Iconic burled arch at Iditarod finish line in Nome collapses

Apr. 29—The famed burled arch that towers over the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome has collapsed.

Nome Mayor John Handeland told Alaska's News Source that he found out about the collapse Saturday night and attempted to salvage pieces of the arch for safekeeping. He said that rotted wood was the likely cause of the collapse.

That wasn't a surprise to Sterling's Bob Kuiper, who built the arch nearly 25 years ago. Kuiper said he had applied a breathable stain on the arch, but a thick seal applied after the fact would cause it to rot from the inside.

Despite its collapse, Kuiper said it's been a pleasure to have an association with the arch. It's become a trademark of the race, referenced in stories and broadcasts and invoked as part of Iditarod lore.

"It's been really fun for me," he said. "The arch has been a very meaningful thing for me. People talk to me every year about it still 25 years later. The conversation comes up all the time. So it's been a real fun project."

The arch that Kuiper built replaced the thousand-mile race's original arch.

According to the Iditarod website, citing the book "Father of the Iditarod" by former Daily News sports editor Lew Freedman, the idea for the arch was spawned by the last-place finisher in the second Iditarod, in 1974.

Red "Fox" Olson earned the Red Lantern and was disappointed by the reception when he reached Nome. Olson found the spruce log that became the original arch near Fairbanks and the local Lions Club helped build the final product. The 5,000-pound arch was then airlifted to Nome and installed for the 1975 race.

The arch deteriorated and broke when it was being pulled down for summer storage after the 1999 Iditarod.

That's when Kuiper entered the picture. He said someone from the Iditarod Trail Committee knew about his furniture business Alaska Wildwoods which used a lot of burls and contacted him.

After spending nearly two weeks trying to find an appropriate burled tree in the Kenai Mountains, Kuiper said he got word from Jim Skogstad in Hope that he may have an appropriate piece.

Kuiper said he received the tree in June 1999 and let it dry through the summer. By early December, he started cutting the face and using his router to cut out the lettering.

From there it was trucked to Anchorage, and Northern Air Cargo flew it to Nome in time for the 2000 Iditarod.

Although he retired a few years ago, Kuiper said he would gladly build a replacement for the arch. But the issue is finding a replacement log with burls that fits the right specifications. He said finding that right log will likely need to be a team effort.

"It's up to the Iditarod committee, where they want to go with this," he said. "If somebody were to bring me another log, I'd put a new face on it. ... You'll find 300 burls before you find a tree that could work, that's symmetrical and almost 30 feet long."

A message to the Iditarod asking about the arch was not immediately returned Monday.