FAIRBANKS—The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is coming to Fairbanks for the third time in its long history due to poor conditions on key parts of the route to Nome.
The ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage will take place as scheduled on Saturday, March 4. The restart will get underway in Fairbanks on Monday, March 6, at 10 a.m.
The exact location of the restart is still being determined, local and race officials said. In 2015, the restart took place on the Chena River in front of Pike's Waterfront Lodge.
Local leaders expressed glee that the popular sled dog race is coming north. Iditarod Trail Committee Race Director Mark Nordman said it's bittersweet.
"It's always kind of a mixed bag when you have to leave your traditional trail," he said. "We just appreciate that we can still give the mushers a good event. The hospitality has been great."
With just over three weeks until race day, planning began soon after the announcement on Friday with a major stakeholder meeting Friday afternoon at the Fairbanks North Star Borough. That session included representatives of Explore Fairbanks, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, Alaska State Troopers, Fairbanks Airport Police and Fire, and multiple borough departments, including Parks and Recreation and Emergency Operations.
"It's always great to welcome that fantastic event to our neighborhood," said Amy Geiger, a spokeswoman for Explore Fairbanks.
The race also started in Fairbanks in 2003 and 2015.
The vote by the Iditarod Board of Directors to move the restart from its traditional location in Willow was unanimous. Safety was the main reason cited with too little snow on portions of the trail.
“While some snow did fall east of the Alaska Range over the past couple of weeks, other critical areas along the trail received little snowfall, if any at all, including the trail into Rainy Pass. Additionally, trail conditions leading up to both Ptarmigan Pass and Dalzell Gorge are still considered unsafe at this time for the teams participating in this year’s race,” Nordman said in a news release issued shortly after the decision.
Checkpoints to pass through different villages
Moving the restart to Fairbanks also means a significant reroute of the trail and the involvement of five Interior communities that are not a regular part of the Iditarod: Nenana, Manley Hot Springs, Tanana, Huslia and Koyukuk.
The race will begin in Fairbanks and then run 60 miles to Nenana, 90 miles to Manley Hot Springs, 66 miles to Tanana, and 119 miles from Tanana to rejoin the Iditarod trail’s northern route in Ruby and continue to Galena, another regular Iditarod checkpoint.
From Galena, however, the trail will deviate from the Iditarod trail again. Dog teams will travel 82 miles to Huslia, 86 miles to Koyukuk and 22 miles to Nulato to reconnect with the Iditarod trail for the regular run to Nome.
Elsie Vent, Huslia city administrator, remembers when the Iditarod passed through in 2015. It was 40 below zero the whole time, she said. Sewers were selling mittens and wolf ruffs to the visitors.
Vent said Huslia has dog mushers in residence and a youth sled dog program at the school. She remembers she was so excited when the mushers began arriving in 2015 that she hugged one of them.
"I thought 'Oh my God. I don't even know this guy,'" she said. "We don't have mushers coming through all of the time."
Patrick Moore is president of the dog mushers association and a city councilman in Tanana.
"We'll be ready," he said.
Moore compared the Iditarod with the circus coming to town.
"We try to make sure that the route is marked good into the town and out of the town," he said. "We take care of all of the supplies that come in, find housing for people and deal with transportation. The women in town cook for them. The men in town fix up the community hall so there is good sleeping quarters and a good place to eat with heat and hot water."
Chuck Parker, president of the Manley Hot Springs Community Association, said it's an "exciting affair" when the Iditarod comes through Manley. Preparations have already begun.
"When something needs to be done, we all jump in and go where we are pointed and do what we need to do to get the job done," he said.
Yukon Quest officials, mushers
An official of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, which is underway, said the Quest organization will provide any assistance needed.
"They are our older cousin," said Marti Steury, executive director of the Alaska side of the Quest, which runs between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon. "The Yukon Quest would not exist if it hadn't been for the help from the Iditarod when we were starting out."
Steury pointed out that a lot of dogs run the Iditarod after running the Quest.
"They are still our dogs," she said. "Anything we have is at their disposal."
Quest racer Hugh Neff, who was preparing to leave the Eagle checkpoint for the next leg of the Yukon Quest on Friday afternoon, said the route change for the Iditarod doesn’t make a big difference to him. Neff runs both races but prefers the Quest. He’ll enjoy going through Huslia again, he said. Huslia was the home of sprint-mushing champion George Attla Jr.
Brent Sass had already left Eagle when it was announced that the Iditarod will begin in Fairbanks, but he said last week that he likes when the Iditarod starts in Fairbanks because it goes through his home trails around Manley Hot Springs.
Seventy-four teams are registered for the 45th Iditarod, including last year’s top 10 finishers. Last year's winner, Dallas Seavey, came away with $75,000 in prize money and a new Dodge vehicle.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough. Reporter Sam Friedman contributed to this story.