Commentary

Iditarod crossroads

Iditarod_2013_(8572097753)

The Iditarod finish in Nome/Wikimedia Commons

Commentary

Before the last of the ice melts from frozen Fairbanks, Alaska, and the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race fully disappears into the ground blizzard of history, it might be a good time to ponder the question many have been voicing privately since this year’s race began:

Is the Golden Heart City destined to replace the little, roadside community of Willow as the new, permanent home for the Iditarod restart?

Twice in the last three years, the Iditarod has officially started in Fairbanks, and there are some good arguments to be made for making this the norm. A race staged largely along the frozen rivers of the 49th state’s Interior is:

  • Cheaper
  • Easier
  • Faster
  • Fan friendlier
  • And potentially more profitable.

Fans of the old Iditarod will argue that cheaper, easier and faster all violate the Iditarod tradition, if not worse. But times change. People change. And events change.

The National Football League today is not what the NFL was 50 years ago.

Once, the Iditarod was as much adventure as it was race. Now it is all race and no adventure. It’s been a long, long time since anyone has gotten lost. And the musher catch phrase of the times is “checkpoint efficiency.”

NASCAR-think has taken over Iditarod. All that is missing is a pit crew to jack the dogs, change the booties on all four paws, stuff some food down their throats, and send them back out on the trail while a TV clock runs to time the performance.

If this is the kind of race the Iditarod Trail Committee wants – and indications are that this is the type of  race the ITC wants – Fairbanks is ideal as the new starting point.

Money talks

But the desire for a flat, fast track – you don’t see NASCAR running over any mountain ranges, do you? – is not the best argument Fairbanks has going for it.

There is one bigger: Money.

Iditarod insiders says it is about 30 percent cheaper to stage the restart out of Fairbanks. The reason for this is simple. The race goes from village to village to village, and it is a lot cheaper to resupply villages with gear, equipment and straw than to fly all of that into remote checkpoints in small planes.

Uncle Sam is the Iditarod’s friend here.

The federal government helps subsidize village shipments through the U.S. Postal Service. The Iditarod sends a 45-pound bale of straw for every musher and a lot more to every village using Alaska’s bypass mail system. According to MailboxGrocerciesAlaska.com, the price of bypass mail is about half the cost of air freight.

Cost savings could be huge for the Iditarod, which annually flies thousands of pounds of straw, dog food, people food, gear and people to every checkpoint along the trail. Unfortunately, the Finger Lake, Puntilla Lake, Rohn and Cripple (northern route) or Iditarod (southern route) can only be reached by the most expensive of freighters – small, usually single-engine aircraft.

Everything has to be flown in, and dropped dogs,  garbage and people need to be flown out. The logistics of the Iditarod are difficult, which is why the race has plenty of costs.

Iditarod boasts a budget of about $4 million, but it puts up a purse of only $800,000. Where the does the other $3.2 million go? It goes to making the race a reality.

Lowering costs can only help the race over the long run, and finding new ways to raise new funds in the short term would help too because Alaska’s economy struggling and dog driving is under fire Outside.  Both of those influence how much money old sponsors contribute.

All aboard

Fairbanks offers new money-making opportunities. There are businesses in the Interior city that might want to sign on as sponsors if the Iditarod brought visitors north on a regular basis, and Fairbanks presents a second opportunity for Idit-a-riders.

Idit-a-riders, people who bid for seats in the sleds of favored mushers for the Iditarod’s ceremonial start in Anchorage, ponied up almost $250,000 for the Iditarod in 2015. Who knows how much more the race might be able to bring in if it were to offer for bid Idit-a-rides in the “real Iditarod.”

Mushers probably wouldn’t like the idea of hauling a passenger for the first five or 10 miles of the actual race, but it probably wouldn’t be hard to talk them into it to keep the race afloat. And, if necessary to make everyone happy, Iditarod could start the official clock running from the passenger drop off point wherever it wanted to put the passenger drop off point.

There are marketing advantages to a Fairbanks move, as well.

The Iditarod has always pitched itself as something of a re-enactment of the 1925 serum run to Nome. That’s a bit of a stretch given that the serum run started on the Alaska Railroad, which hauled the serum from Seward to Nenana where it was offloaded and started east with the mushers.

