Mark & Harold's Iron Dog Page
Father/Son 1,000-mile Iron Dog Snowmobile Odyssey

Snowmobile Race Over 1,100 Miles Across Alaska From Wasilla to Nome

Join us on the Iron Dog Gold Rush Classic -- a snowmobile race across Alaska. Hope you enjoy the ride!

Thanks for joining us!

Here we are at the finish line. It is 5:45 p.m. on February 28, 1998, six days after we started our journey. To see the story and photos of how we got there, please read on. Photo by Sharon Penttila.

The Iron Dog is the world's longest snowmachine race. It began at Big Lake, Alaska (near Anchorage) and proceeded northwest across two mountain ranges, along the frozen Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers and along the wind-swept Bering Sea coast to Nome.

Here we are at the safety inspection the day before race day. Inspectors go over the machines and equipment to be sure that all the requirements have been met. Harold is attaching our gauntlets (insulated hand warmers) to our handlebars.

This year there were two classes of racers; Professional and Recreational Class. Pro Class racers took a 36 hour layover in Nome and then backtracked to the Yukon River and eventually on to Fairbanks.

The Recreational Class racers had the option of racing from Big Lake to Nome (about 1,200 miles) or from Nome to Fairbanks (about 950 miles).

We rode in the Recreational Class. Over the course, we were required to take layovers totalling 28 hours, with a minimum of four of at least six-hours each.

Our trip had all the makings of a real adventure; open water, a storm in a mountain pass, vast wilderness, and miles of challenging terrain.

Harold, age 16, had three successful years of racing Polaris snowmobiles under his belt, with over 20,000 miles of riding over the past four years. Mark at age 48 had only 1,000.

One hour before the start, on Sunday, Feb. 22, racers rode in a parade around Big Lake for the benefit of the spectators present. Here Mark and Harold, "Team 53", pass by in review. The race normally starts in Wasilla, but in 1998, due to lack of snow it started in Big Lake.

River running. Harold takes a short break on the Yentna River between Anchorage and the first checkpoint at Skwentna.

The first mandatory stopover for Rec. Class racers was at Finger Lake, the Winterlake Lodge, about 140 miles from the start. We held-up there to allow the Pro Class drivers to get through the Alaska Range without causing a "log jam" at the checkpoints. We arrived at 5 p.m. and stayed until 6 a.m. Harold enjoys a book by the wood stove. The accommodations and meals were world-class! We had met a couple of members of Team 52 at the starting line and had dinner with them at Finger Lake. We decided to travel with them starting the next day.

We got a couple of inches of snow during the night. It was here at Finger Lake where we started our race routine of getting up at 5 a.m., leaving at 6 and running until nearly midnight. We tell Team 52 that we'll meet them on the trail, and we blast off.

STUCK! The trail between Fingerlake and Puntilla (the highest checkpoint on the trail) was rough with lots of steep uphill and downhill climbs. Here, Mark checks out his burried machine at the top of the Happy River climb.

Puntilla Lake checkpoint - mile 161. We had planned to wait for our Team 52 friends, but it was suggested by the checkers that we take advantage of the decent weather and good daylight and push on to the Rohn checkpoint and wait for them there. We left a message for them with the checkers and headed out on the trail. This was a decision we would regret just a few miles up the trail.

Twelve miles out of Puntilla Lake, the wind started to blow. We were traversing 3,500-foot Ptarmigan Pass. After negotiating a steep downhill scrub willow-covered slope, we started climbing up over the pass. The trail required several miles of side-hilling (riding diagonally up the slope) on the lee side of a ridge. The blowing wind had piled snow burying the trail. Trail stakes were few and far between. Visibility was poor. I was following Harold's track, but in the deep snow, I kept getting pulled off the trail. My machine bogged down and I became stuck. When I stepped off the machine, I could see why. I sunk in the new snow up to my chest!

Harold stopped and wallowed back to where I was to help me extricate my machine. The night before we had received some good advice on freeing a stuck machine. Using our gloved hands, we dug some snow out from the right side of the machine -- enough to allow us to tip the machine up on its side. Then we kicked snow under the track on the left side. We then tipped the machine up on its left side and repeated the task. We then dug the snow out from under the belly pan of the machine.

About two hundred yards further, it happened again. After about the same distance it was Harold's turn. His machine started to sink on the downhill side, pulling him off the trail and into deeper snow and he became mired. This time, fatigue started to set-in. It was all we could do to free the machines (I became stuck following his trail into the deep snow so then we had two machines to dig out).

