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What Happened to the Burled Arch

On April 28, 2024, it was discovered that the famed Burled Arch that marks the completion of the Iditarod had succumbed to wood rot. The monument has been put in place in Nome at the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Race yearly since 1974. It stays on Front Street until the Red Lantern finisher crosses under the burled arch. This arch was the second rendition and had been repaired in 2013. The hunt is on to find a replacement.

Wear, Tear, and Weather

The weather in Nome is unforgiving, wet with rain, severe cold, and then there’s the wind. All of which wreak havoc on wooden structures including the picturesque Burled Arch. Many have thought that the Burled arch was carved from driftwood found on the beaches of Nome. Both previous monuments underwent quite the hunt to locate, carve, and transport to Nome.  The arch has always been fashioned from spruce trees with burls.

“The need for a new arch has been on our radar,” race spokesperson Shannon Noonan said in an email to The Associated Press.

“Race Director Mark Nordman has been working with Nome Mayor John Handeland on the commission of the reconstruction of the new arch to ensure we have a new arch for Iditarod 2025,” she said. Mushing Magazine reached out to renowned Willow homebuilder and Iditarod musher, Ramey Smyth who said he was commissioned to build the new arch.

Historical Significance

When we think of an arch, we think of a curved structure built to create a passage while holding up weight. The weight of a building or even the weight of a bridge. If you asked a dog musher what the Arch is, they will think of something completely different. They will think of the Burled Arch, the finish line of the 1,025-mile Iditarod Trail, a symbol of accomplishment and history.

Iditarod began in 1973 with Kool-Aid powder marking the end of the trail, the finish line. In 1974 the Red Olson, carried a paper plate across the Kool-Aid line that read “End.”  He decided that was anti-climactic. According to Lew Freedman, Father of the Iditarod, The Joe Redington, Sr. Story, Red was not pleased at all about the end of the trail and the end of the race not having a significant marker, so he set out to change that. He envisioned a grand monument at the finish line.

Red Olson was a goldminer and he found the original spruce cap of the Arch along the banks of Rosie Creek in Fairbanks. Red got the Lions Club to donate time and hands and 500 hours to carve out the original arch. The original arch would be shipped to Nome and weighed in at a heft 5,000 pounds. It was first crossed in 1975 by Ruby musher, Emmitt Peters according to Iditarod records, and was then known as the Red “Fox” Olson Trail Monument.

The original arch stood for 25 years. Being moved and set into place each year for Iditarod and then moved back to a ‘resting place’. In 1999, it broke apart while being moved to the Recreation Center after the Iditarod that year. Jim Skogstand donated a burled spruce from his Hope, Alaska property. This replacement was carved by Bob Kulper of Alaska Wildwoods who donated his talent and his time. In 2013, this arch underwent some repair and refurbishment to keep it in good condition.

The Hunt is On

Smyth Logwork and multiple Iditarod finisher, Ramey Smyth have been asked by Nordman to locate and carve out a replacement arch. Smyth is a neighbor of Mushing Magazine at our Willow location sharing training trails. We reached out to him to verify this information and to ask him a few questions about this endeavor.

Smyth shared with us that he was contacted by Iditarod, “I was honored to be contacted regarding the rebuilding of the Historic Iditarod Arch that is emblematic of teamwork between supporters, mushers, dogs, villages, and all Alaskans”. He went on to explain how this made him feel, “The arch symbolizes teamwork, dreams, sacrifices, challenges on a trail of hardships, storms, sweat, and tears”.

We also wanted to know how long it would take, “For the rebuild, we will most likely use Sitka spruce or white spruce,” he said. Smyth also explained that the right tree will weigh around 1,000 pounds when it’s finished and will take many months just to find the right trees and form them into a decorative arch. “This will be difficult due to so many spruce being killed by the spruce beetles. Smyth is hopeful that property owners will reach out if they know of healthy trees on their properties.  Northern Air Cargo will help to transport the arch to Nome hopefully in time for the 2025 Iditarod.

The arch stands for more than just a finish line. Each participant will tell you a different reason. Every fan will give yet another reason. Strength, agility, endurance, perseverance, camaraderie, bonding with dogs, and even becoming one with nature are just a few that have been given. Or like Smyth shared his own reasons, “The arch symbolizes teamwork, dreams, sacrifices, challenges on a trail of hardships, storms, sweat, and tears”.

When visiting Nome in August of 2023, we remember seeing the arch nestled in the middle of a park out in the open exposed to the weather. On that day it was raining. We wondered why it wasn’t being preserved in the off-season in a safer less exposed location. While realizing that so many visitors to Nome, and “Nomies” themselves have come to see the arch right there in that very spot in the park.

Generations are said to spread in time by about 25 years, Iditarod it could be said, is entering its third generation. A new arch is being hunted so that it can be carved and placed by this new generation of competitors to signify the continued history and devotion to land and beast alike. Ramey Smyth will no doubt do it justice and make Iditarod, competitors, and fans along with the City of Nome all very proud to cross under the famous Burled Arch.

Picture of Michele Forto

Michele Forto

Editor and producer at Mushing