Finding safety in shelter along the Iditarod Trail

Cabin in wilderness
Shelter cabins have a long history along the Iditarod Trail. The three-man crew in the photo built three shelter cabins along the trail between Flat and Takotna in 1921 for the Territorial Road Commission. Photo courtesy June McAtee

To travel the Iditarod Trail in winter is to pass through vast, empty, windswept country.  The landscape of frozen swamps, sloughs, and rolling hills, dotted with spindly black spruce doesn’t offer much cover from the elements.

“It’s such deep cold country.  Fifty to 60 below is not uncommon at all,” said BLM Iditarod National Historic Trail Administrator Kevin Keeler.  “And it’s hungry country.  You don’t see a lot of wildlife out there.”

In this country, shelter is a lifeline.

Aerial photo of cabin in woods
Old Woman Cabin during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Many Iditarod racers say this is their favorite spot on the trail. BLM Photo Bob Wick

As the designated Administrator of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, the BLM maintains five public shelter cabins.  In addition, from 2009 to 2012 the BLM coordinated the efforts of volunteers, partners, and the state of Alaska to build additional shelter cabins to commemorate the centennial of the opening of the Trail.  There are now a total of 11 shelter cabins along the trail between the Alaska range and the Bering Sea.  Additional cabins can be found south of Anchorage and on the Bering Sea coast.

Cabin in snow
BLM staff making repairs at the Tripod Flats cabin. BLM Photo Kevin Keeler

The cabins serve as shelter for participants in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the Iron Dog snowmobile Race, and the Iditarod Invitational Ultramarathon.  And for villagers who travel the hundreds of miles of trails through Alaska’s Interior, a simple, rough-hewn cabin is a welcome sight indeed. 

“I’ve heard stories about how these cabins have saved people’s lives – people who’ve gotten into water, places where snowmobiles have crashed,” Keeler said.  “Some of the cabins are sited near potential trail travel hazards.”

The BLM shelter cabins are generally 16 feet by 16 feet and made from Alaska spruce logs.  Inside, you will find a wood stove, bunks, a table, benches, shelves, a counter, and lots and lots of nails for hanging clothing and gear to dry.  There may be a Coleman stove or lantern, pots to melt snow for water and, if you’re lucky, split wood and kindling left by the previous inhabitants. 

Cabin interior
The Interior of Old Woman Cabin. BLM Photo Bob Wick

What you won’t necessarily find at the shelter cabins is privacy.  There is no reservation system for the cabins and use is non-exclusive.  They are a public safety resource, so users are expected to share.

There is no food in the cabins.   Food  can draw mice, squirrels, and even bears.

“And if anyone leaves behind something canned, it can freeze, expand, explode, and leave yuck all over the place,” said Keeler.

Maintaining the cabins is challenging.  They are accessible by snowmobile in winter and early spring, though cold and snow can make it difficult to do exterior maintenance at those times of year.  Summertime access to most of the cabins requires a helicopter. 

“These places are extremely hard to get to,” Keeler said.  “We typically do an annual check on each of the BLM-managed cabins.”

Maintaining the cabins includes clearing brush to make them less vulnerable to wildland fire and easier for crews to defend when fires occur.  When big summer storms roll through Interior Alaska, Keeler is paying close attention to where lightning strikes.  In recent years, Old Woman Cabin, 35 miles east of Unalakleet and Tripod Flats Cabin, 26 miles southwest of Kaltag, were threatened by lightning-caused fires.  Wildland fire crews responded to protect these much-needed and well-loved shelters.

To see photos and descriptions of each of the shelter cabins along the race route, visit our interactive map.

What was travel along the Iditarod Trail like 100 years ago?  Check out this story map featuring the diary entries of Arne Erickson, a hardy pioneer who traveled 350 miles of the trail on foot.

Maureen Clark, Public Affairs Specialist

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