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.
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. The 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.