Fast Great Race

aaron burmeister

Iditarod race leader/Wikimedia Commons

News analysis

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race roared through the Alaska Range on Monday with its old title fading in the slipstream.

There is little doubt now that thanks to modern technology the iconic 49th state event that long ago branded itself “The Last Great Race on Earth” has morphed into “The Fast Great Race Across Alaska.”

Gone are many of the challenges that led London Daily Mail reporter Ian Woolridge to the last-great-race conclusion in 1977. He nailed early Iditrod. Eight years after he enshrined it with the label, a snowstorm stopped the race short at Puntilla Lake because snowmachines couldn’t break the trail open ahead to Rainy Pass.

There was some talk of mushers putting on their snowshoes and beating their way across the Happy River valley to the pass and the remote Rohn checkpoint on the other side as had happened in some earlier Iditarods, but there is no evidence to record that anyone actually gave that a try.

Now, Iditarod oldtimers joke about how they wonder if some of today’s racers even know how to put on their snowshoes, which remains required gear even if never used.

Early spin on this year’s race was, as Alaska Public Media reported it, “‘patience’ as teams navigate deep snow along much of the trail.” Reporters who’ve never actually been on the trail ate it up.

The New York Times picked up the Reuters story quoting race director Mark Nordman proclaiming “the snow in many places is well over my head.”

This is often true of the untracked snow on the south slope of the Alaska Range. It’s a snow zone. Moisture-laden storms rolling north across the Gulf of Alaska and pushing toward the state’s vast Interior collide with the cold mountain air and dump lots of snow.

Not so wild Alaska

The thing is that the Iditarod doesn’t cross untracked snow anymore. The race, or at least the front of the race, travels on a packed trail with a snowmachine, or a team of snowmachines, in front of the first dog team.

This doesn’t exactly make for an interstate highway, but it’s infinitely better than beating a path across miles and miles of white nothing.

Deep snow might slow the human-powered Iditarod Trail Invitational, a fat-tired bike, foot and ski race that took twice as long to cross the range to McGrath this year as last year. But the ITI racers don’t have the crew of trailbreakers in front of them that Iditarod mushers do.

Nenana musher Aaron Burmeister led the Iditarod into the log-cabin Rohn checkpoint in the heart of the range shortly before 8 p.m. Monday. Despite all that snow, he was less than two hours slower than Nicolas Petit of Girdwood last year, and less than an hour slower than Ryan Redington from Knik in 2018.

Snow might have slowed the race leader a bit, but it was just a titch. And now the race appears headed onto faster trail.

Here’s the thing about the snow trails anywhere: when it’s cold and they are disturbed, they set up. They’re a little like concrete. It comes out of the cement mixer as a slurry and sets up like rock.

Snow trails don’t become that solid, but they often become firm enough to walk on.

When disturbed mechanical, then allowed to set, it undergoes a process known as age-hardening,” notes the U.S Forest Service’s “Snow Avalanches: A Handbook of Forecasting and Control Measures. “This process results in a gradual hardening of the snow for several hours after it is disturbed.

“The process is more pronounced at lower temperatures.”

North of the range, the temperature on Monday night was pushing toward 25-degrees below zero.┬áThe Iditarod front runners couldn’t have asked for a much better scenario.

Almost everything seems to be going in their direction now. The forecast through Thursday in Central Alaska calls for mostly clear or partly cloudy skies with daytime temperatures pushing near zero or above and night temperatures dropping to minus-15 to minus-20.

These are near ideal conditions for the speed teams of today’s Iditarod if a dog driver can get on a schedule where the dogs rest in the warm sun of the day – when they rest best – and run through the moonlit night.

The moon was full tonight and will slow begin to wane in the days ahead as the race moves north. The stars are aligning for the Daytona 500 run the top Iditarod contenders now wish for the race to be.

As for the dogs, who knows what they think. This is what they have been bred and conditioned to do. They run the way Pavlov’s dogs salivated over food. Left to their own devices, they might run until they dropped.

