Once more the iconic crossing of the Alaska Range will be gone from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The 1,000-mile event that trademarks itself as “The Last Great Race” on Friday announced it will in March – for the second time in three years – follow a flat-lands course from Fairbanks to Nome.
The ceremonial start on the first Saturday of the month will continue in Anchorage as in recent times. The ceremonial event in the state’s largest city has become ever more ceremonial over the years.
It is now something of a dog-team parade that never leaves the city with a start Downtown that follows city bike trails to end near Midtown. Historically, mushers raced to the suburb of Eagle River, loaded their dogs and equipment onto trucks because of the lack of any easy route for dogs teams to cross the Knik and Matanuska rivers to the north of the city, and then motored north to a restart in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Traffic congestion and complaints from harried mushers eventually killed the same-day restart to the race, and the Anchorage portion of the race was turned into a ceremony with the official restart on Sunday in Wasilla, the home of Iditarod, or Knik near the home of late race-founder Joe Redington.
Logistical problems – a lot of development along the trail between Wasilla and Knik which created monay road crossings for Iditarod to deal with and a lack of parking in Knik coupled with several years of low snow – eventually forced the race restart north along the George Parks Highway to Willow, about 80 miles out of Anchorage.
Willow solved most of the problems of low snow, but the Alaska Range remained a hurdle for musher.
Alaska Range realities
From the checkpoint at Winter Lake Lodge on Finger Lake, about 130 miles up the trail, to the village of Nikolai on the north side of the Alaska Range, about 300 miles up the trail, mushers have endured a sled-busting, sometimes bone-breaking adventure almost every year since the first Iditarod race in 1973.
Over the years, this stretch of trail took out some of the best of mushers. In 2007, four-time champ Doug Swingley from Montana crashed into a tree and was forced to drop out with rib and thumb injuries.
“Every year there are stories of broken sleds and mushers injured” on the trail between Rohn, in the heart of the range, and Nikolai, Iditarod musher turned journalism professor Brian O’Donoghue wrote in the 2005 book “Iditarod Glory.”
The Red Lake Hill just out of Finger Lake, the Happy River Steps just beyond, and the icy sidehills along the twisting, up-and-down trail from the Happy to The Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake have always been notorious obstacles. So, too, the descent from Rainy Pass to Dalzell Creek beyond Puntilla, the winding trail across numerous ice bridges in the Dalzell Gorge, and the open water on the Tatina River just before Rohn.
Beyond that came “The Glacier,” a once challenging climb up and over terraced patches of overflow ice; the “Buffalo Tunnels,” a trail through bison country so narrow a sled barely fit and God forbid you meet a buffalo herd there; the invariably snow-free Post River country; and finally the tussock-filled former Farewell Burn where in year of low snow the trail was so rough it was impossible to ride a dogsled.
A smoother route north
The run from Fairbanks north and east along frozen rivers of the Interior to connect to the traditional Iditarod Trail at the old mining town of Ruby avoids all those obstacles plus the overwhelming desolation of the 150-mile run across the now abandoned “Inland Empire” between the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers.
Officially, the Iditarod said the reason to move the restart to Fairbanks this year was that “trail conditions leading up to both Ptarmigan Pass and Dalzell Gorge are still considered unsafe at this time for the teams participating in this year’s race,” but the reality is bigger than that.
Few mushers will miss the difficulty of the trail from Finger to Nikolai. The stretch is always a challenge. And it is always in some ways dangerous. Only the degree shifts. No one has ever died in the Iditarod, but there have been plenty of injuries and most of them have come between Finger Lake and Nikolai.
Not all fans, however, were happy about the move.
“Breaking News,” Anchorage’s Ben Mohr posted on his Facebook page:
“Iditarod Trail Board announces 2018 race to be held using treadmills, computer simulation.
“‘We really like the idea of a race which hearkens back to the Alaskan toughness we know from myth and legend,’ said board chair T.I.Mid, ‘but ACTUALLY racing that route? Ugh, can you say cold, dreary and dark? No thanks.’
“Balto the dog was joined by the ghosts of miners and trappers, and every participant of the 1925 Serum Run the race commemorates, in issuing the following response: ‘This is bullshit.'”
Mohr, in a response to a Facebook message, admitted his post was “a little mean. (But) the race organizers need to better articulate who they are and the purpose of the race.
“Is it, as they say, ‘the race that pits man and animal against nature, against wild Alaska at her best and as each mile is covered, it is a tribute to Alaska’s history and the role the sled dog’ played,’ or is it now all about the finish line?
“The race seems to only be concerned with setting records, not the event. You can go safe and slow and ‘battle the elements,’ or you can make it a 600-mile sprint.
“I’m sure as hell not tough enough to run it. So good on them there, but they’re making themselves into a reality show version what they were/could be.”