By Carrie Cecil and Kevin Keeler
The Iditarod National Historic Trail (INHT) is the only Congressionally designated National Historic Trail in Alaska and the only winter trail in the entire National Historic Trail system. It comprises nearly 2,400 miles of winter trails that wind between the Alaskan communities of Seward and Nome and the now ghost-town of Iditarod. The trail crosses through a variety of geographic regions including the high mountains of the Alaska Range and the windswept tundra along the Western coast. To help guide mushers through these areas, especially during rough winter weather, the original trail administrator (the Alaska Road Commission) erected tripods at regular intervals along the trail. The tripods were made of three long wooden logs lashed together at the top in such a way that one log extended out slightly further than the other two. The longer log pointed in the direction of the trail. Because the tripods rested atop the ground surface, they were able to bend and adjust as needed to accommodate seasonal freeze-thaw patterns. This meant fewer broken trail markers and therefore less work for the trail maintenance crews who had to lug replacement parts with them out along the trail.
In keeping with the important historic and visual qualities of the trail, today’s trail administrator, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) continues to use wooden tripods to mark the trail to aid in user navigability and safety.
During the summer of 2015, a large wildfire swept over a portion of the historic Trail near the ghost-town of Iditarod destroying most everything in its path, including a number of modern wooden tripod trail markers. In order to replace the trail markers, the Bureau of Land Management reverted to a unique materials-delivery method used previously to maintain the INHT – paracargo. Every year BLM’s Alaska Fire Service delivers firefighting manpower and equipment to remote, roadless locations all around Alaska by parachute from aircraft.
BLM’s INHT program pre-fabricated four bundles of tripods (enough for one planeload), and ship them by truck from Anchorage to the paracargo base in Fairbanks. The Alaska Fire Service then parachuted the bundles onto the trail, then INHT program staff stopped by (via helicopter) to pick up the 16 parachutes used in the drop. The bundles were installed the following winter by a community crew that travelled 80 miles from the nearest village by snowmobile to set up the markers before the start of the heavy traffic season in March when mushers, snow-machiners, fat bikers, skiers, and runners all take to the trail to compete in a number of races that utilize portions of the Iditarod National Historic Trail corridor.