As the day draws close for the start of Alaska’s biggest winter sporting event — the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race — the National Weather Service is promising a climatic shift back toward winter, or maybe something at least closer to a normal March in the north.
Forty-five degree temperatures which had Iditarod Trail Invitational fat-tire cyclists riding the trail to Nikolai north of the Alaska Range in tank tops earlier this week are expected to return to a more seasonable range of 5 to 15 degrees at night and 25 to 35 degrees during the as the dog race rolls into the Interior next week.
Snow — something Anchorage hasn’t seen in weeks — was actually falling in the state’s largest city on Friday, though the Weather Service was forecasting it could change to rain by Saturday’s ceremonial start of the Iditarod.
A couple hundred miles to the north over the Alaska Range, things looked better, though not exactly normal.
An Interior community in Alaska’s subarctic, Nikolai’s early March norms usually range from 6-degrees-below zero to 12 degrees above this time of year. Temperatures for this early March are forecast to be way above the norm.
But after last year, when the Iditarod left a weather-relocated start in Fairbanks only to march into a deep freeze, there probably won’t be any mushers complaining.
With temperatures dropping to near 40-degrees-below zero in the Interior last year, DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, a two-time Iditarod runner-up and a veteran of 33 races going all the way back to her first in 1980, froze six of her fingers.
Warm weather might cause problems along the Iditarod Trail, but bitterly cold weather is dangerous and difficult. It last year got the best of tough guy Tim Hewitt from Pennsylvania, who has eight times hiked or run the trail for 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome.
He holds the Invitational foot record of 20 days, 7 hours and 17 minutes, which just happens to be 7 hours and 44 minutes faster than Carl Huntington’s winning time in the 1975 Iditarod dog race.
Hewitt is the real deal, but even he had to be rescued by snowmachine by Ruby’s Allen Titus last year. Titus, a tough and experienced resident of the Interior, found Hewitt camped out asleep in the middle of the trail and thought for a few minutes that he might have frozen to death.
As it turned out, Hewitt was just fine, but his wife, Loreen, who was just ahead of him on the trail and also rescued, suffered some significant frostbite. Such horrors are unlikely along the Iditarod this year with the national Climate Prediction Center saying the climate outlook favors above-normal temperatures across all of Alaska through March and into May.
Unfortunately for the Iditarod, Interior and Western Alaska, the two areas the race crosses within a few days of leaving the Willow restart just north of Anchorage on Sunday, are forecast to have below normal precipitation. That’s likely to ensure that already snowless and bad trail across the Interior north of the Alaska Range remains snowless and bad.
About a third of the 65 miles of trail across the Turquoise Lake Burn and into the Farewell Hills between the checkpoints of Rohn and Nikolia was bare early in the week, and Invitational cyclists arriving in McGrath near week’s end reported even more snow had melted out since.
What shape the trail will be in by the time the dog teams cross the Alaska Range is anyone’s guess, but the defining characteristic of the Iditarod has always been tough trail.
“So,” as the Jack London character the “Kid,” long ago observed, ” a health to the man on trail this night; may his grub hold out; may his dogs keep their legs; may his matches never miss fire. God prosper him; good luck go with him;” may there be trail.
And may the rain stay away.