UNALAKLEET — It smells like smoky bacon and pancakes. Not just any pancakes, but sourdough pancakes.
Anyone who visits this Iditarod checkpoint 700 miles from the starting line has no reason to leave with an empty belly. Whether you’re a musher, one of the many Norwegians following this race, a volunteer or a resident of the community at the heart of the Norton Sound, you’re welcome to plate up from a table full of food.
Around the clock, from the arrival of Brent Sass, who pulled in just before midnight Saturday, to the expected departure days later of two-time red lantern winner Ellen Halverson, sourdough pancakes come straight off the frying pan to peoples’ plates.
A cake pan full of bacon and sausage sits beside cakes with homemade blueberry, currant and salmonberry jam ready to accompany. And a community full of men and women bake up scrumptious cinnamon rolls. Other baked goods are plentiful. Coffee flows. Tang is poured. Stories are shared, friends are made and acquaintances reconnect.
It makes me kind of proud. I was raised here.
“I thought you were one of them reporters,” volunteer Bruce Johnson said to me while breaking apart bacon at the stove. He meant he thought I was from out of town.
We both laughed. His brother and 2010 Iditarod finisher Middy Johnson coordinated the volunteers for the cooking, sourdough starting and jam and jelly making. As a musher who appreciated a well-managed checkpoint and small-town hospitality along the trail when he finished 33rd six years ago, Middy Johnson ramped up the workings of the Unalakleet checkpoint in 2011.
“I think experiencing it firsthand and seeing how involved some of the communities still were and still having the interaction and the pride” provided inspiration, Johnson said.
His brother Paul Johnson, who passed away in 2011, ran the race a year after his brother.
“At the same time, the Iditarod was going through (concerns) … of communities not wanting to be a part of it,” said Middy, who wanted to change that.
Rural communities that serve as checkpoints are essential to the race he loves.
“So when I was asked what I could do to help, I said well, ‘We’ll make you pancakes.’
“It just came out of my mouth, ‘We’ll make you pancakes. And see what we can do.’”
This weekend, when the leaders came through, rested and departed, Middy fried pancakes 9 p.m. Saturday to 9 a.m. Sunday. And he enjoyed it. “You gather people around food anywhere, and it’s a fun time.”
Middy knows people love the pancakes. Sourdoughs are a staple in most Unalakleet homes. Stop by someone’s home on a Saturday morning, and the air will be smoky from oil on a hot pan and the homey aroma of fried sourdough.
“We had a big family,” Middy said of growing up, “so we had sourdough maybe five times a week. My dad made ‘em,” he smiles. “We couldn’t wait for sourdough.”
Jeff Schultz agrees. Schultz is traveling the Iditarod trail for the 36th consecutive year, making photographs. He volunteers for Iditarod to share the experience with people who can’t see the Last Great Race firsthand. “Traveling up the trail, I’m eating Iditarod food all the way, which is pretty much always something cold,” Schultz said. “So it’s not all that enjoyable. So getting here and having fresh, hot sourdough pancakes and bacon already cooked and ready to go … it’s wonderful. You can’t beat it.”
Middy and the volunteers have a simple mission. They want this checkpoint to be musher friendly, fan friendly and community friendly. Seeing people of different generations, staggering economic differences and differing levels of involvement in the Iditarod come together for a long weekend is an experience hard to match the rest of the year.