This story has been updated to reflect new race times and the rain in Anvik
The leaders in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were into and out of the Interior village of Nikolai on Tuesday morning almost two hours ahead of the pace of the record race of 2016, but there was trouble ahead.
A hundred miles up the trail to the west beyond the Kuskokwim River community of McGrath and the ghost town of Ophir, Mother Nature was hammering the low-lying Beaver Mountains and the desolate lowlands of the old Iditarod mining district of Alaska’s Inland Empire with wind, snow and blowing snow.
Along the trail there Tuesday, four fat-tired cyclists at the front of the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) were holed up in the ghost town of Iditarod, having spent about eight hours Monday slogging along a blown-in trail to cover but 15 miles from a public-use cabin near Moose Creek to the Iditarod checkpoint.
Reports on the weather for the trail ahead of them did not sound inviting. Just to the west in Anvik on the Yukon River, the National Weather Service was forecasting “snow and freezing rain between noon and 3 p.m, then rain likely after 3 p.m.”
The forecast for Wednesday looked only slightly better.
The cyclists’ average speed of about 2 mph along the trail on Monday indicated they spent the whole day bike pushing. A remote weather station at Iditarod reported winds of near 20 mph with gusts to 28 mph. The winds appeared to have blown the little-used trail closed.
The stunted black spruce that dots the area does nothing to slow the wind that grabs an loose snow, even if it isn’t snowing, and dumps it in the trail.
The cyclists were without telephone communication making information hard to obtain. Kathi Merchant, ITI race director, said a guided group of Iditarod travelers appeared to be on the trail just ahead of or just behind the cyclists who appeared to have spent a day holed up in the Bureau of Land Management’s Moose Creek safety cabin running out of food with their supply drops ahead at the Iditarod checkpoint.
The Weather Service had issued a “winter weather advisory” for the area that extended west for another 100 miles to the Bering Sea. It was to last through Tuesday afternoon before moderating and warming, not exactly good news for cold-loving sled dogs.
Along with wind, Tuesday’s warning predicted “snow and mixed freezing precipitation. Plan on difficult travel conditions. Additional snow accumulations of two to four inches, with localized amounts up to eights, are expected.”
As potentially problematic as the snow and wind for all travelers on the trail – be they on foot, on wheels or on the runners of a dog sled – were temperatures forecast to climb into the mid-30s as the storm moved east.
Cold is what binds together the snows of the winter trails of Alaska. If they have not been firmly packed, they can come apart when the weather warms, and the 165 miles of trail across the desolation between the old mining community of Takotna in the east and the Athabascan Native village of Shageluk in the west is little traveled.
Fairbanks cyclists Jay Cable, who has ridden this stretch of trail, describes what all too often happens in this seldom-visited corner of the 49th state: “…It soon started snowing, the wind picked up, and the trail got very punchy, so the last few miles took forever.”
Where to stop
Iditaord mushers pulling into Nikolai today will be weighing where best to take the race’s single, 24-hour, mandatory rest stop on down the trail in order to work around the weather.
The choices are not easy. The winds were expected to ease Tuesday evening, and the gang of Iditarod trailbreakers on snowmachines ahead of the frontrunners should be on the way to Iditarod and beyond by then.
But it’s anyone’s guess as to what that the trail behind them could be like with day-time temperature forecast to climb into the mid-30s. If night-time temperatures drop into the 20s, as forecast, and if dew point temperatures remain low, the trail could set up hard and fast behind the trail breakers.
Or it could turn to mush.
The dewpoint is where the relative humidity of the air reaches 100 percent. At low dewpoints, water vapor can turn instantly to ice. Because of this phenomenon, it is not uncommon in some circumstances for Alaska trails to freeze up into firm surfaces even if air temperatures are above freezing.
But when that will happen versus when the trails will get punchy, as Cable put it, is hard to predict. The trail often is best close behind the snowmachines and gets worse with the passing of each dog team, but that isn’t always the case.
Which musher wins or loses this year’s Iditarod could end up depending in part on where that 24-hour stop is take over the course of the next few days. Timing could result in a dog team facing better or worser trail conditions for much of the rest of the race.
From Ophir all the way to Nome, which has been buried in snow this winter, the weather conditions were stormy on Monday. And the Bering Sea Coast forecast calls for more snow through the weekend.
The record early pace of this Iditarod is sure to fall victim.
Not only will fresh snow and possibly punchy trail slow things down, so too those temperatures expected to peak in the mid-30s through much of the rest of the race.
The greatest impediment to the performance of Alaska huskies is the build up of body heat. Because dogs sweat only through their mouths and paws, they don’t dissipate heat well, which is why so many houndish, short-haired dogs are now seen in Iditarod teams.
Dogs that can tolerate heat have a decided performance advantage in warm weather. Dogs that can’t are at a serious disadvantage.
As heat builds up, a 2012 study of sled dogs published in Mammalian Genome noted, dogs experience “an increased heart rate, muscle weakness, dizziness or confusion, rapid breathing, nausea, and vomiting.”
The study was looking for the genes that make some sled dogs more heat tolerant than others. Gene doping might one day make it possible create the perfect sled-dog team for warm weather, but until then about all Iditarod mushers can do is try to get their dogs on a schedule that maximizes night-time runs in the coldest temps and minimizes day-time runs.
As for the cyclists, all they can do now is hope that the trail behind the Iditarod trail breakers, the mushers and the Iditarod trail sweeps packs up firm enough that they can roll because it’s a long push from Iditarod to Nome.