But the Fairbanks Iditarod pretty much travels the same route. The Fairbanks Iditarod would have a direct tie to the serum run and all the rich history that goes along with that purely Alaska story of men and dogs coming to the rescue of a remote and isolated community facing disaster.

Protecting the dogs

The serum run connection would also give the Iditarod the perfect excuse to turn the existing ultra-marathon into something more of a stage race. The serum moved up the trail in stages, handed off musher-to-musher along the way.

In the spirit of the serum run, the Iditarod could hold teams in checkpoints for specified periods to make sure dogs get more rest and, most importantly, a chance to eat and digest their food.

A lot of veterinarians are now worried about the pace of the race. Three dogs died in the pack chasing Mitch Seavey as he set a new Iditarod record of 8 days, 11 hours,  20 minutes, 16 seconds this year.

None of the deaths have been linked directly to the pace of the faster-than-ever Iditarod, but plenty of vets are talking privately about their concern for dogs reaching the Bering Sea coast having burned up most of their body fat.

Everything is fine with that so long as everything is fine, to paraphrase the words of the legendary Alaska musher Hudson Stuck, the author of the 1914 book “10,000 Miles with a Dog Sled.”

The vets, however, worry about what could happen if a bunch of skinny, thin-coated dogs get caught in a big, coastal storm as has happened in the past. And there are now a lot of thin-coated dogs in the race. Mushers have gravitated to them because, somewhat ironically, heat build up is one of the greatest detriments to canine performance even in the cold of the 49th state.

Many of the dogs of today need coats to protect them from windchill and to help reduce the calories they need to burn to maintain body heat when the cold turns extreme. One former musher also expressed the opinion some mushers might also be putting coats on dogs coming into Nome, even if coats aren’t needed, to hide how skinny the animals.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this, either. Skinny is a good thing. A wide variety of studies have shown that animals on calorie-restricted diets – animals getting barely the calories they need to survive – live longer, healthier lives. 

But skinny dogs don’t look so good, and that might turn off the fans the Iditarod needs.

Fan tours

Ah yes, the fans. It is in the Iditarod’s interest to get more of them involved, and it is good for Alaska business to get them in-state to watch the race.

The problem is Iditarod is a tough race to follow north of Shell Lake on the traditional route. You can fly over and look down, but getting on the ground to actually “experience” what it must be like to do the Iditarod is difficult.

Most people simply aren’t skilled enough on a snowmachine to ride one through the Alaska Range. The rivers of the Interior are a different story. They are flat. A new rider could probably start in Fairbanks and make it all the way to Nome.

By the time he or she got to the Kaltag Portage, enough skill would have been developed to get up the few hills with the usually thin snow between there and Nome. Thin snow, for those inexperienced at riding snowmobiles, makes for easier riding than deep snow because it’s harder to get stuck or to tip over.

Deep snow can be a struggle. The south side of the Alaska Range from Finger Lake to Puntilla Lake is notorious for deep snow. The sort of pricey, Alaska-newbie tour Seavey’s Ididaride ran along the trail this year simply would not be possible on the traditional Iditarod course.

Given all of this, Fairbanks has a lot going for it as the new home of the Iditarod, but it also has a few big minuses which is why the race has only gone there in the low-snow years of “global warming.”

Yeah right

Careful readers will note that up until this point global warming has not been mentioned as a reason to move the restart to Fairbanks. That’s because, as retired mushers from the 1970s and 80s argue, global-warming arguments about lack of snow in the Alaska Range look to be largely just a cover for other issues.

Snow in the Alaska Range has always been predictably unpredictable. The south side of the range historically has had too much. Mushers were regularly in danger of tipping off the trail into a tree well and hitting a tree.

The north side of the range historically  had too little snow, if it had any. The Post River country north of Rohn in the heart of the range almost never had snow. That pattern continues to this day.

And beyond Post River, when the Farewell Burn was still the scar of one of the biggest wildfire in Alaska history (it has now regrown), the snow either blew away or formed rock-hard drifts as if on the Great Plains.  And these were just some of the problems.

Suffice to say, the historic Iditarod Trail from Finger Lake up and over the range to Nikolai was one rough, sled-bashing, people-mangling affair. Over the years, for better or worse, it only got easier as the trail was widened, straightened and improved with a whole lot of pre-race grooming.

