Checkpoint Checkup: Rainy Pass to Rohn

"To get through the hardest journey we need only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping."  - Chinese Proverb  (Photo by Jeff Schultz)

“To get through the hardest journey we need only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping.” – Chinese Proverb
(Photo by Jeff Schultz)

On our last checkpoint journey, we left Karin Hendrickson in Rainy Pass. The next part of the trek will take us about 35 miles to Rohn. This section of the trail can be quite challenging. Mushers will summit the highest point on the trail and travel through the infamous Dalzell Gorge before finally arriving in Rohn.

Due to the challenge and technical difficulty of this run, some will do this 3 ½ to 5 hour leg during the day while others prefer night. It’s a matter of personal preference based on experience or advice they’ve been given.  Mushers depart the Rainy Pass Lodge, 1800 feet above sea level, and work their way up the Alaskan Range until reaching the summit at 3160 feet above sea level. From the summit, the mushers begin their descent into one of the Alaskan regions called the Interior as they work their way down to the valley of Dalzell Creek. Mushers will get a little break from the descent with a nice, easy run for a couple of miles in this valley. It’s a good time to mentally prepare for the Dalzell Gorge.

Just before reaching the Gorge, mushers will see a large, explicit warning sign nailed to a tree.  Over the next two miles, the trail will drop about 200 feet.  Depending on trail conditions, the descent can be extremely difficult or just technically challenging.  Some rookies have said they didn’t even realize they were in the Gorge until it was behind them. The trail weaves back and forth in the Gorge, crossing the creek that typically has running water. With the fast speed they are traveling and the sharpness of the curves, you can imagine that a few sleds have gone into the creek.  Don’t worry, it’s barely a foot deep. The Dalzell Gorge is only about two miles, but as it snakes along the creek, crosses over the creek on ice bridges and curves around big trees and ice ledges, it seems much farther. Reaching the bottom of the Gorge, mushers have about five miles of flat trail down the frozen Tatina River to Rohn.

Tina Scheer models a native made parkaTo get an idea of what Rohn is like, I spoke with volunteer, Tina (Timber) Scheer. Timber, along with many others, feel Rohn is the best checkpoint on the entire Iditarod trail. The reason people love this checkpoint so much is because of the remote location and the astounding beauty. Rohn Checkpoint is between two beautiful rivers, the Kuskokwim and the Tatina, and it’s surrounded by two gorgeous mountain ranges.  A roadhouse once stood near the site of the safety cabin that houses the Rohn Checkpoint today.  The old Iditarod Trail Roadhouse served the mushers and dog teams delivering mail and supplies to the area back in the days of the gold rush.  The population of Rohn is zero, except during Iditarod when it’s a hustling, bustling place for a few days and dogs far outnumber the humans.

Timber has been volunteering for four years at Rohn.  The volunteers arrive at Rohn about a week before the first musher is expected to arrive. Timber and the crew come in by plane, usually flying into McGrath on a larger plane then jumping on with the Iditarod Air Force to Rohn. The “Core Team” has been doing this for over 20 years. They set up, tear down, and fix anything that needs fixing. Jasper Bond, the Sheriff of Rohn, is the checkpoint’s amazing cook. Terry Boyle, the Mayor of Rohn, is in charge of the outside. The Sheriff and Mayor of Rohn have acquired these titles, perhaps self-appointed, over time for their roles in coordinating and directing activities at the remote, unpopulated checkpoint. There’s no cell phone service and no high speed internet connections at the Rohn Checkpoint.  Race data and communications are sent and received via emails through dial-up satellite phone connections.  The computer and sat-phone used by the communications team at Rohn is powered by a small generator.

The first few days Timber is at Rohn, she helps get the checkpoint ready. During the days leading up to the first musher arriving, volunteers get to sleep in the safety cabin. Once the race arrives they head outdoors and set up tents, or Arctic Oven Tents.  These tents have a wood stove inside and are really very cozy for housing the veterinarians, volunteers, press, and race administrators.

One of Timber’s favorite chores is working maintenance on the Dalzell Gorge. She and others travel up the Tatina River and into the Gorge by snowmachine. Their job consists of light maintenance on and around the trail, cleaning up large branches and small trees.  Heavier work and significant trail preparation are done during the summer and fall.

Entering Rohn under the small burled arch.

Entering Rohn under the small burled arch.

The mushers are here!  Once the first musher arrives, it is 48 hours of crazy, non-stop action. Mushers, dogs, airplanes, vets, press, volunteers, spectators and snowmachines are in and out of Rohn at all hours of the day and night.

Mushers enter Rohn under a small burled arch. They are immediately asked “short-term or long-term,” referring to where they will be parked. Rohn used to be a popular place for taking the required 24-hour rest along the trail.  Not so much anymore.

While in Rohn, mushers are in charge of getting their own water. They are provided with a sled with water buckets and a ladle.  It’s a good 10-minute hike down to the river to fetch water. Often mushers forgo the hike and melt snow for water.  Mushers can use any of the four bunk beds in the cabin to catch a little shut-eye. Remember, it’s important to get a little rest on the trail.

Just like that, the race is gone, moved up the trail. Time for cleanup. All the gear and supplies that were flown in are flown out. Tents, stoves, communications equipment, musher return bags*, straw, leftover HEET**, garbage and the volunteers; everything goes. Their job is finished and they will be back next year to do it all again. Timber’s job is finished, but our mushers still have 735 more miles to travel before reaching Nome.

The Virtual Trail Journey and Don Bower’s Trail Notes provides more information about the trail from Rainy Pass to Rohn and the Rohn checkpoint.  Next stop, Nikolai.

*Musher return bags are bags for the mushers to put any items in that are left from their drop bags. If mushers want these leftover items flown out of a checkpoint and ultimately returned to them, they put them in these bags labeled RETURN, along with the musher’s name on them.

**HEET is an alcohol-based fuel mushers use to quickly warm water. Cases of HEET are delivered to the checkpoints, but mushers must also carry HEET or another fuel with them in their sled to heat 3 gallons of water. See the Race Rules, p. 81, for mandatory items.

Ideas for the Classroom:

From Rainy to Rohn, mushers will summit the highest point on the trail.  In this posting you read the elevation of the Rainy Pass checkpoint.  What is the difference in elevation of Rainy Pass and the highest point on the trail?

Find the elevation of the start in Anchorage.  What is the difference in elevation of Anchorage and the highest point of the trail?

Find the elevation of the finish line in Nome.  What is the difference in elevation of Nome and the highest point of the trail?

Find the elevation of your hometown.  What is the difference in elevation of your hometown and the highest point of the trail?

What is the highest point in the United States (or your country)?  What is the difference of this elevation and the highest point on the trail?