FAIRBANKS - On Monday, mushers will depart from Fairbanks on the race to Nome for just the third time in the history of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on a course that is quite different from the traditional route from Willow.
Gone from the course are the steep and challenging obstacles of the southern part of the trail. They have been replaced by more than 600 miles of almost entirely flat river trail between Fairbanks and Kaltag, where the Fairbanks trail will rejoin the traditional route.
Four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King, of Denali, finished third in 2003 and seventh in 2015, the last two times that the trail started from Fairbanks. He said a different musher could win because of the rerouted trail.
“The Fairbanks start is the right thing to do this year. I have total faith in the Iditarod Trail Committee making sure we have a safe trail. However, it does eliminate the most technical sled-driving parts of the race: the Alaska Range, Dalzell Gorge, and (Farewell) Burn,” he said. “A different person could end up winning the race going this way than who would’ve won the race going the other way because it plays on a different set of skills.”
Norwegian musher Robert Sorlie won the race in 2003, and King recalled that Sorlie did so because he paid close attention to the differences in the trail.
“He really did do his homework and showed us that the race from Fairbanks was a different beast,” King said. “The dogs can run farther when the ground is flat than when it’s steep and mountainous. The same playbook doesn’t work as well.”
King said he is reconsidering his race strategy.
Ken Anderson, a Fairbanks musher who’s run the race since 1999 with a fourth place finish in 2003 and a ninth place finish in 2015, said the flatter race could be a boon to some mushers.
“I think for those of us that are going to haul dogs—which is very few of us—it’ll be an advantage. This is all flat terrain, which is easy pulling for the dogs in general,” he said.
Anderson said some mushers will keep dogs in the sled to keep them rested and pace the rest of the team. He noted that recent rule changes that require mushers to keep dogs and essential gear in the main sled and not in a trailer sled will limit the effectiveness of the strategy.
“With the trail conditions, we all have to deal with the same thing,” he said. “But for some of us using a really unique strategy of hauling dogs, it would be to our benefit more so than if we went the normal route.”
Anderson said one thing is for sure about the Fairbanks route.
“It’s certainly going to be a boring route,” he said. “With none of the excitement of the Dalzell Gorge, the Steps or the Buffalo Tunnels.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.