XI. The Kaltag Portage

Old Woman Mountain... taken with a disposable camera Monica Zappa dropped trying to take the same shot :)

Arriving in Kaltag was exciting. Kaltag is a transition point from the rivers and flatlands of the Interior to the famed winds and hills of the Coast. The Iditarod trail follows a portage trail that has been used since time immemorial to connect the peoples of the Interior with those of the Coast. Somewhere in the hills past Kaltag we would be crossing through a historical “no man’s land,” where for a long time, when the two indigenous groups were still hostile to one another, neither Indian or Eskimo dared set foot, lest they disappear. Sidney Huntington has a fascinating account of explorations he took in this region (not to mention his adventures & life in the rest of the Koyukuk area !)

The Kaltag portage is one of my favorite sections of trail. Knowing you are going through an area where people have disappeared for centuries definitely imbues the trail with a ethereal feeling.  The sky was cloudy and the light was flat - skewing one’s sense of perception. About two thirds of the way to Unalakleet, we dropped out of the woods onto a narrow creek. The dogs were running on glare ice, covered with just an inch of slippery snow. We rounded a corner and this amazing mountain loomed up ahead of us. This had to be Old Woman Mountain! It was framed so perfectly amongst the creek and the trees. How I wished I had a camera! (Mine died leaving Cripple) And there.... just ahead on the side of the trail.... was a small black box... I scooped it up -- a disposable camera!! No kidding! I brushed the snow off and snapped the picture.... Such timing! Monica had been using disposable cameras the whole race -- I guessed it was hers & returned the camera at our camp at old Old Woman Cabin just around the river bend. She had dropped the camera trying to capture the same shot. You can see all of Monica's disposable picture shots from the 2014 Iditarod HERE.

Old Woman mountain is an obvious landmark, a distinct pyramid peak that dominates the forested hills around it. You have to give the Old Woman an offering or risk bad luck down the trail — I left a special treat I thought she’d like, when we finally made it past the mountain. Monica and I made a rookie mistake and didn't quite make it to the fancy new BLM cabin at the base of the mountain. There are two Old Woman cabins — the first is a neglected plywood shack tucked in a wooded corner made by the creek, the other is a beautiful fancy log cabin built by BLM just a couple hundred yards down the trail. Marcelle was pulled over just past the first cabin and we decided to join her — we didn't actually know how far the new cabin was and the old cabin is too cool to pass by without stopping in. It has the signatures of Iditarod mushers and travelers from the last 40+ years covering the walls. The walls are getting pretty raggedy, but it’s still a cool spot with a lot of tangible history.  (That being said, once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it & the comforts of the new cabin are much more appealing than a spot on the creek bank :) ) It was at our Old Woman campsite that Monica and I began counting how many more cookouts we had left — only five (!) if all went well (hint.. it didn't). We were making a classic rookie assumption, that reaching the coast was “almost to Nome.”

We rolled into Unalakeet around 1 in the morning.  The dogs had gotten the sense on the river into town that we were drawing near a checkpoint and had really picked it up. Their fast pace, paired with my bright Lupine Wilma headlight, had led the checkers to assume we were a snowmachine. As you may imagine, I was inordinately pleased to hear this.  We stayed in Unalakleet for 8 and a half hours.

Stay tuned... next up.... Part XII. Sundog Over Shaktoolik.

Lisbet at old Old Woman Cabin camp.  Photo by Monica Zappa. 

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