With 14 inches of snow blanketing the Iditarod Trail at Puntilla Lake on the south side of the Alaska Range and 6- to 8-inches on the ground at Rohn on the north side of the range, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race put out a very strange news release on Wednesday that sent the media into something of a dither.
“Iditarod says 2017 race could be returning to Fairbanks” headlined the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, though the release didn’t actually contain the word “Fairbanks.” The release only hinted at the possibility of shifting the race restart from Willow north to the Interior city.
Still, most Alaska media jumped all over the possibility of another trip north for The Last Great Race.
The release itself was very vague. In its entirety, it said:
“Below is a statement from the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) with regard to current trail conditions for Iditarod XL:
“As is the case each year, the Iditarod Trail Committee staff and crews have been monitoring trail conditions closely, and in particular, sections of the trail in the Alaska Range. While Southcentral, in general, has experienced more than adequate snowfall, Rainy Pass and the Dalzell Gorge have not.
“We will continue to monitor trail conditions and will make a final determination as to the location for the Iditarod race restart on Feb. 10. As always, our commitment is to ensure the very best possible race for the field of 75 teams that are entered in Iditarod XL.”
Added to the bottom was the warning that “the Iditarod Trail Committee does not have any further information beyond the above statement and will not be available for interviews at this time. As aforementioned in the statement, ITC will provide updated information on or before Feb. 10.”
(Editor’s note: Iditarod XL is a roman numeral reference to Iditarod 40, not a reference to a new, oversize Iditarod race. And the race this year will actually be XLV.)
Fine for all but dog mushers
Where exactly the snow is missing is unclear. Mike Morgan, a competitor in the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmachine race along the Iditarod Trail to Nome and then on to Fairbanks, has reported he’s already been close to Rohn on training rides and conditions are good.
“Made it to the Southfork of the Kuskokwim (River), about 30 miles shy of Rohn,” he posted on his Facebook page. “Good snow up through the pass and on the river.”
The Iron Dog does, however, use a slight different route than the sled dog race to get from Puntilla Lake on the south of the Alaska Range to Rohn in the very heart of the range. Instead of going up the Happy River valley and then north over Rainy Pass, the Iron Dog jogs south at the river and climbs through Ptarmigan Pass. It then drops down to the South Fork and there turns north for Rohn.
Tyson Johnson, another Iron Dog competitor, and Kathi Merchant, the race director for the human-powered Iditarod Trail Invitational Race, said they think the Iditarod’s problem might be more with “brush” than with lack of snow along Pass Creek after the Iditarod crosses the Happy and starts climbing toward Rainy Pass.
The approaches to the Pass from both north and south are clogged with willow thickets. A dog team needs at least a semblance of a route in order to get through. In a year with plenty of snow, the willows are buried. If they’re not buried, someone has to cut a path.
Though the Iditarod is a federal historic trail, the Bureau of Land Management, the agency in charge, does little maintenance. The Iditarod committee has brushed a lot of trail in the past, but that costs money and the race is not in the best financial shape. A non-profit organization, it’s facing the same money problems other nonprofits face in Alaska’s current recession.
Once over the pass, there could also be problems down in the Dalzell Creek drainage where trail breakers need enough ice and snow to build bridges across that waterway as it winds through a narrow gorge, and where mushers need enough snow on the trail itself to be able to brake their sleds.
When the Iditarod went through the Dalzell in 2014, Rohn was basically snowless and the gorge was a nightmare, as Aily Zirkle from Fairbanks documented in this youtube video shot from her sled: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=647aJesiBik
Some going no matter what
The Feb. 18 Iron Dog, the Feb. 26 Invitational and the Feb. 19 Iditasport, a loosely organized replay of the first human-powered race north on the Iditarod Trail to McGrath, say they’re all going north from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley through the Alaska Range be there no snow, little snow or lots of snow.
Merchant said she didn’t think there was any problem with trail until Wednesday night.
“When I heard that on the news last night,” she said, “I went ‘what?’ I don’t think the trail conditions have changed much from what they’ve always been. I think it’s the mushers.”
There is no doubt about the latter. What used to be an adventure race has become much more of a speed race. Year by year since the first Iditarod in 1973, the trail has been improved.
It’s wider, better marked, and a trail breaking crew of snowmachines travels just in front of the dog-race leaders now to make sure the teams encounter no serious obstacles. The improvements have changed the way mushers prepare and train for the race.
Gone are the days of trapline teams that would stop on command, or settle into the pace of a man breaking trail on snowshoes if necessary. Today’s teams are primarily trained to go fast, and on bad trail that can prove dangerous for mushers.
Some old-time mushers joke about whether modern mushers even know how to put on the snowshoes they are still required to pack in their sleds as “mandatory gear.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Iditarod has gotten easier.
Fitter, faster dog teams are harder to handle. There were a lot of injuries in 2014 when the trail was especially rough.
Some of the most beat-up of mushers have lingering memories still. The Iditarod press release might simply have been the race’s effort to give them a heads up that the race committee is aware of their concerns and watching out for their bodies, or it might have been an effort to give Iditarod fans something to talk about in the lead up to the March race.
It’s certainly different from the old days when former trail manager Jack Niggemeyer’s answer to ever inquiry about trail conditions was that they didn’t matter because they were destined to change tomorrow, which usually proved to be the case.
But speculating about the future of the weather does give people a lot to talk about, and the Iditarod does have that Feb. 10 date to think about. It’s when the race starts shipping supplies to checkpoints. If it’s going to go for another Fairbanks restart – the third ever and the second in three years – it would have to decide by then.
The first Iditarod restart in Fairbanks was in 2003. For the first of its 30 years, the Iditarod followed the Iditarod Trail no matter how bad it got. And it was often bad. There was a time when a lost man could find his way across the Farewell Burn by following a trail of sled-dog parts and sled-dog gear.