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Poor trail conditions could reroute Iditarod restart to Fairbanks

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Posted: Saturday, February 8, 2014 11:00 am | Updated: 10:22 am, Thu Feb 13, 2014.

FAIRBANKS — The Iditarod could be returning to Fairbanks.

Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race officials sent out an email to mushers Friday telling them there is a chance the start of the 1,000-mile race could be moved to Fairbanks because of poor trail conditions in the Alaska Range. Race officials told mushers a decision will made Feb. 17 about where to start the race.

“We do have trail concerns from the top of Rainy Pass to Nikolai,” the email sent to mushers by longtime Iditarod race director Mark Nordman stated. “Because of these concerns, a contingency plan will be used if the Alaska Range conditions are not acceptable. On Feb. 17, a decision will be made whether the Restart will be in Willow or Fairbanks.”

The ceremonial start of the race is scheduled for March 1 in Anchorage and the re-start is set for March 2 in Willow. If the race were moved to Fairbanks, the ceremonial start still would be held in Anchorage on March 1, but the re-start would be moved to March 3 in Fairbanks, giving mushers time to make the 360-mile drive north.

If the start of the race is moved to Fairbanks, mushers would follow the same route they did in 2003, traveling down the Chena, Tanana and Yukon rivers from Fairbanks to Anvik before turning around and backtracking to Kaltag, where they would head to the Bering Sea coast for Nome.

The change would add approximately 150 miles to the trail, based on checkpoint distances listed for the 2003. This year’s race will follow the northern route, which is listed as 975 miles. The distance of the 2003 course is 1,121 miles.

Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King, of Denali Park, said on Saturday he has no problem if officials want to move the re-start to Fairbanks. King said he trusts the judgment of Iditarod officials to provide the safest trail possible for dogs and mushers.

“If they feel the need to change it, then we need to change it,” King said when contacted by cellphone Saturday morning. “We did it once before, and it worked.

“I don’t want to go from the Alaska Range to Nikolai with no snow,” he said. “It’s not safe.”

The start of the race was moved from Willow to Fairbanks in 2003 because of lack of snow south of the Alaska Range, but this time the problem seems to be north of the range, specifically the notoriously sketchy Dalzell Gorge.

“We’ve got some concerns about the trail in a number of areas, particularly from the top of the Alaska Range to Nikolai,” Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley said, referring to about a 150-mile stretch of trail that includes both the gorge and the Farewell Burn, two of the race’s biggest challenges for mushers.

Lack of snow and ice in both the gorge and the burn in what has been an unseasonably warm winter in Southcentral has made putting a safe trail in questionable, Hooley said. The trail through the gorge criss-crosses a fast-moving, half-frozen stream that trailbreakers typically shore up by building ice bridges for mushers to cross, as well as shoveling lots of snow. Hooley said a trail crew will out to the gorge later this week “to see what can be built as far as ice bridges and those kinds of things.”

“A lot of work will be done and can be done, but we really need snow,” he said.

King, who has run the race 23 times and knows the trail through the gorge well, said mushing over bare ground is one thing but open water is another.

Hooley traveled to Fairbanks last week to meet with city mayor John Eberhart and borough mayor Luke Hopkins to talk about the possibility of moving the re-start to Fairbanks.

The biggest topic of discussion during the meeting was where the race would start, Hopkins said. In 2003, the re-start was held on the Chena River in front of Pike’s Landing and teams simply traveled down the Chena River to the Tanana River. This year, the ice in front of Pike’s Landing might not be thick enough to handle all the traffic associated with a re-start, Hopkins said.

“The river is a safety concern,” Hopkins said, noting that the start of the Yukon Quest was moved from the Chena River to Second Avenue in downtown Fairbanks because race officials didn’t trust the river ice.

The race likely still would start in the area around Pike’s Landing if it were moved to Fairbanks this year, but it might not be on the river, Hopkins said.

“We discussed a couple of routes,” the borough mayor said. “If the river ice isn’t better, then they’ll start on land and run on land until they get down near The Pumphouse (restaurant) where it’s safer. That’s the expectation at this point.”

Hosting the Iditarod re-start a second time would be “a great badge” for Fairbanks, Hopkins said.

“We basically told Stan to let us know as soon as they can,” the mayor said. “The last time, they were working all through the night to get ready. This time, we have a little more time to get ready.”

Iditarod officials notified mushers Friday to give them a chance to adjust the supply bags they ship to checkpoints along the trail, Hooley said. The bags contain dog food, booties and other equipment mushers need for the race. Mushers must drop their supply bags off to be shipped out to checkpoints this week.

In the event the race start is moved to Fairbanks, bags meant to be shipped to Iditarod checkpoints that will no longer be part of the trail between Willow and Ruby will be sent to checkpoints between Fairbanks and Tanana and Kaltag and Anvik. The email sent out to mushers Friday included a list of checkpoint distances for a Fairbanks to Nome route and a description of where supply bags for checkpoints that would no longer be part of the route would be sent instead, allowing mushers to pack accordingly.

The first few checkpoints on the traditional Iditarod route are much closer together than on the alternate route. It’s 75 miles between Manley and Tanana and 120 miles from Tanana to Ruby, which is 30 miles longer than the longest distance between checkpoints on the traditional route.

“I think this will cause a few of the mushers to put a little more in their first half (food) drops,” King speculated.

 Whatever happens, King said he’s just happy the race will go on.

“I’m just glad there will be an alternative,” he said. “I wouldn’t want it to be canceled.”

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.

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