Mushy Iditarod Trail Beckons

KNIK — Alaska is rich in stories of adventurers frostbitten and frozen along the  fabled Iditarod Trail from Seward to Nome, but of late there seems often a strange, new weather concern: warmth.

Slushy snow and water covered the trail on Sunday from the edge of the Gulf of Alaska for more than 400 miles north over the Alaska Range mountains to the log-cabin outpost of Rohn along the Tatina River in the very heart of the mountains.

Speaking on a satellite phone from deep in the Alaska wild, Bill Merchant, one of the organizers of the human-powered Iditarod Trail Invitational about to head north, reported water knee keep on the South Fork Kuskowim River just outside the checkpoint.

More than 200 miles back along the trail where 67 brave, fat-bicyclists and runners were preparing to leave this historic outpost to challenge the wilderness, the big concern focused how to stay dry. Rain was already falling in Anchorage, and it was forecast to move north along the trail as Invitational competitors made their way across the Susitna Valley lowlands toward the Yentna River.

The rain was sure to be a headache for everyone, and any standing water on the trail a special pain for runners who pack vital survival gear in sleds they pull behind.

Few were as nonchalant as cyclist Jeff Oatley, whose won the Invitational’s “short race” of 350 miles to McGrath, and set the 10-day record for the “long race” to Nome in a time fast enough to have bested the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race huskies in every year up through 1994.

“It is what it is,” said Oatley, who trained for the Invitational this year by riding his bike 1,000 miles over the mountains and along the frozen Yukon from the Interior Alaska city of Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. He was not shy about admitting he considered the warmth of this northern winter a blessing along the Yukon, which provided the setting for author Jack London’s classic short-story “To Build a Fire” in 1908.

That story ends, for those who don’t know it, with “the man” freezing to death after trying and failing to kill his dog to “bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them. Then he could build another fire.”

Bitter, potentially deadly cold still sometimes comes to the northern Interior. It brutalized Iditarod mushers along the Yukon in the dog race last March, but they spent more time on the Yukon than usual because the start of the race had to be moved north hundreds of miles inland to Fairbanks because of warm weather and a lack of snow nearer Anchorage on the coast.

So far, this year is turning into an even warmer replay of last year, although there is slightly more snow. The Iditarod, which starts next week, is still planning to go from Willow, a community about 75 miles north of Anchorage.

The temperature in Willow on Sunday morning was 30 degrees, headed toward a forecast high of 40. Back to the south along the Iditarod Trail in Seward, the historic seaport for the Iditarod route, it was already 39 degrees aiming for a forecast 41 or 42.

Old-time fans of the Iditarod dog race once dreamed of a start in the trail’s historic Seward home, but it has never happened: Too warm. It looks now like it might  never happen. For years now the Iditarod has been plagued by warm weather or lack of snow or both.

Last year the start of the dog race was forced north. The year before that there was so little snow in Alaska Range it almost killed some of the dog mushers. An Anchorage television called sunken snowmachines along the Bering Sea coast  a “freak” event during the 2015  Iron Dog, the first of the trio of Iditarod races to head north on the trail from urban Alaska into the wilderness. But when the 2016 edition of the race finished in Fairbanks on Saturday the temperature was 40 degrees.

The long-term average is 17, the record low some 51 degrees below zero for the date.

The freak seems to becoming more like the norm. Publicly, Anchorage weather forecasters still consider the shift an anomaly. Privately, a few of them wonder if they aren’t seeing the beginning of a bigger change. The New York Times in 2014 boldly predicted that “Anchorage May Be the Place to Be” as the global climate heats up in the decades to come.

Maybe if one likes Seattle weather.

But Seattle weather is less than optimum for winter sports, and potentially dangerous along the Iditarod Trail.

The Iditarod is the longest, true-wilderness trail in North America. There are “checkpoints” every 30 to 70 miles, but they are not much — tiny villages, sometimes only a lodge made up of a few cabins or, in the case, of Rohn, a single log cabin and a wall tent.

Between the checkpoints, there is usually nothing. No buildings. No people. And nowhere to dry out.

If you get soaked, you stay that way until you make the next checkpoint, or you stop, make a fire and sit around it as travelers along this trail did 100 years ago. Stopping, however, is sort of anathema to racing, and it can be hard to get a fire going in the rain.


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