started to let up a little. I could see without covering my eyes and Koyuk seemed close, but it took forever to finish crossing the bay. Distance isn’t what it seems sometimes, and I thought I was going to die before reaching the village. I was so pooped that I set up my tent and went to sleep. I slept the rest of the day and all night. The next day I went to the post office and picked up the package of food my wife, Melody, had sent. I think I ate about half of my food supply before leaving Koyuk.
As I said before, I was sick. Giardia can kill people. More often than not, by the time I felt the urge, it was too late. I would have to unhook my sled and try to clean myself up. It was a common occurrence on this trip, but when it happened while crossing the Norton Sound it was brutally painful, and I wasn’t having very much fun. I went through my gear and decided to lighten my sled, because it looked like I might not have the energy to finish the trip, and shipping about twenty pounds of gear home might help. I sent the video camera, ax, extra clothes, and my 22 cal. pistol. I had only used it once and that was to shoot a rabbit early on in the trip. Rabbit burnt over a campfire isn’t very good (so much for living off the land).
Somewhere up in the Kwiktalik mountains I ran into a wolverine.
Out of Koyuk the trail follows the sea ice along steep bluffs. As I walked, a red fox seemed to appear out of nowhere. It had been running toward the bluff and like a ski jumper, sailed through the air before landing in the snow near the bottom. It climbed back up and after several attempts jumped over the top edge and out of sight. A short time later, I saw something move out the corner of my right eye and turned just in time to kick at the same fox. Did I ship my pistol home? Yup!
The fox seemed to be covered in blood and acted like it wanted to eat me. I unhooked my sled and threw my hat at the animal only to have to rescue my hat because the fox was trying to eat it. We chased each other around for a while and I yanked a small tree out of the snow that had been used as a trail marker. I can tell you right here and now that it’s near impossible to chase something away that intends to eat you. After about twenty minutes, the fox left. I think it must have realized that I wasn’t going to be very easy to eat. Shortly after that I ran into a couple of locals who said there was a rabies epidemic in the area and the fox that had attacked me was probably in the late stage of rabies. If it had bitten me I probably wouldn’t have finished my trip. I pulled up the first lath type marker I found, sharpened the end, and fire hardened the tip on my stove. I was a rubber neck like you have never seen after that. Nothing was going to sneak up on Denis again!
Koyuk to Elim is 48 miles, give or take. The first twelve miles are on sea ice before the trail cuts inland behind Bald Head and crosses Kwiniut Inlet before reaching Moses Point. From there, it’s about eleven miles to the old Moses Point FAA Station where I spent the night.
Elim is a quiet village; most residents live a slower paced life and that seems to suit them just fine. I don’t mean for that to sound bad. The people are very friendly and would probably share their last bite of food with you. They don’t feel the pressure of city life. This is the way it is in most of the villages in Alaska. Their way of life makes me somewhat envious.
Somewhere up in the Kwiktalik mountains I ran into a wolverine. Remembering the problem I had with the red fox, and thinking about the alleged nasty temperament of wolverines, gave me pause, to say the least. It seemed to be going everywhere at once while going nowhere. There was no rhyme or reason to its movement except that it must have been hunting something to eat. Then it spotted me. Nuts! I thought. The critter shuffled back and forth right up to me, snorted a couple of times, and went on its way. That was fine with me because I had been running on empty for a long time and didn’t feel much like wrestling a wolverine.
The trail descends very rapidly to Golovin Bay and follows the bay for the last five miles to Golovin. There isn’t a heck of a lot to do in Golovin. It is another small, quiet village with friendly people.
From Golovin to White Mountain the trail is straight for about ten miles on Golovin Lagoon. Then it follows the Fish River to White Mountain. This part of the trail was pleasurable. I made good time and about five miles out of town a man on a snow machine came towards me. He left the trail just before he got to me and made a circle around me before stopping on the trail right in front of me. An old man stepped off the machine, pulled off one of his mitts, and extended a hand to me. “I want to be the first one to welcome you to our part of the world,” he said. What can I say about these people? You can’t beat them when it comes to hospitality.
