By Michael W. Williams
If Alaska’s official sport is dog mushing, then what part of Alaska is considered the Mecca of dog mushing? Taking a team across thin ice may be easier and less dangerous than answering that question. Upon what criteria would one base a decision? Is it simply the largest concentration of mushers in one area, or does it include other factors such as community support, trails, or number of mushing events? This question might best be left to debate by mushing scholars.
I do know that over the past five years the lower Susitna drainage, the west Susitna area of southcentral Alaska in particular, has experienced a steady growth in mushing activity. This growth can be directly attributed to the increased popularity of the sport, improvement in the winter trail systems/trailheads, and the growing number of lodges and B & Bs catering to mushers.
The west Susitna area offers a more remote trail system and generally logs more snowfall than the east side. The Susitna and Yentna Rivers are at the heart of this region. The Yentna River meanders off to the west, offering an almost “highway” like trail to Skwentna where mushers can pick up the Iditarod Trail to the Alaska Range and beyond. The Susitna River provides access from Willow at its north to the community of Alexander Creek and on to the Beluga Lake area at the river’s southern end. Numerous trail systems intersect both rivers.
One such trail is a section of the Iditarod National Historic Trail that intersects the Susitna River about ¼ mile below the confluence of the Yentna River. This section of the Iditarod basically parallels the Yentna River and is the overland route to the Alaska Range avoiding lengthy travel on the river systems. Although used by the Iditarod Sled Dog Race for a number of years it was abandoned in favor of the Yentna River in the early 1990s. The abandoned trail was never very popular with Iditarod mushers. It was surveyed and marked by such mushing prophets as Joe Reddington, Sr. and Burt Bomhoff, but received only modest brushing and maintenance. Much of the trail traversed old growth forest, numerous small streams, and pockets of wintering moose.
In 1993 EagleSong on Trail Lake was opened. EagleSong immediately started reclaiming and upgrading the first 13 miles of abandoned trail west of the Susitna River. In 1996 EagleSong received a state trail grant to do further improvements. More clearing was done, reflective trail markers and signage was added in both directions and the trail was widened and straightened in places. Beyond the project area only token grooming to Rabbit Lake and on to Skwentna was accomplished.
Simultaneously, a 12-mile connecting trail that would link the Iditarod Trail with the lower Yentna was progressing from campfire talk to actual ground work. This trail, so creatively named the “Yentna Cutover”, intersects the Yentna just below Yentna Station, with another spur intersecting about 11 miles further downstream.
In 1997 trail grooming on the Iditarod between EagleSong and Skwentna ceased. The Iditasport Ultra Marathon had stopped using it in favor of the Yentna Cutover. There was not enough trail use to justify the expense of maintaining that stretch of trail. Although, there is talk of re-establishing this section, the Trail remains essentially abandoned today.
The reclaimed stretch of Iditarod and the newly established Yentna Cutover has today created a very popular 34-mile long trail system. In 1998 this section of trail caught the attention of the Junior Iditarod Trail Committee. The following year the Junior Iditarod Sled Dog Race was moved from the Yentna River to the newly restored Iditarod, thus eliminating all but 1 mile of river travel to the checkpoint at Yentna Station and creating a new checkpoint at EagleSong.
Professional, commercial and recreational mushers did not overlook the move of the Junior Iditarod. Soon a number of Iditarod and Serum Run mushers started using the trails for training. Commercial mushers are using it as part of their wilderness excursion packages and recreational mushing traffic has increased markedly.
With a popular trail system in place connecting the Susitna and Yentna Rivers attention was turned to Mt. Susitna and the establishment of a trail to the summit. Why? Perhaps it was for the view. It is one place where one can take in Cook Inlet, Denali, Anchorage, Wasilla and the Chugach, Alaska and Talkeetna Ranges from a single vantage point. Or is it simply because it was there? Whatever the reason, this trail has caught the interest of a number of mushers who express interest in taking their team up the trail to the 4300-foot summit, but none have done so to date. It is doubtful, but unconfirmed, that any musher has taken a dog team up Mt. Susitna since Joe Reddington, Sr. in the late 1950s when he worked for the military reclaiming downed aircraft.
Mushers interested in exploring the lower west Susitna area can access it from the Willow, Big Lake and Point MacKenzie vicinity. There are a number of trails leading to the Susitna.
The Willow, Knik and Big Lake communities are musher friendly with ample space available for mushers and their dogs and accessibility to trail systems without the need to truck teams to the trailhead. Each community has active trail grooming programs and aggressive trail committees securing legal access for additional trails. I’m not willing to step onto the ice declaring them the Mecca, but this area must be considered a major component of the holy land of mushing. Knik even boasts such shrines as the Mushers’ Museum and just up the road the Iditarod Sled Dog Race Headquarters.
As with most trails in southcentral Alaska these trails are popular with other denominations of trail users. If you are looking for a path less traveled, consider using them Monday-Thursday. Traffic is only a fraction of that seen on a typical winter weekend. Local businesses welcome inquiries on trail conditions and upcoming local events. Whether you are looking for trails that offer a short workout for your team or you are interested in extended runs, you owe it to yourself to make a pilgrimage to the lower Susitna area.