But there are problems that remain and are likely always to remain, problems that once defined the Iditarod as an adventure but now complicate its new, 21st century life as a “race.”

Decision time

To a large degree, the Iditarod is at a point where it has a choice to make.  If it wants to go the NASCAR route, Fairbanks is the logical place for the restart. If it wants to go back to its original theme of men, women and dogs battling Mother Nature – the image it still markets heavily – it needs to lock itself in at Willow, maybe even move back to Knik, and announce to the world that “this is the Iditarod route, period!

“We don’t care if the ice goes out on the Susitna and Yentna rivers. If that happens, you’ll just have to make some log rafts and paddle across.”

The traditional route is home to the Iditarod’s rich history.  The inaugural race in ’73 was epic.

A busy trail in the early 1900s, the Nome-Seward route once maintained by the Alaska Road Common had by then been long gone back to nature by the ’70s. The roadhouses which had existed every 20 miles along the trail were lost in time. The country was as wild as it had ever been. The lack of infrastructure created problems.

Some of those problems still exist to this day.

For those who have traveled the trail, the Iditarod is defined by the challenging terrain of the Alaska Range and the foreboding emptiness of  the once thriving, now-deserted Inland Empire between the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers in the cold heart of the Interior.

If you’ve spent time on the trail, thinking of those parts disappearing is enough to bring a tear to your eye.

But most of Iditarod fandom doesn’t care. We live in a time when fake news is everywhere. Most people will believe the “Last Great Race” is the “Last Great Race” as long as they are told its the “Last Great Race.”

The Iditarod can run it almost anywhere in the state and the fans, at least the Outside fans, will be happy. And with American attention spans ever shrinking, it might be better that the race runs on a course that gets it over as soon as possible.

Not to mention that, too, helps the ITC  save a small mountain of money.

Evolution

No one should here forget that the Iditarod has been constantly evolving since day one.

The gear is different. The dogs are different. The people are different. The course is different.

The race originally began in the center of the state’s largest city and ran all the way to Nome on the Bering Sea.

That ended quickly. A rapidly urbanizing Alaska made it impractical to close the bridges on the new Glenn Highway to let dog teams cross the Knik and Matanuska Rivers. So it was decided mushers would race to Eagle River where the first leg of the race would end, then load their dogs in trucks, and rush north to resume racing first from Settler’s Bay and later from Knik.

As the race grew, the traffic problems associated with this exercise grew, and eventually the race restart was moved into Wasilla, just off the George Parks Highway, and staged from the local airport. The dog teams then ran out along a bike trail and a four-wheeler trail paralleling the Knik Road where they turned off onto the historic Iditarod Trail.

These were the best of the good old days when dog teams mushed past a long line of parties that lined the trail from Wasilla to Knik. Those were good times for spectators though the dogs might have felt taunted by the smell of brats, burgers and who-knows-what-else cooking on the barbeques that burned for miles.

Valley development – and more specifically the Valley’s opposition to planning – eventually killed the Wasilla restart. Over time, the Knik Road sprouted intersections every  couple hundred yards or less. Coming up with enough crossing guards to provide traffic control at the intersections became a nightmare.

And when some low snow years came along, offering Iditarod a good excuse for bailing out of Wasilla, it jumped north Willow for the restart. Quick access to the flat surfaces of first the Susitna and then the Yentna rivers made it a good place to start for the mushers, especially the serious ones who didn’t much like being forced to run a gauntlet of crowds.

Willow had more consistent snow, too, and controlling a dog team that just wants to race is a lot easier on snow than trying to harness the tailend of that tornado while rocketing down an icy bike trail.

And now it’s on to Fairbanks.

There is a natural progression here.

The only truly odd thing about it is something pointed out by retired Iditarod musher and former  ITC chairman Bert Bomhoff:

“They’ve made the race far, far easier and less dangerous, yet made the qualification process incredibly more expensive and inconvenient.”
That is odd, but then again it isn’t. One of the Iditarod’s big goals these days is to get the race over with as fast as possible to save money. It wants everyone racing, and racing is all about going as fast as you can go even if you aren’t very fast.
Former Californian Cindy Abbott was the queen of the not-so fast this year. She showed up last in Nome to collect the red lantern with a time of 12 days, 2 hours and 57 minutes.  Her time was fast enough that she would have won every race before 1986.
Clearly, today’s Iditarod is not your father’s Iditarod.

