ANCHORAGE — The race clock for the 2015 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will start ticking in Fairbanks, not the usual takeoff point in Willow.
Members of the trail committee’s board of directors met Tuesday and voted unanimously to change the course due to low snowfall in some of the most treacherous sections of the trail’s roughly 1,000 miles.
Similar conditions forced the race’s restart to move from Willow to Fairbanks in 2003, bypassing the Alaska Range but keeping it roughly the same distance. The move to Fairbanks was considered in snow-starved 2014, too, and after the board’s decision kept mushers on the traditional southern route, the bruised and beaten up dog drivers criticized officials for not avoiding what some of them described as a catastrophe.
This year’s Iditarod will be 19 miles shorter — 968 miles versus 987 — than the traditional northern route that teams would have taken in an odd year and will pass through two new checkpoints in the Interior: Huslia and Koyukuk. In 2003, mushers had to backtrack on the Yukon River to make more miles, so the jaunt north to the villages means a snaky yet flowing route that still goes about 1,000 miles total to the finish in Nome.
First, though, Iditarod’s ceremonial start is scheduled for March 7 in Anchorage in an 11-mile untimed trip through the city’s party atmosphere, on streets and trails. Then it will restart in Fairbanks on March 9, a Monday instead of the usual Sunday restart in Willow, to allow kennels enough time to drive dog trucks north 360 miles.
Trail Committee board member Rick Swenson, the winningest Iditarod musher with five first-place finishes, said the Dalzell Gorge coming out of Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range was passable when the board made its decision in 2014 — a week closer to the race than this year — but that it was too dangerous based on the look he got at it Tuesday. The troublesome areas had half as much snow as in 2014, and the bad spots were twice as long, Swenson said.
Swenson and other board members, including Nome musher Aaron Burmeister, flew in a fixed-wing plane Tuesday to a landing strip in the area and flew in a helicopter to hover over the boulders Burmeister said mushers and sleds bounced off of last year. There would be no bouncing in 2015, he said.
“This year, you can’t go through a rock,” Burmeister said. “There’s boulders and rocks that we’ve never seen there in 20-some years that are littering all the gorge, places that you’d never even see a rock because you’re going over feet of snow going through there. This year, you’re looking at bare ground.”
“It’s really unfortunate. It’s a trail that we cherish and we all look forward to traveling through, but we can’t make snow,” he said.
Asked if the Iditarod officials were considering the possibility that low-snow winters would become more of the norm, race director Stan Hooley said they might.
“I think we’re all worried about the weather,” Hooley said. “There’s a pattern that’s developed. And that’s a concern to all of us.”
Race Marshal Mark Nordman acknowledged the blow to communities and commercial ventures along the race’s traditional route. Some invest thousands of dollars to staff and stock lodges, and it is the single biggest annual event in villages and towns, other than maybe Independence Day, and they do everything from holding bake sales and other fundraisers to creating classroom lesson plans around the Iditarod.
The decision to move the restart to Fairbanks was going to be a “huge disappointment” to those people, Nordman said.
On a positive note, though, Burmeister said that the Iditarod had always been about keeping the tradition of dog mushing alive, so bringing the race to Huslia and Koyukuk would be a new and positive aspect for 2015.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said late Tuesday he planned to ask the school district to let students out of school for the Monday restart, likely on the Chena River at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge. Planning also needs to be done to get parking areas set away from the start area and buses to shuttle race fans to the start line, Hopkins said.
“We’re all going to jump into this, because it’s a good thing,” he said.
Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle, the runner-up in the past three Iditarods, heard about the change while waiting in Dawson City for her husband, Allen Moore, who is running the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. She wasn’t surprised by the news after hearing many mushers complain about trail conditions in last year’s Iditarod.
“I thought if any of them had any hesitation, they’d move it,” she said.
Zirkle ran the race last time it began in Fairbanks, finishing 14th. She remembered lots of river stretches and Norwegian musher Robert Sorlie using jackrabbit runs to claim a victory but said she hasn’t given any thought to race strategy during the month that the move has been rumored.
Zirkle said she’s disappointed the Iditarod won’t run its traditional race route but said the move north will likely offer some pre-race advantages for Fairbanks mushers.
“It’ll be easier for us logistically because the dogs can sleep in the dog yard and I can sleep in my bed before the race,” she said. “It’s like Iditarod comfortable.”
Kasilof veteran musher and board member Paul Gebhardt, with seven top-10 finishes, said most mushers he had talked to agreed with restarting in Fairbanks. Gebhardt sits on the board as a musher representative and looking at the bad parts of trail up close convinced him and everyone else there, he said.
“We were in total agreement, all of us out there,” Gebhardt said. “That is the original Iditarod Trail, and we want to go there. But we don’t want to put our lives or our dogs’ lives in jeopardy for entertainment to go down the gorge. That’s not what racing is about. It’s not what dog mushing is about. So it was pretty unanimous amongst the mushers I talked to.”
Staff writer Casey Grove is the News-Miner’s Anchorage reporter. Contact him at 907-770-0722 or follow on Twitter: @kcgrove. News-Miner reporter Jeff Richardson contributed to this story from Dawson City.