We began to assess our options. We briefly thought of turning back, but decided that climbing back up the steep willow-covered slope was a poor option. We discussed sitting tight until another team came along as there were several behind us, but we weren't sure what the weather was back along the trail and thought they might decide to hold at Puntilla Lake and wait for it to clear. Harold made the decision.

"Let's get the machines un-stuck and get out of here!" he shouted over the howling wind. Once we got them up on the snow he had an idea.

"It's easier to lead in the fresh snow. Why don't you take my machine and ride ahead and I'll follow on yours," he suggested. It sounded like a good idea and he was definitely the expert, so I wallowed my way up the hill to his machine and we started off. I'll be darned if it didn't work! We started moving and didn't get stuck again, although we lost the trail twice in the blowing snow and had to make a couple of big "S" turns to find it. The day's surprises weren't over, however.

We were running along the river valley at a pretty good clip still in blowing snow. Suddenly, an open hole in the ice of the Ptarmigan River loomed right in front of my machine. Across the hole on the other side was a five-foot vertical wall of snow, rock, a cutbank or something, I couldn't tell in the blowing snow and there was no time to stop or swerve to avoid the gaping black hole in the ice. I'd never water-skipped before but there was no time like the present to learn since there was no time to avoid disaster any other way. At the last second, I threw my weight to the back of the machine and hit the gas.

That American-built Polaris big twin launched me out across the hole with water and slush flying everywhere. I pulled back on the handlebars and shifted my weight back as I got to the bank and kept the throttle pinned to the handlebar. Whew! It was a snowdrift. I plowed right through the top of it! Once I was on firm ice again, I stopped to clear the snow and slush from my face shield so that I could see. Harold came racing up.

"Are you OK?!!" he shouted excitedly. I explained that I was fine just a bit shaken-up mentally and covered in snow and slush. "Man, for a few seconds, all I could see was this big cloud of snow. I thought I was going to be out here picking up pieces of you for a week!" We both had a good laugh about the incident and headed on our way. The wind had begun to let up just a bit. We began to work our way out of the storm and into the shelter of a nearby mountain.

A break on the Tatina River.

We reached a point along the river where the wind suddenly stopped; blocked by a nearby mountain. It was definitely time for a snack and a sip of water from our water bottles. The sun came out and warmed the air making the pause even nicer. It was fantastic. The relief of having made it through the storm was evident in our good humor. After a short trip across a low ridge we went into the Tatina River valley.

Open water on the Tatina River. Photo by Bob Camilli, Team 52.

Towering mountains and glistening frozen waterfalls treated us to some of the most breathtaking scenery we had seen thus far. Along this stretch of trail we stopped frequently to take pictures and to investigate a wolf-killed caribou on the river ice. Care was necessary, however because of frequent open holes and leads in the river ice. The one above, located just before the Rohn checkpoint, we "skipped" across. Photo by Bob Camilli (Team 52).

Rohn checkpoint-mile 236. In the shelter of the trees, we paused for a snack while we awaited the arrival of Team 52. This photo was taken by Bob Camilli of Team 52.

When they arrived, we pressed on through the torturous Farewell Burn. Burned over by a forest fire in 1977, the area is a nightmare of stumps, tangled roots and little snow. Our pace slows to a crawl, and it takes us until nearly midnight to make it the 42 miles to the BLM cabin at Bear Creek (shown below). The temperature is -20; warm compared to what it can be in this part of the state, where temperatures frequently dip to -50. John Bergelin of Team 52 has lost a bogey wheel to the rough terrain. A few twists of stainless steel wire are holding his rear spring in place. Jim Weymiller of Team 52 has had a rubber carburetor mount break. It is repaired with duct tape until a part can be located. Harold and I were sure glad to have that great Polaris X-tra 10 suspension to cushion those bumps!

We also encountered a buffalo in the "Buffalo Tunnels" (dense vegetation that grows overhead giving one the feeling of being in a tunnel). Bob Camilli of Team 52 was in the lead at the time. The beast just climbed a short distance off the trail and watched us go by. We also had to climb a 40-foot glacier of ice on a hillside along the way. Fortunately, we had long sharp studs in our tracks and razor-sharp skegs (runners) on our skis! The photo below is Harold on the front porch of the cabin.

Bear Creek Cabin, forty-two miles out of Rohn. It felt like the Hilton after the rough trail we had just been over. A fire in the woodstove quickly had the place toasty-warm and cozy for the night. I whipped-up a meal of freeze-dried spaghetti and meatballs before we hit the sack.

