MULTI-USE TRAILS CONNECT ALASKANS
Story and images by Bjørn Olson
On the North side of the Alaska Range, I skidded and bounced down the Dalzell Gorge struggling to keep my expedition-loaded fat-tire bike upright. Mounds of frozen dirt and icy roots flung me sideways and I squeezed both brake levers, trying to stay on two wheels and not wrap myself around a tree. Suddenly, the decline steepened; I spotted a glimpse of bare ice ahead, and let off the brakes to avoid skidding out.
After a while, the trail leveled out into a meadow blanketed in crusty snow. The frosty branches on the black spruce trees glistened in the morning light. I lowered my bike and yanked out my camera. A dog team was behind me, coming fast, and I wanted a photo. Through the forest above me, could hear the dog driver gently encouraging his team to slow down. “Wooo. Easy…easy. Good girl.” I flipped on my camera and knelt, finger on the shutter.
Dog teams, after thousands of years of being Alaskans’ most unfailing means of winter transportation, have been almost entirely replaced by lifeless internal combustion motors. Sport and competition have become the stopgaps for widespread canine utility. The Iditarod, Yukon Quest, and many other mid-distance and sprint races throughout the state have helped keep mushing and our lifeline to history alive.
“My sled is trashed,” the Iditarod musher said as he and his 14 dogs blew past me in the meadow. The conditions in the gorge had been ideal on my studded-tire fat-bike, but the frozen dirt, rocks, and patches of off-slope black ice had been hell for the dog driver. Following their progress through my camera’s viewfinder, I could see chunks of UHMW plastic and shattered fiberglass that had rattled loose from the sled and broken. Unfazed, the team of stunning huskies maintained their steady clip down the trail toward Rohn.
A couple hours later, I pedaled into that remote Iditarod checkpoint, which consists of little more than a solitary, well-built log cabin adjacent to a gravel landing strip. Only a few of the Iditarod’s fastest mushers had made it this far, and each of them was ready for a rest. I found Jasper, the race marshal, and asked him if he needed a volunteer. “Absolutely,” he said. “You can set up your camp on the airstrip. We need folks to lead the teams into the yard, and there are camp chores aplenty.”
Musher Jeff King enjoys a break and a cup of coffee at the Iditarod Trail checkpoint of Rohn.
Not long after the first Iditarod race to Nome in 1973, Joe Redington Sr. began encouraging other groups to use the trail, too—including, eventually, winter bicyclists. For decades, a subculture of hardy souls traveled from near and far to participate in the Iditabike and later Iditasport—human-powered races on the Iditarod Trail. These events were the catalyst that helped spur innovation that finally led to the modern fat-bike.
My captivation with mushing came at age five. Seasonally, my family made the drive to Anchorage from our home in the Wrangell Mountains to refill depleted provisions with store-bought goods. On one memorable trip, my father took the family to watch the film Spirit of the Wind, about sprint mushing legend George Attla. A year later, at winter carnival in Tok, I stood starstruck in my oversized beaver parka, when my father pointed and said, “That’s the real George Attla.” I had my first hero.
Watching a team of well-trained dogs respond to nuanced and subtle commands of a compassionate and dedicated driver is profound. It’s easy as a spectator to get a glimpse of these hard-won animal and human connections at the start or end of a dog mushing event. Only the most calloused onlooker would not be moved by witnessing the frenzy of prerace excitement as it channels through the starting chute. When everything goes right, one can observe the genesis of magnificent unison as a team of 15 become one mind, pursuing one objective.
Nothing, in my experience, however, beats seeing a dog team in the wilds of Alaska—far away from the noise and bustle of the crowd. A fat-bike is the perfect instrument to bring you there.
Over the years, I have gleaned lessons from the trail; three rise to the top. First, as a non-musher, regardless of your discipline or sport, always yield to dog teams. A snowmachiner, skier, or cyclist has a much easier time pulling off to the side, and an easier time getting going again. Second, always leave a shelter cabin along the trail in as good a condition or better than when you found it, as these shelters can save lives. The last one is subtle but is perhaps the most important, because if it is observed, everything else will follow. Never shake a fellow trail-user’s hand with gloves on. Even in minus 30 degrees, it’s imperative to shake hands along the trail with bare skin and honest, human contact. The warmth that this simple and long-standing traditional gesture offers is greater than any momentary discomfort.
After a long day and even longer night at the checkpoint in Rohn, I awoke before dawn. Noticing that the cabin’s water supply was running low, I grabbed the orange plastic sled with two screw-top five-gallon buckets and drug them a half a mile away to the chopped-open hole in the frozen Kuskokwim River. Throughout the previous 18 hours, I had helped dozens of mushers lead their teams to their straw beds and had shaken hands and conversed with many giants of this sport. The race marshal and veterinarians never slept, but tired dogs and trail-worn drivers curled into little balls and took their well-earned respite.
All was quiet as I admired my surroundings in the still, crisp air on the north side of the Alaska Range; the faint glow of pre-dawn light silhouetted the proud mountains to the east. In my moment of quiet reflection, a lone husky from the dog yard let loose a stirring howl. Instinct and abandon took hold of me, and I responded in kind.
Bjørn Olson was born in an abandoned trapper’s cabin in the Wrangell Mountains that his parents squatted. Adventuring through Alaska by human-power reinforces his reverence for this Great Land, its unique cultures, and unbroken ecology. Olson is a filmmaker, photographer storyteller, and climate change activist, currently residing in Homer.