As I rounded the corner into White Mountain, another snow machine passed me with a sled in tow. An old man and woman were riding and they joined others waiting on shore for my arrival. There were several large fish in their sled. The old man said, “You passed us several miles back, we were fishing in a slough when you went by; boy you walk fast.” Then he invited me for dinner. I looked at the frozen fish in the sled and thought that dinner preparations would take a while and I was hungry. Just then a lady stepped forward and said, “I just finished a pot full of spaghetti and meatballs. They’re still hot.” “I love spaghetti and meatballs,” I said, as I followed her to her house. As it turns out she was the school teacher; she allowed me to spend the night in the school.
White Mountain to Safety is beautiful. The trail follows the Fish River for about three miles before cutting across low rolling tundra and several streams. Then it runs up the Klokerblok River to a series of low ridges to the Topkok River before it climbs 400 feet over a saddle above Topkok Head. Virtually all the climbing was behind me at this point. Now it’s downhill to the Nome Kennel Club cabin and a well-deserved restful night. I wasn’t disappointed. The cabin had a good supply of firewood and after eating, I entertained myself by reading all the notes people had written on the walls and ceiling. In the morning I headed for Safety. The trail was well packed and I made good time following the coast. As I neared Safety it was easy to see that all the excitement of the Iditarod Race was long over. The population of Safety was one, including me. There are a few cabins between Safety and Nome—all of them looked deserted. It’s one thing to be on the trail by yourself for so long, but quite another to be by yourself with what should be civilization close by. Just when I was feeling sorry for myself, I was hailed by someone near one of the cabins. I walked over and to my surprise was invited to share a pan full of cinnamon rolls. Living off the land couldn’t be tougher.
On the final stretch to Nome, a wide range of emotions overwhelmed me. I had been on this trip for over sixty days. I was sicker than I knew and very ready to be finished with this trek. I don’t want to downplay mushers. They have their hands full keeping a team of dogs going strong for that kind of race. I will say it’s a far cry from pulling your own sled and leaving the dogs home.
The trail follows the road system near Nome and several people had driven out of town to watch for me. They all seemed to want me to stop and talk with them about the trip. One such person was a news reporter. After a brief interview I threw my sled over the guardrail and chased it down to the trail on the sea ice. Just when I thought I could get away from people and get the trip over with, I watched as a man climbed over the rail and down to the trail ahead of me. Surprise! It was Scott Walden. Scott was a fireman from Kenai, Alaska. The Kenai fire fighters sponsored my trip as I needed a nonprofit organization to receive the donations for Richard Redford. Scott thanked me for a job well done and gave me a hat with the Mark Air logo on it. He told me they provided me with a seat back home so I wouldn’t have to walk back. Mark Air asked if I could wear the hat into Nome. “Oh yeah, I’ll wear it. No problem there.”
If you have never done anything like this, think hard before starting … then think again! It would show a higher level of intellect to just say no. I should, however, say that I wasn’t doing this for the fun of it, which was a good thing since it isn’t as much fun as it’s cracked up to be. I was doing it to help a friend. I would never quit even if I had broken my back. I would have crawled into Nome. That’s just me.
When I left the sea ice and joined the street again, the city manager said he would escort me into town behind his truck. I trotted along behind for a while and decided he was moving too slow. I jumped up onto the sidewalk and passed him up. Even in my diminished state of health, I guess you could say I was in better shape than most. As I ran down Main Street, I kept looking for the arch that signaled the end of the trail. That’s when Scott started running after me and told me to stop. “You passed the arch, it’s not over the street anymore, it’s beside those buildings over there.”
I probably would have run right through Nome and out the other end if he hadn’t stopped me. Then I noticed my wife, Melody, Richard Redford, his wife Dianna, and a couple of reporters waiting for me near the arch. After a few hugs, kisses, and greetings, it was time for real food. I ate the best hamburger of my life that day. Then I spent the night in a real bed and flew back home in a nice warm plane with my wife and friends. As I looked out the window I couldn’t help thinking how impossible it was. That can’t be done, I thought as I looked down.
Richard died a few years later, but not without a good fight. I have to say if my courage was half what his was I’d be very proud. I’m happy that I took Richard’s mind off of some of his problems, if only for a short while. I thank my wife, and the Kenai Firefighters for helping make the trip possible, but mostly I thank Richard. I would have quit many times if it wasn’t for him.
Rest in Peace my Friend.