Nome Kennel Club, volunteers renovate Topkok shelter cabin
A crew of volunteers with the backing of the Nome Kennel Club have the Topkok Cabin on the Iditarod Trail back in top shape and ready to shelter mushers and local travelers who find themselves caught in bad weather. The Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance provided $15,000 toward the cost of needed repairs and improvements to the NKC, which maintains the cabin. Ragchew Amateur Magic Ham Radio Club also donated $5,000 to the NKC to complete repairs.
The Topkok cabin is situated at a critical spot on the trail, at the infamous Topkok Blowhole, where weather and strong winds can turn deadly. “It’s a critical point for a shelter cabin simply because that’s right in the blowhole that goes from Topkok to Golovin,” said Iditarod veteran Aaron Burmeister. “There’s an eight-mile stretch of the coast there that the wind funnels through going through the mountains. It might be dead calm at Safety, a 10 mile an hour wind in Nome, but going through that blowhole, when you have a north wind, or kind of a northwest wind, it can blow an ungodly wind through there.” The cabin serves the shelter needs of winter travelers between Nome, White Mountain, Council, Golovin and beyond.
The idea to help upgrade the cabin and make needed repairs first came to Evan Booth when he was gathering firewood in the area and having coffee at the cabin. Seeing the shelter’s condition planted the idea in his head. “The cabin was eight inches out of level and had much that needed fixing,” said Booth. “So, I brought it up and got a couple of my friends, Tyler Johnson and Ken Morton together and got them invested in it.”
According to Nome Kennel Club President Neil Strandberg, Bering Air transported NKC board members to the cabin where they inspected it on Nov. 22, 2019. From this inspection the needed repairs were planned. Phase One included jacking up the cabin, putting it on a solid foundation, building a new deck and stairs, and inside work such as putting in a new floor, a new bunk ladder, a table and a shelf.
The three volunteer workmen Booth, Morton and Johnson, got Phase One finished while there was still enough snow on the ground to transport the heavy construction materials to the site. That required two trips. They trucked the material and their snowmachines and sleds to the Bonanza Channel Bridge and made the 11-mile trip from there to the cabin twice. Cargo included two large beams, 20-foot 10x10s, and a number of 16-foot 10x10 beams.
The cabin is 12 feet by 16 feet and was originally set on 10x10x16-foot beams placed directly on the tundra. These had settled down into the tundra over the years and it had become nearly level with the ground. The original light green paint on the exterior siding had nearly disappeared due to weathering and there was recent bear damage to the siding and insulation on the east side of the cabin. The interior had some wear and tear to the floor in front of the stove, near the entryway. The front door and frame had been damaged and stitched together with bolts and screws over the years and the cabin window was cracked and in need of replacement.
“We put in new foundation beams and new pads,” said Tyler Johnson. “The floor joists were OK but the cabin was sitting on the tundra and actually sinking in.” They got under it and jacked it up enough to slide beams underneath. “We were a full day of just going around and around the cabin, jacking it up slowly until we got the front edge about four feet off the ground. The back edge was probably two and a half feet off the ground,” Johnson said. They added a deck for better entry to the shelter and for better storage of firewood. Phase One works was done over five days in late April and early May.
For Phase Two, the trio hauled construction material out to the cabin with four-wheelers pulling trailers. “We went in at the Big Hurrah Bridge,” said Tyler Johnson. “We took the Big Hurrah Mine Road/Trail and we went into the Big Hurrah Mine and then there was a trail that goes back toward Topkok. There was a slight trail here and there that we followed.” Bering Air’s Huey helicopter carried two loads out to the cabin as well. The first was a 2,500 lb. sling load. They also flew out with 1,500 lbs of smaller materials they could fit into the ship’s cabin.
According to Johnson they found the cabin to be structurally sound, but the roof was leaking. They fixed that. “We’d like to do a Phase Three where we go in replace the roof tin and also inspect the roof sheathing that’s under the tin,” said Johnson. “We weren’t able to get to that because we didn’t have time. But we were thinking that may have been compromised by the leaking. Then of course the insulation is under the sheathing.”
Phase Two included the construction of an outhouse, a necessary upgrade as human waste was becoming a problem. The sum of improvements at the end of Phase Two includes new foundation footer pads, new beam supports, a new porch and stairs, new plywood floor, three new windows, exterior weather wrap behind new metal siding, a new entryway door, upgrades to the interior including a table, coat rack, bunk ladder and a fire extinguisher.
The remaining work, Phase Three, will hopefully be completed in October. The plans are for a handrail for the deck and the stairs, interior LED lighting, replacement of the HAM radio antenna and associated gear, a footbridge to the outhouse, and new tin on the roof. The stove also needs to be replaced. “It works, it does the job,” said Evan Booth in an interview last May. “I’ve been looking around for some material to build a stove. I can do that myself. We’ll add that to phase three, a stove and a stack.”
Firewood for the cabin is collected by volunteers. Last March, Marty Ruud and one of his daughters delivered wood. After Phase Two was completed the three volunteers left the firewood all stocked up.
As the weather on that stretch of the trail can get serious very quickly, the cabin has sheltered mushers and travelers in some epic storms. A notable one was in the last week of April 2000 during the Nome-Council Sled Dog Race. Mushers returning to Nome found themselves in a 100-mph storm in the Blowhole, the part of the trail between the cabin and Safety. According to Roger Thompson, who stopped in at the cabin while returning from a caribou hunt, there were 25 people in the 12x16-foot shelter. “We were there for four nights with over 100 mile an hour winds,” said Aaron Burmeister. Lucy Nordlum and Darrin Nelson of Kotzebue were two of the mushers. “Conner Thomas was stuck there for a couple days with us and he attempted to make it back to town once and his snow machine got flipped over by the wind and he took three hours to crawl back to camp. He tried again later and was able to make it to Nome. But nobody could get from Nome out there. That was a once in 100-year storm,” he said. “Jim Rowe tried flying out there to make a drop of dog food and meat for us. The top of that storm was 800 feet and he could not fly lower. He ended up flying to White Mountain and people from there brought the dog food down a couple of days later.”
Burmeister described building snow caves for the dogs when they arrived at the cabin. But by the next morning there was no snow left. It had blown away. The dogs were on exposed sand and the willows were being ripped out by the wind. Snow machines parked out front by hunters who arrived were blown end over end down the beach. On the fourth day the shore ice blew out. “That cabin with all those people in it was bouncing off the ground,” said Burmeister.
“We had 25 people in there for three days,” said Roger Thompson, recalling the storm. He’d been hunting with Jim Wilson, his son Isaac, and Art Peters. “We had half a dozen caribou and all the dog mushers were on a quick race to Council so they were travelling light. They didn’t have any extra food. One guy was up 24 hours cooking. He had the pot going around the clock. ‘Just help yourself,’ he’d say.”
“Finally, I got hold of the Search and Rescue and they said, ‘You guys need anything?’”
Thompson answered, “Yeah, if you guys could send the Blackhawk down here we’re just about out of salt and paper towels.”
“Search and Rescue came through looking for this one guy who was frozen up in a hole over on Topkok River. They found him. He had a little frostbite but not bad.” Asked if he’d used the shelter any other time Thompson said he had. “Oh yeah, it’s a convenient place to hole up. I was stuck three days there once without a cabin.”
“It was a great trip and well worth spending the time out there for that cabin and its purpose,” said Tyler Johnson. “It was definitely in dire need of attention. We just hope that anybody who stops there and stays there, takes care of it.”