For thousands of years, the 1,000-mile-long Iditarod trail linking Seward and Nome has been used by everyone from Native Alaskans tracking herds of animals to gold miners in search of the mother lode. Now, in an effort to preserve and celebrate the trail, a Kasilof-based group has begun work on a unique project designed to bring the trail's many cultural and historic aspects to light.
Ron Arnold is the director of the Iditarod National Millennium Trail Inc., a nonprofit corporation founded as part of a nationwide Millennium Trails project. His group is planning an expedition to traverse the length of the original trail by dog sled in 2004.
The idea of the expedition is to show people that the Iditarod Trail is much more than just Alaska's most famous race course, Arnold said Friday.
"There's a more than 5,000-year history on this trail," Arnold said. "Most people, all they know is dog mushing."
Arnold's plan is to run eight dog teams up the entire trail, using freight sleds designed to replicate those used in the 1800s, when the trail became a popular route for mail and gold transit. However, the sled dog aspect of the expedition is only a small part of what the trail is all about.
"We want to really emphasize the cultural value and history of this trail," Arnold said. "To do it with great significance of the history of the people along the trail, that's a big goal."
Arnold said he became involved in the project in 1999, when former President Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton created the National Millennium Trails project. The Iditarod trail was one of 16 nationally recognized Millennium Trails named for their cultural and historic significance.
Out of that project grew the effort to educate and celebrate the trail's unique heritage. Arnold said a key to the trail being designated a National Millennium Trail was the fact that it's been in use since the early days of Alaska history.
"At first, they didn't want to give the designation. But, the Yupik, Inupiat and Athabaskan people have all used parts of the trail for thousands of years," he said.
Arnold said that once the trail's enormous historical significance was highlighted, it became a natural for inclusion in the project.
The 2004 expedition has a long way to go before it becomes a reality.
Arnold said his group is still looking for sponsors and funding for the project.
And the existing trail between Seward and Girdwood is still little more than wilderness. However, the U.S. Forest Service has begun efforts to rebuild the Kenai Peninsula portion of the trail, and work on the first sled for the expedition has already begun.
Arnold said each sled used in the trek will be handmade by Kasilof's Dick Blakeslee, in keeping with the idea to include as much local participation as possible. (See related story, page A-1.)
"We're looking to do as much with local Alaskan people as we can," he said.
He said he hasn't yet got all the mushers for the run lined up, but he envisions a party made up of a cross section of Alaskans, including veteran and inexperienced mushers, Alaska Natives and women.
"We want to have a diverse group of people," Arnold said, mentioning legendary Shishmaref musher Herbie Nayokpuk as one person he's already discussed the project with. "We're hoping to do this with great significance for everyone involved."
In an effort to attract volunteers and sponsors to the project, Arnold said he's giving letters signed by Iditarod mushers to anyone who donates at least $30. His goal is to fully fund an expedition which will educate and commemorate along the way.
"This is a celebration of the history of the trail. We're doing this so people clearly understand that this trail is a gift," Arnold said. "It's not a race. It's going to be a celebration."
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