Thus the task facing the top Iditarod drivers running on the NASCAR track of these times is not making the dogs run, as Iditarod critics like to charge, but knowing when to make the dogs rest. And in that sense, Iditarod has become just like NASCAR where it doesn’t matter how fast you run the early laps if you run out of gas before crossing the finish line.





7 replies »

  1. My team once went 2,500 miles without a single trail, sometimes deep snow, sometimes rugged, piled up ice, sometimes broken thin ice, lots of storms. It can be done, just takes longer.

  2. What do you know…Jim Lanier was stuck with his dogs freezing and needed ANOTHER rescue?
    No one could have predicted that.
    “Eventually, his handler called Rainy Pass Lodge, saying the stop “was not part of his race plan,” and triggering a rescue operation…
    Steven H. Perrins, who had stayed at the lodge while his son went out to look for the musher, said it was clear Lanier had run into other problems out on the trail after the attempt to return to Rainy Pass Lodge.”

    • can we really call Steve Perrin driving out to get him a “rescue operation?” i once lead a whole pack of stuck teams through Rainy Pass with the snowmachine. it wasn’t a “rescue mission.” it was what you did back in the day.

      same for chasing off the moose that wouldn’t let Aaron Burmeister pass when he was a young musher.

      rescue suggests someone is in serious trouble and that extraordinary efforts are required. Lanier might have been uncomfortable and stuck behind a dog team that gave him the finger, but he wasn’t in any real danger.

      this was more a recovery mission.

  3. As he has been since the days he gained a good understanding of Iditarod, Craig is the most knowledgeable race writer to have ever analyzed and reported on the event. Regarding the trail, I find it humorous when folks decry snow machines breaking the trail claiming that in the first races we lacked that amenity. Do they think dogs are capable of flitting over a fluffy surface like Santa’s reindeer? Without trailbreakers, it would have been the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Slog, with everyone saying, “You first, my dear Alphonse.”

    Teams in the early years of the Iditarod Gold Rush often took as long as five or six weeks to make the distance to or from Iditarod, something racers now smoke short of a full handfull of days. One of the “Gold Train” hauls of Bob Griffis, superintending Wells Fargo Express’s transport of Miners and Merchants Bank of Iditarod gold out for ocean shipment to West Coast vaults, reported bucking six-foot drifts and some days battling to cover but two miles.

    While there’s something about all today’s manicuring and repeated regrooming of the race trail that goes against my grain as non-traditional, something I bring myself back to is that no matter what they do with machines, there is no way to put in a trail as they must today working from the top down, that can ever equal the trails of gold rush days pounded in from the bottom up. Back then, when each snowflake was yet fresh with full moisture content and pristine geometrical integrity it was immediately packed. Trail traffic was so heavy in Iditarod’s heyday that a flake could barely find its place on the ground before a dog foot, sled runner, mukluk, or snowshoe came along. November 1911 saw some 125 teams pass through Knik bound for Iditarod, and many more travelers went by foot than by dog team. Some super hikers like Cadwalder reported making up to 40 miles a day by shank’s mare, only possible over a hard-packed trail. As Orville Lake once phrased it as we discussed the difference in trails of old and today’s, “Rod, nothing packs a trail like dogs’ feet.”

    Sorry, lotta rambling here, but from the first, we always had a trail broken ahead by snowmachine. I liked the old days before it became Nascar, but although on the early races by the time you got there the packed bottom might have been knee deep under the surface, we always had a packed base down there somewhere below.

    • There is no argument about the durability of trails packed in from snowfall one. They hold up better and last orders of magnitude longer than fresh trails.

      And I remember those lost beneath the snow trails. Jim Lavrakus and I once broke from Puntilla past the Happy River crossing on skis in knee to thigh deep snow. You cannot believe how happy we were a couple of snowmachines showed up breaking from Rainy Pass back to Puntilla.

      Those were the days before Irod built nice bridges in the Dalzell, too. Instead somebody cut a bunch of brush, threw it down in the creekbed, and the teams ran over it. I remember a couple of the holes being a bitch to get out of for a person on foot.

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