Iditarod Trail project preserves history, promotes tourism

Posted: Wednesday, January 08, 2003

The U.S. Forest Service is working on a praiseworthy project to rebuild a 120-mile segment of the Iditarod Trail between Seward and Girdwood.

Reopening the trail and providing signage to mark the trail and its remaining Gold Rush buildings and relics could be accomplished for a relatively modest $15 million. But the achievement would be worth far more than that if it becomes a significant tourist attraction, as is quite likely.

The Iditarod Trail is now known largely for the annual dog sled race and the 1925 serum run that stopped a diphtheria epidemic in Nome. But the serum run and today's dog teams travel a historic trail that was originally used by miners headed for Alaska's gold fields in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was most heavily used after the 1896 discovery in the Canadian Klondike brought thousands of stampeders north, with many of them moving into Alaska in search of fortunes. They panned creeks from the Yukon Territory border to Nome and the Kenai Peninsula, a unique period in Alaska's history.

Several small strikes were made on Turnagain Arm, including Girdwood, Sunrise and Hope. The miners arrived at Seward and hiked overland to Turnagain, with many pushing on into the Interior and Nome. The route was so heavily traveled that on many winter days 1,000 people were hiking or mushing dogs somewhere on it between Seward and Nome.

The miners followed various routes between Seward and Girdwood. The most popular one was the relatively gradual climb later chosen by the Alaska Railroad. The trail followed various routes because avalanches occasionally buried one path, sending the stampeders to find alternate paths across the peninsula.

The reconditioned portion of the Iditarod Trail would be available for hikers in summer; skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers in winter. The Forest Service hopes to separate motorized and non-motorized travelers by using parallel routes. The Alaska Railroad is involved in the planning and envisions offering whistle stops at Spencer Glacier, Grandview and Moose Pass to drop off rafters and backpackers.

If the trail is properly designed, marked, promoted and maintained, it could become a major tourist attraction, with the more athletic travelers hiking the entire route and others doing just a portion.

The restoration project would preserve an important piece of Alaska history and could make traveling the southern leg of the Iditarod Trail a world-class hiking experience comparable to those in the European Alps and to the Lower 48's Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails.

-- Voice of the Times (Anchorage)

Dec. 31

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