FAIRBANKS—Seventy-eight mushers and about 1,000 sled dogs are on the trail to Nome in this year’s Iditarod, a race across Alaska that was moved north due to a lack of snow along its usual route.
The staggered start usually takes place in Willow the day after a ceremonial ride through Anchorage. Dangerous trail conditions in the Alaska Range forced the official start to move north to Fairbanks for only the second time. In Anchorage, it had been wet, warm and slushy.
The route change reduced the number of checkpoints early in the race and added checkpoints at the villages of Tanana, Huslia and Koyukuk.
Mushers and handlers driving the 365 road miles from Anchorage to Fairbanks Saturday night and early Sunday got a taste of what many of them had missed all winter: Snow slammed a large section of the Parks Highway north of the mountains late Saturday, sending motorists into ditches.
None of them had quite as harrowing experience as Eureka musher Brent Sass, who finished first in the Yukon Quest, another 1,000-mile sled dog race in mid-February. As Sass started to ready his team in Fairbanks early Monday, not in a hurry as he was heading out 71st, he described how the lug nuts had failed on his dog truck just after getting through the storm, and the wheels had come off a little past Cantwell.
“They literally fell off the truck,” Sass said casually. “But we made it. We had some help from other mushers.”
Sass, with the truck sitting repaired behind him, thanked his dad for staying to get it towed and fixed while fellow mushers Curt Perano and Brian Wilmshurst got Sass and his handlers to Fairbanks.
“You can’t let that slow you down. It was an adventure, and we made it,” Sass said. “It was just like out on the trail, other mushers coming up behind you.”
Despite the mishap, the stars may be aligning for Sass in his third Iditarod: He’s rested, he has a proven, champion-caliber team and the advantage that more-experienced Iditarod mushers have on trail knowledge might be minimized by the change of race course.
Denali musher Jeff King, a four-time Iditarod champion who is running the race for a 25th time, admitted some of the more technical and steeper parts of the trail had been eliminated. Still, he said, there are mistakes mushers are bound to make, like running their dogs too fast in what is a long-haul endurance race.
“It has the potential to be a fast team’s race,” King said. “But the other time we did this, there were a lot of scratches. It’s so easy to go too fast on easy trail. The deception is there’s no hills, no trees, and you have the potential to wear them out.”
Even heading to the starting chute, volunteer handlers had to pull back hard on the leads while the mushers had extra bodies on their sleds holding them back.
The teams, some dragging a handler or two, made their way to the starting chute past hundreds of Fairbanks race fans along both sides of the trail, alongside a fence, many snapping photos. Buses brought schoolchildren who had not been born the last time the Iditarod started in Fairbanks, in 2003. A class from University Park had a bonfire while Fairbanks resident Mark Weber cooked hot dogs on a barbecue.
“This is a good place to be,” Weber said, holding up his hands to warm them with the grill.
Staff writer Casey Grove is the News-Miner’s Anchorage reporter and will be heading out on the Iditarod trail. Contact him at 907-770-0722 or follow on Twitter: @kcgrove.