Checkpoint Checkup: Rohn to Nikolai

"Never stop just because you feel defeated. The journey to the other side is attainable only after great suffering." - Santosh Kalwar

“Never stop just because you feel defeated. The journey to the other side is attainable only after great suffering.” – Santosh Kalwar

We took a break in Rohn in our last Checkpoint Checkup. It’s time for our mushers to get moving again.  This section of our journey is approximately 75-80 miles and will take about 10-15 hours. This part of the trail can be broken down into three sections; Rohn to the Farewell Burn, across the Burn to Sullivan Creek, and then Sullivan Creek to Nikolai. Since this is such a long run, some teams will give their dogs a long break along the way and others will take several shorter breaks.

Mushers can look forward to some beautiful scenery along the way, but some challenges will arise also. First, teams must contend with some harsh winds. As mushers are traveling along the Kuskokwim River, they will meet winds in excess of 40 mph, usually head on. This part of the trail also includes sections of glare ice. Glare ice is ice that has a very smooth, glass-like surface.

Egypt Mountain from the sky.

Egypt Mountain from the sky.

Eventually, the dogs and mushers will  run through the Buffalo Chutes. Since being moved from Canada in 1965, hundreds of bison roam this area. It is on this part of the trail mushers will see Egypt Mountain which is approximately 3000 feet high. Once past Egypt Mountain, mushers will run into a difficult section of overflow. Overflow occurs when the ice gets so thick that the water has nowhere to go and pushes up over the ice. Overflow can be very challenging to cross. Mushers will soon be at Farewell Lake. After about five miles they will head past the Old Pioneer Roadhouse. According to Don Bower’s trail notes, this is an original stop on the old Iditarod. He also notes that you can still see ruins of a couple of cabins there.

View of Denali.

View of Denali.

Mushers are now in the second major section of their journey to Nikolai, the Farewell Burn. The Farewell Burn is the location of one of the largest forest fires in Alaska history. In 1978, a forest fire  destroyed about one million and a half acres of forest. Mushers will be traveling through this land for about 40 miles. Initially, after the fire, this part of the trail was very difficult due to all the burned trees and limbs blocking the trail. The Bureau of Land Management has since cleaned this area up. With the absence of trees, mushers can see what seems like forever. During the day mushers have the hope of seeing a magnificent view of Denali.

After a very long straightaway, the trail will go in and out of the treeline until arriving at Sullivan Creek. There is a bridge here for mushers to use to cross the creek. Good thing, because usually the creek is open water and pretty deep.

Section three of this part of the trail is Sullivan Creek to Nikolai, about 21 miles. The last 12 miles of this section is marked and maintained by the Nikolai villagers. This will be a quick run, flat and fast through the woods, swamps, and lakes. The mushers have made it to Nikolai. Most of the tough part of the trail is behind them, but they better not let their guard down, because anything can happen.

Nikolai is the first Native Alaskan Village along the trail. Nikolai is an Athabascan village that was settled during the Gold Rush. Originally, it was the site of a trading post and roadhouse that connected the Ophir Mining District to the Cook Inlet. Present day Nikolai has approximately 100 people living in the village.

Traditionally Athabascan people have lived in the Interior along the Yukon, Tanana, Susitna, Copper, and Kuskokwim (Nikolai) rivers. Today they live throughout Alaska.  Children in Nikolai are taught the many Athabascan Cultural Values. Athabascans are taught respect for all living things as well as village cooperation, respect for land, sharing, and respect for Elders.

The school in Nikolai.

The school in Nikolai.

The first time I spoke with the students and teacher/principal at Nikolai it was their lunch time. Immediately I noticed cultural values being practiced. Sitting in the midst of the 12 students of the Top of the Kuskokwim school (Nikolai) were several Elders. The Elders frequently lunch with the students, a wonderful opportunity to share stories with young children at the school.

The Top of the Kuskokwim school is part of the Iditarod School District. There are about 200 students served in seven different communities. None of these schools are accessible by road. My students were amazed when they found out there were only 12 students in the entire school, kindergarten through 12th grade. Even though this is a small school, they have many opportunities. We met a student who was using his lunch time to engage in a virtual flight simulator. My students thought that was awesome. Students in grades 7-12 have the opportunity to take aviation classes. With limited access to roads, air travel is important. Studying for a future career at this young age is a perfect opportunity for students.

Timothy's (from Nikolai) writing about working during the Iditarod.

Timothy’s (from Nikolai) writing about working during the Iditarod.

This school district also integrates its culture into their curriculum. The first two weeks of school are spent at Fish Camp. Fishing is crucial to their lifestyle, and it is imperative children learn this lifestyle. Students also learn the health benefits of cross-country skiing. Another opportunity the students have is Culture Camp. Here, students learn leadership and communication skills by blending Western Science with Native knowledge. The Nikolai students also complete a large unit on the Iditarod, very fitting since they are located on the trail and for a couple of weeks each year it’s a huge and exciting part of village life. Besides studying the Iditarod, the students help during race time. According to young student, Timothy, “There are four jobs when the Iditarod happens. I’ll tell you one job. It’s taking shifts. There is a morning, afternoon, and all night shift. Morning shift is cooking brunch for the mushers. Afternoon shift is cooking lunch for the mushers. All night shift is cooking dinner for the mushers and cleaning up the school.”

Ideas for the Classroom:

1. Read through the list of Athabascan Values.  My school has a list of values that we expect all students and staff to abide by: PRIDE (Perseverance, Respect, Integrity, Discipline, and Excellence).  Examples of these values are holding doors open for others, walking down the correct side of the hall, acting appropriately at assemblies, turning in work, respecting all students and adults, getting to classes/practices on time, etc. Is there a set of values that your school follows? Choose one Athabascan Value and one of your school’s values. Compare and contrast the two values.

2. How do you think a student in Nikolai could display your value? How do you think you could display an Athabascan Value at your school?

3. How can your value be displayed by a musher running the Iditarod?

4. How can an Athabascan value be displayed by a musher running the Iditarod?

5. Draw a picture of portraying your value and a picture portraying the Athabascan value.

To read more about the trail from Rohn to Nikolai read Sanka’s Virtual Trail Journey or Don Bower’s trail notes.