The Burled Arch and its storied past tied to Iditarod finish lore

Telling Alaska’s Story: The Burled Arch and its storied past
Published: Mar. 21, 2023 at 6:29 PM AKDT
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NOME, Alaska (KTUU) - One thing in particular makes people around the world think of the finish line of the Last Great Race on Earth: the Burled Arch in Nome.

The iconic structure so jointly tied to the Iditarod has a winding history that’s closely aligned with the race itself. Proposed by a racer, it is now the symbol of a race spanning more than half a century as of this month.

“All those people that go by one name, everybody knows,” Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman said. “When we talk in our sport, worldwide, about the Burled Arch, this is the goal.”

A long-standing piece of Iditarod history, the newest edition of the Burled Arch is on display each year at the end of the storied race. The multi-ton, hand-carved wooden structure, currently welcoming racers and tourists alike to the finish line, is quickly approaching its 25th anniversary after being added to the finish line in time for the Iditarod in the year 2000.

“When you finish the Iditarod, you don’t know whether you want to cry or jump for joy,” Nordman said. “You know, it’s been such an adventure to get up here. But it’s a really special thing, really special.”

The Burled Arch used today, however, isn’t the original. Its predecessor dates back to 1974, according to the Iditarod, and was erected after finishers complained that there wasn’t much excitement and no symbol surrounding the end of the race.

Red “Fox” Olson, a gold miner who was the 1974 Red Lantern winner, was particularly disappointed, and made it his mission to create a permanent marker at the finish.

An entry from Diane Johnson on the Iditarod’s website all about the Burled Arch’s history says: “During the end of the 1974 Iditarod, Joel Kottke, finishing 24th, wore a paper plate that read, ‘The,’ and Red Olson, finishing 25th and in Red Lantern position, wore a paper plate that read the word, ‘End.’ This just wasn’t good enough for Red, who felt it a was big letdown for mushers arriving in Nome. So he donated the famed Burled Arch.”

That Burled Arch, the first of its kind, was a vision of Olson’s and was airlifted to Nome after hundreds of hours of work to create the iconic arch out of an old log. Ruby musher Emmitt Peters would be the first to cross under it as the 1975 Iditarod Champion.

Nearly 25 years later, though, that arch would need to be recreated.

“It’s world-renowned in our sport; you talk about going under the Burled Arch,” Nordman reflected. “With the conditions we have in Nome, they rot out so early. And I was sitting in my room at the Nugget here, and I saw it fall apart, blew up into little pieces.”

The original arch split into pieces after decades of use and deterioration, despite the repeated smaller-scale fixes to try and keep it together eternally. After the 1999 Iditarod, it had to be replaced.

But how?

For the new arch, it was another lifelong Iditarod fan – with the perfect tree on his plot of land in Hope – who would step in to make it possible.

“When the word went out that they needed to replace the arch, the forest service contacted me and asked if I knew or had a resource or a tree that might be available to them,” said Jim Skogstad, who provided the tree for the new Burled Arch. “It just so happened that there was one about 75 feet from my house.”

After the tree was felled in Hope and community members there helped peel some of the bark away, a Sterling man, Skogstad said, would be the one to create the final shape of the arch and engrave the “End of Iditarod Sled Dog Race” text into it. While Skogstad said he hasn’t seen the current arch in 20 years or so, he’s proud to know that it’s still holding up, announcing and representing the end of the Iditarod and drawing thousands to it annually.

“You’ll have people coming in all summer long, wanting to see it, get a picture done,” Nordman said. “It needs some work again, but that’s the key, ‘Under the Burled Arch.’”

Each year, the arch is carried over to the snowy finish chute on Front St. by the public works agency in Nome. The original arch now has a home inside the community recreation center located on 6th Ave. in Nome.