Trail Breaking Then and Now

Inimitable Alaskan Episcopal Archbishop Hudson Stuck, who organized the first successful climb of Mount McKinley among other singular achievements, oversaw a far-flung archdiocese that covered much of Alaska. He traveled much of it behind his dog team and authored the classic, Ten Thousand Miles on a Dog Sled. He once stated, “In the North, the greatest gift one man can give another is a broken trail.” Having traveled, outside of the Iditarod, on expeditions short and long over untracked wastes, I would add an exclamation point.


As the 2013 race leaders come up the Yukon, the wind is so steadily blowing the trail over that every team is forced to rebreak the trail no matter how close they may be following snowmobile traffic or other mushers. However, the speeds they are moving show the covering must be thin and intermittant. On the great thoroughfare, the oft-blowing downriver winds make for a light snow covering over the ice. As well, there may be a degree of wind packing. So when the trail is broken out for the race, the snowmachines do not sink in very deeply. Therefore when the wind blows the depression level with the surrounding snow, the packed trail is not very deeply buried.

The traffic today makes the trail like a veritable interstate comparable to the early days of the race, particularly the trailblazing Iditarod of 1973. Snowmachines  of trail breakers, race officials, film and news crews, and race watchers whiz over it. Too, the teams are much greater in number today and are so evenly-matched compared to the old days that they form a relatively dense pack, staying much closer together than of old, continually packing the trail.

In the old days, the disparity in team quality spread the field way out—the front and tail end in 1973 ended almost two weeks apart—and fewness of the teams meant that a musher might be a day or more behind the next team breaking trail ahead of him. And NO snowmachines other than the lead trailbreakers were ever seen.

On the inaugural Iditarod, for a long stretch between Farewell Lake and Salmon River the trailbreaking snowmachines had sunk almost knee deep into soft snow. Then, ahead of me, a wind blew it full. When that happens, it always leaves enough tell-tale marks here and there along the edges that the way ahead may be detected. Then the musher can snowshoe and the dogs follow along. But on that pioneering run, after the trail-filling wind, a few inches of snow had fallen, completely hiding any marks.  The only way to keep to the trail was to feel it below. To sink down deep enough required wading without snowshoes. Shuffling along at maybe a half mile an hour at best, when I went from knee deep to hip deep with one foot, I knew I was off the trail on that side. Now that’s trailbreaking. Fortunately, the first Iditarod preceded the devastating Farewell Burn, so sheltered timbered stretches provided relative good sledding.

Even an inch of snow over the packed trail provides resistance that slows and saps energy, so it is not something dismissed with a wave of the hand as trivial and the musher is right in speaking of it as a limiting factor.  But drivers who speak of “breaking trail” today yet make five or six miles an hour or even seven or eight are talking something far different than the old days. Race rules still include snowshoes as part of the mandatory gear, but one musher claims he hasn’t strapped his on in over fifteen races.

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