Back in the saddle for one more Iditarod

Bob Jones headsfor Nome again“You suppose they’re tired of me yet,” Bob Jones laughs. Is the 72-year-old Jones talking about his upcoming 13th snow machine trip over the Iditarod Trail to Nome sweet Nome or those journal logs he writes for this newspaper?No chance, Bob. Not you.Steel yourselves, folks. The Kettle Falls man is almost back on the Iditarod Trail again. Jones left on Feb. 29 for Anchorage and the start of the Last Great Race on March 3 from the outskirts of Anchorage. Jones, a well known character on the Iditarod Trail and one of the few who navigates the rugged Alaska back country on a snow machine during racetime, can’t think of a place he’d rather be than on that cold, desolate and forboding Iditarod Trail. Yes, the Iditarod and Jones were made for each other.Jones, who never told anybody that he remembered all 72 of his birthdays, can tell you in great detail the history and histrionics of those dozen previous trips north. Jones loves Alaska and the people associated with the Iditarod…so the recollections are quick and the stories long.It’s an easy call that Jones can recall in great detail every one of his trips (both solo and with partners) on a snow machine along an Iditarod trail north or south, chasing the mushers in the world’s greatest dog sled race.Jones rode the 1,150-mile trail to Nome with his buddy, Harley Douglas, last year. This time around, his son-in-law, Josh Rindal of Mt. Vernon, will be along for his own ride.“He’ll be a pleasure to take along on his first Iditarod,” Jones said last week. “He’s a big, tough guy and I’m not. We’re both stoked for the trip…I’m as stoked as I can get…this is part of me—good or bad.“You know, a guy is really lucky to have something to do at 72,” Jones quips. Jones also figures he’s been lucky to have good riding partners over the years. “The most important thing up there is to have a good partner,” he says. “It’s like finding a good hunting partner. It may be more important than finding a good wife.”Not too many AARP immersed senior citizens would have a Baker’s Dozen worth of Iditarod trips on a snow machine on any Bucket Lists. Just call this Jones’ annual Bucket List check-off. The real race starts on March 3 in Wasilla and will wend its way across the so-called northern route and through some of the most beautiful, dangerous and remote country known to man—or woman. The terminus is the Arctic outpost of Nome.The mushers and their dogs will take from 10 to 15 days. Jones and Rindal will take 28 to 30 days to ride the trail round-trip. “We don’t always do it round-trip (this will be his sixth round trip on the trail), but we are this year,” adds Jones, a skilled freelance photographer who plans to stay ahead of the mushers and their teams, at least early in the race. He and his partners are the only people to have ever ridden the trail round-trip.“We are going to speed up and try to stay with them,” Jones, one of maybe a half-dozen to ride the route on a snow machine, says. “We aren’t going behind them this year. I want to get in the middle of the pack. It’s easier to get photos that way.“From about 350 miles out, we don’t see any dogs because they are gone—out ahead. We’ll try and change that.”Jones, who has chronicled his previous trips with hundreds of photos, wants more shots of the mushers and their teams.For those counting at home, Jones figures he’s close to the 20,000-mile mark on the trail in a snow machine.That’s a lot of bad trail, frozen rivers, heavy forest, tundra, jagged mountain ranges and miles and miles of windswept coastline through whiteouts and temperatures well below zero.Too cold for zero? It’s never too cold for Jones. He thrives in this environment. Don’t ask him about summers back in Northeast Washington. “Too hot,” he says. He’d much rather immerse himself in Iditarod back-country culture and a few more photo ops.For the uninitiated, the Iditarod Trail is anything but a fun ride to Nome. “Like always, we’ll have some good trail and some bad…it has been a long, cold winter in Alaska. We are just going to have to see what the trail has in store for us. It’s 1,100 miles of varying depths of snow and a four-foot wide snow crust packed a little by snow machines. And when spring comes, it’s gone. The Iditarod trail is nothing more than a path on top of snow heading to Nome.”The path to Nome is definitely not paved with good intentions. Jones has had more than his share of spills with the trail thrills.Jones, known along the trail by the locals who recognize him by the familiar yellow coat, will ride on a two-stroke Arctic Cat this time around.“There is always bare ground along the trail and ice…it’s easier with a two-stroke,” Jones says. Jones is looking forward to The Last Great Race, or in his case, the Last Great Chase. At this point in my life, it’s one at a time.”He’s looking forward to returning on the trail in his snow machine, instead of flying over it from Nome back to Anchorage. “It’s a different trip coming back,” Jones adds. “When we leave Nome and head back, everything will look different. You’re doing it in reverse…the vistas and scenery are entirely different. It’s just a gorgeous trip forward or backward.”Jones will be submitting periodic journal entries for the S-E along the trail to Nome and back to Anchorage.