“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all checkpoints are created equal, that they are endowed by their volunteers with certain posh accommodations, that among these are a pit toilet, hot tang and the pursuit of a sound sleep”.

You will not find a Holiday Inn at a checkpoint along the Iditarod Trail, but most checkpoints do their best to convince you otherwise. While a few checkpoints are no more than a wall tent, cabin or assortment of deserted buildings, most are villages that are year-round homes to the people who welcome canine and human visitors every time the Iditarod comes through. 

Due to their geographic isolation, non-Iditarod tourism is sparse, so there is limited need for an infrastructure to support a couple days worth of Iditarod traffic.  Instead, the villages and volunteers are very creative with the presentation of accommodations.

While there may not be hotel rooms, there is promise of being out of the elements in a roundhouse community center, fire station garage, church or gym. 

Mushers will find themselves lying on wooden floors, narrow benches, church pews, under tables and on occasion, on a mattress or gym mat as they try to catch a few ZZZs before hopping on the sled runners and braving the elements.

Where the sleeping accommodations lack, the food makes up for quality and variety-- if you have a diverse and adventurous palette.

At every checkpoint, there is a guarantee to be at a table with vacuum-sealed meals, snacks and drinks from the mushers who’ve already passed through. I noticed real early that mushers don’t worry too much about eating healthy, so the food left behind was nearly always amazing and rich. Cheesecakes, breakfast burritos, bacon, chocolate, pizza, red bull, chocolate milk, cheese sticks and candy bars tempted me from Anchorage to Nome. 

Topping the food shipped in by mushers was the potluck provided by the village. To the uninitiated, the spread may not look too impressive, but to the brave, it was the most gracious, filling and tasty meal. Pilot bread and Tang were ever present but always accompanied by a variety of food sourced locally. Smoked, baked or candied salmon, moose roast or moose stew were the more tame choices. Moose tongue, beaver tail and muktuk with seal oil are a few of the less common delicacies I was lucky to try and will never lose the desire to taste again.

In between dog care, sleeping, eating, repacking and repairs, there’s not much downtime for mushers-- which is a good thing because entertainment is lacking.  Looking around a checkpoint you’ll likely see a musher blindly staring at the same printed timesheet over and over trying to make sense out of the numbers. 

Other mushers can be spotted sharing trail stories and strategy like we saw Jessie Royer, Aliy Zirkle and Wade Marrs recently doing at the Iditarod checkpoint. Then, there are always a few who prefer to sit back, relax and watch the catwalk of hodgepodge, trail-soiled musher clothes being paraded in and out of the checkpoint.

Toilets happen on the trail, too, although they are sometimes far from what most “city-folk” are accustomed to using. Many checkpoints do have modern plumbing available, but those without provide mushers with outdoor accommodations. The village outhouses are lacking compared to the spacious concrete and steel plush state park outhouses familiar some people. Instead, a drafty wooden version of Superman’s telephone booth sits askew, surrounded by snow. The bench for your business end is often covered by a blue or pink sheet of foam insulation for padding and “warmth.”

Remote checkpoints are a little different from the comfort of the village checkpoints. Many times I’ve referred to the Iditarod being like a vacation from all of life’s worries. In 2006, the remote checkpoint of Cripple, led under the expert guidance of Iditarod veteran/volunteer Scott Smith, was a virtual tropical oasis in the middle of a 172 mile run from Ophir to Ruby. 

Cripple is classified as a remote checkpoint, where the only structure there is there because of Iditarod. Obviously, sandy beaches don’t exist in this mining region, but as I pulled up to the checkpoint, I completely forgot about the 20 below zero temperature. 

Alongside a palm tree, an attractive blonde was decked out in a hula outfit and a sign welcoming me to Cripple. While hallucinations along the trail aren’t unheard of, this scene was as real as the President of the United States. Unfortunately, the bikini-clad blonde was a blow-up doll and the palm tree just an inflatable pool toy.

Beyond the welcoming committee, Scott scored a perfect five stars for the checkpoint amenities in a less than ideal location. A wall tent heated by a barrel stove and equipped with 2X4 bunks provided cozy quarters for rest, while the small hillside behind the tent was lined with dog teams resting in straw. 

In many places, it is the responsibility of the musher to haul straw, drop bag and Heet (fuel for our cookers). Here, Scott and his sparse crew provided valet service. In many ways, this was still camping, as it was still necessary to melt snow to make water for the dogs and bath-rooming was a chilly venture.

Remote checkpoints don’t vary in their accommodations from what I’ve described too much. The standards are high, but any bit of shelter and comfort is warmly welcomed after days on the trail.

All checkpoints, in fact, may not be created equal, but for me, they are equally appreciated-- as are the volunteers and villages who cater to the mushers. 

Year in and year out, awards are passed out to mushers for their trail accomplishments. To acknowledge the importance and this appreciation of the volunteers and villages, mushers also cast votes at the finish for the coveted award of best checkpoint along the trail.

Who will stand out this year?

Copyright 2018 KTVA. All rights reserved. 

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