April 7 , Day 25
From Unalakleet I followed the historic Kaltag portage route, an 80-mile connector between the the Bering Sea and the Alaskan interior. I was greatly looking forward to heading inland—the bitter temps and winds combined with a shortage of naturally sheltered areas had really worn on me. The landscape changed noticeably as I move east away from the coast. I started in barren tundra, transitioned into textbook taiga, and finished among large spruces and even stands of birch. The 30-mph winds receded somewhere in there, too, which may actually have had more to do with the weather fronts, but it nonetheless added to the effect.
Kaltag, the first village I reached, reflected the fact I was now in a different part of Alaska. Many of the older homes were log cabins, and wood is the primary heat source—two things I never saw on the coast, where trees suitable for home-building or long-term heat needs are not to be found.
From Kaltag it was 140 miles up the Yukon River to Ruby, and the snowmachine route along it is the equivalent of a super highway–it’s heavily used by residents of the five villages within this 140-mile stretch (Kaltag, Nulato, Koyukuk, Galena, and Ruby). Galena is the “regional hub” for these villages, but it’s small by non-Alaskan bush standards: There are only two small grocery stores and the restaurant/bar is closed Sundays and Mondays. The other villages are even smaller. I was warned about what it would be like to travel along the Yukon: I was told it would be novel and exciting for about two hours, and then incredibly boring after that. They were right. The people I met in the villages were definitely the most rewarding part of this section.
The most remote section of the Iditarod Trail (which I’ve been following for almost 500 miles now, since Koyuk) are the 190 miles between Ruby and Takotna—there are no services along the way, and unlike Iditarod racers I would not have the benefit of staffed checkpoints and aid stations. Most of the route is through taiga, the novelty of which eventually wore off. There were beefier stands of trees—big spruces, birches, even some cottonwoods—in the river bottoms (namely the Innoko River and its major tributary creeks) that afforded protected campsites. A considerable amount of this section was burned catastrophically in the 1997 Innoko Fire, resulting in a pretty bleak landscape.
We had two spring-like days at the end of last week—temps were in the 40’s and things were actually melting–but otherwise things have stayed frozen. Along the Yukon I had a few -10F mornings, but temperatures seem to be averaging between 0F and 25F now. Over the last week I definitely have spent more time skiing in just base layers than at any point previously.