Wasilla may be dubbed "Home of the Iditarod," but for the third year in a row, it will not host next Sunday's restart of the 1,100-mile sled dog race to Nome.
Poor snow conditions have once again led Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race officials to move the restart 30 miles up the Parks Highway to Willow, where better winter conditions exist.
It is the seventh time since 1994 that the restart has been held someplace other than Wasilla, the traditional home of the restart after the ceremonial start the day before in Anchorage. In 2003, lack of snow caused the restart to move to Fairbanks for the first time.
Last year, the race began in Willow too.
Dog safety was the overwhelming factor in the decision, Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George said. Thin snow covers trails from the Wasilla Sports Complex, where the restart was to be staged, and along Knik-Goose Bay Road, which the Iditarod trail parallels before it crosses Knik Lake.
"We might be able to get one or two teams through safely, but 79?" St. George said.
The restart is scheduled for 2 p.m. March 6 on Willow Lake. Parking is across the Parks Highway from Willow Lake, and shuttle service will be available from Wasilla, St. George said.
Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser of Big Lake said he didn't think there was enough snow in Wasilla. Mushers would be riding their brakes much of the time, especially on the stretch along Knik-Goose Bay Road, as teams ran near fans and over road crossings.
"It'd tear the trail down to nothing," he said.
Iditarod veteran DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow said the deal breaker is if there isn't enough snow to firmly set a snowhook, a large, clawlike device attached to a rope that mushers use to stop a team. If a dog becomes tangled, say, and the musher can't stop the team, an injury can occur.
"The only time you need to stop a team is when you're in trouble," she said.
Wasilla-area businesses will certainly take a hit, said Wasilla Chamber of Commerce executive director Cheryl Metiva. Thousands make the drive from Anchorage for the restart, eating in local restaurants and spending money along the way.
"With the restart in Willow, people gas up and drive through and go right on back," she said. "When the restart is in Wasilla, people come and make a day of it here. They buy food here, a picnic lunch and gas up."
Others come from across the world to stay in Wasilla hotels for the event. While that likely won't change, Metiva said, "it is a whole different experience when it happens in Wasilla. We feel it as a community.
"But it's not the Iditarod's fault," she said. "There's not much you can do about the climate."
The traditional party spot on restart day is the Knik Bar, located on Knik Lake and near the homestead of Iditarod founder Joe Redington Sr. Mushing fans cram inside the old saloon to sip pints and order burgers and listen to Hobo Jim sing and strum his guitar.
Hobo Jim will still be there, bartender Debbie Penniston said, but it's not the same without dog teams running by.
"It's a big celebration, it's historical and it's the first checkpoint," Penniston said. "It's good karma, a good time, a true Alaskan experience. In Willow, I can't see it being the same. But you gotta do what you gotta do."
Metiva also pointed out that it's been some time since the Tesoro Iron Dog snowmobile race has run through Wasilla. Last year, it started in Fairbanks and ended on Big Lake. This year, it started and ended on Big Lake.
"We're the home of the Iditarod and the Iron Dog. That's kind of like our claim to fame," she said. "It'd be nice to see them here."
Daily News sports reporter Ron Wilmot can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-907-352-6712.