The next morning, I had an unpleasant surprise. We had traveled only 10 miles from the cabin (52 miles since leaving Rohn), and my machine suddenly quit. I was out of gas! After getting 100 miles to a tank, there was something wrong. My traveling companions gave me some of their spare gas and we went on into Nikolai. A stuck carburetor float was the problem. A twenty-minute repair and we were back underway.

Here we pause for a break along the Kuskokwim river. The weather was FANTASTIC!! Sunny and with temperatures in the 20s!

River-Running at its best. Harold makes a high-speed run up the Kuskokwim River between Nikolai and McGrath. Buck Griffith's Tukusko Lodge at McGrath was another overnight stop for us. The accommodations were very comfortable, the food and service were great. The lodge also served as the Iron Dog Checkpoint in McGrath, so we could fuel-up and be ready to leave "dark and early" in the morning.
After leaving McGrath, we started into the mountains. Just before daybreak, we crested a ridge and off in the distance, nestled into a hillside, was the little mining town of Takotna (pop. about 80 in the winter months). The scene would have made a beautiful Christmas card. The lights of the little settlement sparkled across the valley, while a dusting of snow covered the spruce boughs along the trail. All six of us stopped spontaneously to admire the view.
We were told we needed to make an unscheduled fuel stop in Takotna. It seems that the day before, fifteen pro-class teams had taken a wrong turn and went 50 miles out of their way. They all returned to Ophir (the scheduled refueling point) and refueled leaving the checkpoint short of fuel. So we were to top off at Takotna and then again at Ophir before starting the 100-mile trip to Poorman.

The mining camp of Ophir was our first checkpoint after leaving McGrath. The checkpoint was manned by students of Takotna High School and their teacher. After a brief stop, we were on our way through the Inoko River valley and up the 100-mile trail to Poorman. The trail had little snow and lots of stumps and roots. This limited our speed to about 40 m.p.h. There were also four gullys to traverse along the way. Called "The Ditches" locally, they are about 10 to 15 feet deep with nearly vertical sides and are just slightly more than a snowmachine length wide at the bottom making it impossible to "get a run" at the opposite side to climb out.

After a LONG bumpy ride, it was great to see the Spenard Builders volunteers manning the Poorman Checkpoint. The official checkpoint was two 10-man GI tents heated with gasoline-fired Yukon stoves. We were treated to hot and cold drinks, snacks and warm smiles. They told us that after about 10 more miles, the trail into Ruby was much smoother than the one we'd just covered. After some discussion about staying or putting the next 50 miles behind us, we decide to push on to Ruby on the Yukon River.

This photo was taken from the front porch of our hosts the Jay Delimas in Ruby. The frozen Yukon stretches out below the bluff where the Delima's log home is located. John Bergelin arranged with his friend Jay for us to stay with them during our stopover there. We received the royal treatment including T-bone steaks on the grill.

From Ruby, we followed the Yukon River to Galena where we paused for a lunch break. From there, we proceeded down the frozen Yukon through the village of Nulato. We met a Rec. Class team on its way from Nome to Fairbanks (the other possible route for rec. class riders). They characterized the trail from Nome to Kaltag as "very rough." In a phone call my wife said one of the Pro-Class racers who had reached Nome said it was like driving over "100-miles of frozen bowling balls." Oh boy, that gave us something to look forward to! From there it was more smooth river running to the checkpoint at the Athabaskan village of Kaltag. Leaving there with full fuel and oil, we travel the 98 miles from Kaltag over the Old Woman Portage to Unalakleet on the windy Bering Sea coast.

Along the way, Harold and I stopped to take-in a breath-taking display of the northern lights as they undulated in pastel green curtains across a cloudless night sky on a backdrop of millions of stars. The race leaders and eventual winners, Scott Davis and Mark Carr blazed past on their way from Nome to Fairbanks while we were stopped.

It was -25 f. and the wind was blowing. It was here that we had a narrow brush with hypothermia when Harold, who had been riding for two days with nothing more than his expedition-weight underwear, Polartec 200 shirt and Goretex windbreaker parka began to get cold. When he didn't warm up after a few miles of riding, we stopped and he donned his heavier fleece jacket and we continued on without a problem.

We arrived in Unalakleet at midnight to a warm welcome. A number of friends greeted us at the checkpoint. We stopped at the lodge to visit our niece Jaleen who was working late due to the large number of racers and spectators coming through, then went to sister-in-law Maggie's home. Maggie and her husband Rich and their family rolled out the red carpet. While Rich took our damp clothing to the boiler room to dry, Maggie dished-up steaming hot bowls of chicken and dumplings. We called home to tell my son Charles that we had successfully reached the Bering Sea coast and then almost literally "colapsed" into the sack for the night.

