Thousands of mushing enthusiasts come out to watch the Ceremonial Start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race at the BLM Campbell Tract. The race is an annual BLM-permitted commercial activity that brings economic benefits to communities from Anchorage to Nome. (Doug Ballou/ BLM Alaska)
Celebrating the Legacy and Centennial of the Iditarod National Historic Trail
By Kevin Keeler
The Iditarod National Historic Trail, America’s last great gold rush trail, celebrated its centennial from 2008 to 2012. The 4-year celebration was a commemoration of a vibrant hundred years for the 2,300-mile system of winter trails. It marked the efforts to open the famous overland route from Seward to Nome, from the first scouting trip in 1908 to the crews that worked in the bitter cold to complete the trail in 1910 and 1911 to the thousands of gold seekers who hiked or mushed the trail to the Iditarod gold fields once it was complete. The celebration also marked Alaska becoming a U.S. Territory in 1912 after the gold rush population boom, the trail’s designation as a National Historic Trail in 1978, and its contemporary importance for intervillage transportation, access to subsistence resources, and wild land recreation.
The Iditarod National Historic Trail is unique in Alaskan and American history. Once one of the main lifelines between frontier Alaskan boom towns, the ways of commerce and settlement have largely bypassed the trail, leaving it to cross a vast boreal landscape largely abandoned to nature’s ways. Though there are “high and dry” sections of the trail that provide access to some of the historic route during the summer (mainly in the mountains of south-central Alaska), much of the trail is bypassed due to miles of wet tundra, chilly rivers, and voracious mosquitoes. But when the tundra and rivers freeze and snow blankets the land, dog mushers, skiers, snow machiners, hikers, and even mountain bikers take to the trail.
Rural Alaskans use the trail as a snowmobile highway to reach other communities near and far for shopping, visiting, or attending church and civic or sports events. And every February and March, professional and recreational racers put their minds, muscles, and machines to work in epic long-distance winter races along the trail, linking Alaska’s largest and smallest communities.
Now, 100 years after its heyday, some variation of the entire Iditarod National Historic Trail is once again open between Seward and Nome. Most of the historic trail is located on public lands or easements managed by the State of Alaska or federal agencies. No one entity manages the entire historic trail—trail management is left up to land managers but is guided by a cooperative, interagency plan coordinated by the BLM. The BLM works with other agencies and dozens of volunteer groups to protect and improve the trail with partnership projects ranging from dedicating easements to building safety cabins and brushing and marking the trail.
Kevin Keeler, the Iditarod Historic Trail administrator at the Anchorage Field Office, has been with the BLM since 2004. Before coming to the BLM, he worked for 20 years on Alaskan public lands and community-based trail projects.