 

 

 

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8 replies »

  1. Maybe you forgot about the “lost boys” in 2016; however, with GPS I guess technically they were not truly lost. As an Outsider that has followed the race for years and donated to ITC, I will not monetarily support a Fairbanks start. It is just plain boring and I do worry about the dogs. Your analogy to NASCAR is spot on. I find it boring, yet Formula I racing is a pleasure.

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  2. Start in Fairbanks, don’t call it the Iditarod. The flavor and actual spirit of the race, phttt. Joe Senior is rolling in his grave. We’ve lost our value system, heritage, sense of history to this new modern genre. And let us not forget about strategy, toughness, the ability to manage a dog team per what is given to you. You leave Skwentna and the challenge begins. Couple hundred or whatever it is to Nicolai, requires a multiple sourced athlete in the dogs and no couch potatoe without a brain for a driver. The trail from Iditarod to shageluk is often not without it’s challenges, nor is going against the wind up the Yukon and while there is always good trail from sulatna crossing to Ruby those long hills can cause one to pause and think. Fairbanks start may be a no brainer on paper, it certainly isn’t the Iditarod. Maybe ITC will have a money making lottery of what the new name would be. Chespening anything gals a lot of dedicated athletes. Ok, I bit hard on this one. Should have never gone to Fairbanks this year anyway. Ask anyone who has intimate knowledge of rainy or ptarmigan. It just added to dumbing up the mushers even more.

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  3. While interesting speculation, it’s hard for me not to feel the sting of condescension in your writing. I finished my rookie run in 2015, a Fairbanks start. To say that my race wasn’t an adventure, that my race wasn’t hard, that I can’t share in the comraderie of the mushers before me seems pretty unfair. Your commentary essentially puts an asterick on my experience.

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    • Alan: almost everything in Alaska is an adventure, especially when winter temps go extreme. congratulations on your rookie run. but do it again over the Alaska Range, and you’ll know what i’m talking about. there’s hard, and then there’s hard.

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  4. Craig, You keep saying the Alaska Range is the “dangerous” route. But seriously, how many miles of the route are actually “dangerous”. As a former (recreational) musher and person that has been on this stretch of trail, I’d say there are two sections where mushers have to be on their game. The Steps and the Gorge. And I would guess the total miles of in these areas where mushers have to be in alert mode is 5 miles or less. 5 miles is a half of one percent of total race distance. Saying the route is “dangerous” because it has half of 1 percent more of the distance where mushers need to slow down … seems to be pushing the definition of “dangerous”. Overall, if you factor in the 120 miles of groomed interstate winter highway down the Su and up the Yentna and beyond, one could argue that in net terms the Willow route is actually easier.

    I’m guessing there will be pressure on the ITC to keep the race going with the Willow start. Money talks. The Iditarod is gold to lodges and tourism along the first 120 miles of the Trail. And the crazy Iditarod parties and thousands of people all along the Su and Yenta during the race generate local excitement for the Iditarod. Fairbanks may be cheaper. But the Iditarod gets a lot more exposure in Southcentral.

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    • Tim: for a skier of your caliber with a lot of experience on the runners of a dog sled? i’d say none of it is dangerous. for some people who aren’t good sled handlers, i’d say that a lot of the trail from Finger Lake to Nikolai can be dangerous. a lot depends on snow conditions. i’ve been on the trail in years with lots of snow on the south side of the range and little on the north side when it was basically a crashfest from Finger to Nik. you could pick up sled parts all along the way.

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  5. As always Craig I love your writing. I think it is a foregone conclusion Iditarod will rarely if ever run it’s traditional route. As I have said before the trail to Rohn was better than ever as long as you bypassed the Gorge. For me it is disappointing but as you say they are at a crossroads and need to make a decision what kind of race they really want. Every year since my last run in 1988 I have followed with interest. This year I just learned who won by accident. Not interested in the new Iditarod. I have a problem with these short haired dogs running as well. The poodle man was banned from running poodles because they were not a northern breed and did not have the hair to protect them during the cold. These new fast dogs are as guilty of this as well. Oh well we are a minority voice on this.

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