Team 52 had decided to camp at the "A-frame"; a survival/shelter cabin 20 miles west of Kaltag. We promised to wait for them the following morning in Unalakleet. As they were preparing to leave they came upon a pro-class team. One of the drivers had run off a narrow makeshift bridge into a steep ravine. His machine was stuck solidly under the ice in open water. Team 52 roped two of their machines to the one that was stuck and tied a third rope on for "human power" and pulled the machine out of the gully. This cost them over an hour's worth of time.

We had a tasty lunch at the Unalakleet Lodge courtesy of niece Carol, while we awaited the arrival of Team 52. It was one p.m. by the time we left Unalakleet for Koyuk, 100 miles north. We arrived there at dusk on the 27th, after bouncing over the "hundred miles of frozen bowling balls" in the hills between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik (photo above), and then making a fast trip across the glass-smooth Norton Bay ice to Koyuk. After a delicious meal of caribou roast with cousin Leo Charles and family, we spent the night with Leo's brother Dwayne and left for the final checkpoint of White Mountain and ultimately to Nome at 7 a.m. on Saturday, February 28.

Here we are on the Bering Sea ice between Elim and our next landfall at a camp called Walla Walla. During our trip on the ice we had to cross a two-foot lead opened by the brisk wind that morning. Photo by Bob Camilli.

Our last checkpoint - White Mountain. We are only 76 miles from the finish line. We are excited. I call Charles to let him know we will probably be in between 5 and 6 p.m. The wind is chilly, but the sun is bright. Our trail from here to Nome would be one of the roughest we encountered during the entire trip. This was due both to a lack of snow and lots of "windrows" (long, hard snowdrifts that more closely resemble concrete than snow) in the area. Photo by Bob Camilli, Team 52.

Although you'd never know it by this photo, this is the notorious "Blow Hole" at Topkok bluff. Many Iditarod mushers and other travelers have been stranded here by vicious storms and winds that frequently exceed 60 miles per hour. The cabin was built and is maintained by the local Boy Scout troop because of the number of deaths and near-deaths in this potentially hazardous area. When we went through, it was nearly calm.

Safety Roadhouse is the last trail checkpoint of the Iditarod Sled Dog race, but to us, it's just another interesting old landmark. The building actually was part of the old Nome theatre. It was moved to the site when the old roadhouse burned in the early 1980s because of a generator fire. We are 21 miles from the finish line and are stopping to rest our weary backsides from the brutal trail we have just traversed.

At long last . . . we arrived. Team 52 - Bob Camilli, John Bergelin, Jim Weymiller, and Claude Sternberg, and Team 53 - Harold Charles and father Mark Fuerstenau. Mark's younger son Charles Fuerstenau, assistant chief mechanic, is also pictured. The duct tape on Mark's face is to prevent frostbite. Temperatures were near -20, and crossing Golovin Bay (about 95 miles from the finish line), Mark, Harold and Claude reached speeds above 90 m.p.h., Harold topping out at 115. What a wind chill!! Photo by Sharon Penttila.

The following people/businesses are some of those who helped make our adventure possible: Charles J. Fuerstenau, Charles R. and Doris Fuerstenau, Frances Charles, Maggie and Richard Ferry and Family, Joel & Debbie Fuerstenau & Family, Northern Air Cargo, Jerry and Agnes Miller and Family (dba. Miller Construction), Evan Booth, Louie Schick, Dr. Mark Kelso, Mrs. Penttila's Fourth Grade Class, Morgan Snowmobile Sales, Alaska Power Sports, Bell Helmets, Roetin Industries, Comet Industries, Troy Lee Designs, The Leo Charles Family, Duane Charles, Carol Charles, Iron Dog Team 52, The Jay Delima Family, Donald J. (Jackie) Johnson, Tesoro Alaska, Polaris Industries, Iron Dog, Inc., Spenard Builders Supply, and all the checkers and volunteers who gave of their time to help make the race a roaring success and one heck of a lot of fun!
Photos and text - Copyright 1998.

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Links to related sites on the web:

Iron Dog homepage. New address, same great site!
Trail Conditions Homepage
Snow Connection Homepage
Snowstuff Homepage
Jeff's Snowmobile Page - Midwest snowmobiling at its best
Jason's snowmobile page - from Fairbanks, Alaska!
Polaris Industries Snowmobile Page Page
Tyler's Snowmobile Page
Canadian Snowmobile Racing at Its Best!
Yamaha Homepage
Arctic Cat Homepage
Ski-Doo Homepage
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