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Into the storm

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.”

By midday, the temperature in Shageluk – the very next checkpoint – had climbed to 35 degrees, and the rain had begun, according to the remote weather site there. 

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.

Though the temperature at Iditarod was pushing near 30 late on Monday night, the dew point remained in the 20s.

Farther to the west in village of  Anvik on the Yukon River, another Iditarod checkpoint, the temperature had climbed to 34 degrees and it was raining, but the dewpoint remained below freezing.

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.

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21 replies »

    • Those are really nice rigs. A friend hooks a couple of his dogs to one to pull his moose out each year over the dry tundra and brush off the Denali Hwy. I’m surmising you are suggesting that if a snowmachiner pulled one it would smooth out the mess the paddle tracks make. As we both know though, a hard trail the paddles tear up followed by smoothing over, will take a few undisturbed hours to return to the set-up quality of the original hard trail. BTW, that 10′ X 42″ model would be the cat’s meow for caribou hunting off the haul road north of the Brooks where rifle hunters need to be at least 5 miles from the road. (The manufacturer oughta give me a commission for that one.)

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    • I hate paddletracks. My ’95 Skandic 20″ widetrack has a 3/4″ lug and leaves behind a beautiful pack. The pogo front suspension is not as nice as the newer IFS but the pogo is better for keeping a light frond end for deep powder and tight spaces.

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      • BTW Craig, that ’95 Skandic saved the ski season (with the help of Ben Powell of NSC who designed and built the electric adjustable drag) at Eagle Glacier when the PB was stolen and left under a 40′ snow drift. Had to adjust the carb jet for altitude of course. It performed like a champ. Had to change the carb back or engine would burn up at sea level.

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  1. Looking at ADN, you can see the Media needs the ITC as much as the ITC needs the Media.
    I am not sure who is the Host and which one is the Parasite, but you can tell ALL the “Wag the Dog” stories are much better than reporting on Wars in the Middle East or Trump’s failed International Policies…
    Please tell me again why we put dogs through this “Run to the Death” every Spring?
    What is gained for humanity in the End?

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    • Hi Steve,
      Like I’ve encouraged, you and I should get together. While we might not totally agree, at least you’d get the “why” answered by one who was there BEFORE the Iditarod began, knew first hand the three spelled-out goals for creation of the race and was part of helping them succeed. I do admire your passion for the dog’s wellbeing.

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      • Rod,
        Probably best to shoot me an Email, then we can exchange numbers and see if our paths can cross.
        (steve.stine@yahoo.com)
        As far as Irod goes, we are on opposite sides of the debate…
        Which is fine, but not sure what we can do to help the dogs (who must be hot as hell out there).
        I was impressed to see 10 protesters turn out this year at the start in Anchorage, yet no media up here reports on this.
        Only 1 out of the 10 protesters were from out of state and 1 person was a “lifelong Alaskan” who feels she was lied to for many years.
        There are more protests planned for later in this week at Chrysler by Alaskans (you can see this on FB site Humane Mushing).
        My concern is that nothing is changing and the Media seems in bed with Irod and the Yukon Quest.
        Like why did no reporters speak of a past Irod musher who ran her dog to death on the Yukon Quest this year?
        Misha’s dog died of Aspiration Pneumonia just like Katrin Keith’s dog died last year in Irod…
        Lots is hidden by media lights in AK and has been since you ran the first race, which I hear had the most dogs die…
        The more things change, the more they seem to stay the dam same way in AK.
        Have a good day.

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  2. In windy and snowy conditions, following close behind trailbreaking machines is advantageous even though the trail is soft. In still, clear, below freezing conditions, the best trail is one left untraveled/undisturbed for a few hours to “set up.” The old snowmachine tracks left the best trails. Today, a nicely set-up trail has its surface chewed up by modern tracks with paddles. Probably, tourist groups running the trail do not realize the damage they may be doing in certain conditions. I recall John Baker’s conversation with me a few years back talking about how much such “paddle chewing” hampered front-runners coming after snowmachine travelers..

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