As the last of the January rains fell Thursday evening, the board of directors for the world's longest snowmobile race huddled in a South Anchorage warehouse to consider the sorry state of the Iditarod Trail north to Nome.
Reports coming in from along the wilderness route shared by snowmobile and sled dog racers were uniformly bad. From Finger Lake to Puntilla Lake on the south side of the Alaska Range, there were walls of alder that would normally be buried beneath the snow. From Rohn in the heart of the range across the Farewell Burn to Nikolai, there was open water or no snow.
From Kaltag on the Yukon River for almost 100 miles over the Portage to Unalakleet on the Bering Sea Coast, the tundra was so bare that villagers had abandoned travel by snowmachine in favor of their four-wheelers. And from Unalakleet on to Nome, the sea ice was either nonexistent or bad.
About two dozen grim-faced entrants in the 2003 Tesoro Iron Dog 2000 listened to all of this hoping for the best but pretty much resigned to hearing the worst.
They got it.
After a short discussion and some private talks in executive session, the Iron Dog board voted unanimously to cancel the 20th annual running of the 2,000-mile, bone-jarring adventure from Fairbanks to Nome to Wasilla.
"There will be no Iron Dog race this year, ladies and gentleman," board president Curtis Green said. "I'm sorry."
This was to have been a year of celebration for a race that began as a challenge just to get a snowmobile over 1,100 miles of rough country from Wasilla to Nome and grew, as snowmobile technology improved, into a hotly contested race from Wasilla to Nome and back, before spinning off onto a Wasilla-Nome-Fairbanks course to become a major statewide race.
As part of this year's celebration, the $100,000 competition was to have begun in Fairbanks in mid-February and finished a week later in Wasilla, where the idea of a snowmobile competition unlike anything else was born. That isn't going to happen now.
Instead, the Iron Dog will go down as the highest-profile sporting casualty to date in the winter that isn't.
"Gosh dang it," former Iron Dog champ Scott Davis said from Soldotna. "You probably can't print what I really want to say. Just when you think you've seen it all."
Racers were confident that if the Iron Dog got the green flag, at least one team (racers must compete in pairs for safety) could get its sleds around the course somehow. But race organizers said they were worried about injuries, possible environmental damage from running on snowless tundra, and the race's image.
Board member Tom Jensen expressed fears about the race coming under attack from environmentalists if any damage was done to exposed tundra, and he noted that riding conditions are so rough that racers could in places pose not only a threat to themselves but to spectators.
"As a board," he said, "we have a responsibility to our spectators as well."
The board did discuss another postponement of the event, the start of which had already been shoved back a week, but another delay would have put the Iron Dog in conflict with the March 1 start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Iditarod officials say their race is on no matter what.
Iron Dog officials speculated it could take the last-place Iditarod team 18 to 20 days to get to Nome, pushing the start of any late-season Iron Dog back into breakup, though some joked it might be hard to tell that from January the way things have been going this year.
"It was 42 degrees yesterday at Finger Lake with mosquitoes," said board member and former Iron Dog champ Ken Lee.
Finger Lake, on the south slope of the Alaska Range, usually sees temperatures well below zero this time of year. Then again, it usually has snow 4 feet or deeper by now. An Iron Dog pilot who flew over Finger Lake on Thursday on the way back from Rainy Pass said it was raining all the way from there to Wasilla.
It has been that sort of winter all over Southcentral Alaska. The Alaskan Sled Dog Racing Association in Anchorage has yet to get its season started. First there wasn't enough snow on the trails. When the snow cover did finally get thick enough to open the trails, the weather promptly turned to rain.
The trails became icy, slick and sometimes dangerous. Because of that, the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race on the Peninsula was canceled this week.