03/10/2011 11:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rough Trail Lies in Wait Past Iditarod

Enjoying a warm, sunny day, a handful of people could be found milling about Tuesday at mile 405 of the Iditarod trail sled dog race. Although not a single dog was in sight, the people who had committed themselves to be at the race's symbolic halfway point knew it was only a matter of time before the teams rolled through, and there was plenty of work to be done.

According to the race's GPS measurements, the route from Wasilla to Nome will require mushers to navigate 936 miles of Alaska's varied terrain. Based on the mileage, the next checkpoint in line -- the village of Shageluk, located at race mile 461 -- is the more proper mid-distance marker. But for the race that celebrates its conquering humans as heroes and legends, precision in distance is not as important at this historic halfway point as the time-honored ritual that takes place here, where riches await the first racer to grace Iditarod's mix of dying buildings and a few new cabins.

Martin Buser began his 98-mile quest out of Takotna toward Iditarod's ghost town two hours shy of midnight Tuesday. Yet it's likely that a relative newcomer, by race standards, could beat him there. Fourth-grade teacher Trent Herbst of Idaho, who is running the race for the fifth time, was more than halfway from Takotna to the halfway point about the time Buser was getting under way. But after the first musher in wins the checkpoint's trophy and $3,000 worth of gold nuggets, racers will be confronted with the fact that the easy trail -- if there was one up to this point -- is over.

In Iditarod, beyond the gold nuggets, mushers can contemplate that fate during a stay, should they choose to take one, in a spare but private cabin which only mushers are allowed to access. Chief checker Jim Paulus helped construct the simple place where weary racers can enjoy a dry bunk. Over the last eight years he's worked either in Iditarod or Cripple, and has brought his knack for building with him. In addition to the cabins, he also helps build the frames for the wall tents that round out the abandoned gold-rush town's accommodations.

After the turn of the century, Iditarod was the region's banking and transport center, Paulus explained while taking a few minutes to also play tour guide.

Barely standing, crumbling and in general disrepair, landmarks of the once bustling hub still dot the landscape. A grounded barge, store, bank vault and a hotel Paulus referred to as a "house of ill repute" remain, reminders of the community that in its heyday hosted as many as 10,000 people drawn to the area for its mining potential. Because the area was too boggy for overland travel during the summer, gold-seekers brought themselves and their equipment in during the winter via either horse-drawn carriage or dog sleds, Paulus said. The Iditarod's modern incarnation of those travels harkens back to the tenacity it took to make the journey...