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:
- 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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: