Trail tales

Reports say it is good now, but things can change fast

March 1, 2008 

Only a week ago, water flowed a foot deep over the Iditarod Trail north of Rohn where the Post River spills out of the aptly named Terra Cotta Mountains to meet the mighty Kuskokwim River, which drains the Alaska Range north toward the village of Nikolai.

Days ago, when racers in the human-powered endurance race called the Iditarod Invitational pedaled their fat-tired mountain bikes onto the same section of trail, they found a smooth, slick, highway of ice, easing their ride toward the Farewell Burn.

Blink twice, it has been said, and the weather in Alaska can change.

That especially applies along the Iditarod Trail, which really isn't so much a trail as a route snaking north 1,100 miles from Knik to Nome. A record field of 96 dog mushers will set off on this route at 2 p.m. Sunday -- a day after the 10 a.m. ceremonial start of the 36th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race downtown today.

Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman is promising the mushers there will be a trail but makes no guarantees as to its condition. Back of the packers can expect especially tough going on the south side of the Alaska Range where the snow is more than six feet deep.

A trail packed by snowmachines across deep snow is fine for the first racers. But each passing team helps cut a slot in the trail by the periodic dragging of sled brakes. Soon, the trail becomes a trench too wide for a dogsled to straddle but too narrow for a dog sled to fit into it.

The result can make for a bashing ride with the sides of the sled taking turns going off kilter as first one runner and then the other drops a foot or more into the trench.

These are the realities of the Iditarod Trail.

Set by snowmachines, the route can be hard and fast one day, a pockmarked mess torn up by traffic the next, and gone altogether beneath drifted snow a third day.

The snow has been blowing and drifting north of the Range for days now with temperatures bitterly low. Nighttime temperatures on the Kuskokwim between the village of Nikolai and the small transportation hub of McGrath dipped to 30 degrees below zero Wednesday night.

Anchorage mountain biker Jacques Boutet, an adventure racer who pedaled to an impressive second-place finish in the Invitational, is a guy who grew up in Fairbanks and has climbed all over Alaska. But Thursday he was cursing that weather and his own inattention to it.

"I got a little frostbite," he said.

Benign as the late-February weather might seem in Anchorage -- with sunny days in the 30s hinting of spring -- it is wholly different a few hundred miles north. Wind chills dipped near minus-50 degrees north of the Alaska Range.

Were Iditarod racers coming up the trail Thursday, Boutet said they would be looking at a hard, fast track.

But, blink twice...

Boutet, traveling companion Dave Hart of Anchorage and Jay Petervary of Wyoming, the first Invitational racer to McGrath, all know how nice the trail can be when it's good -- and how ugly the trail can turn

Early in their race, the trio caught Iditarod trail breakers bogged down on snowmobiles trying to break trail from the Dalzell Gorge down the Tatina River into Rohn. Progress was so slow, Hart said, that a half-dozen cyclists who bunched up behind them started to get chilled in the cold.

The cyclists eventually decided it was better to be tired and warm than cold and rested, so they jumped ahead of the trailbreakers and took turns leading a push-a-bike, trail-breaking adventure through snow thigh deep in places, Boutet said.

Nordman says Iditarod mushers won't have to do that. His trailbreaking crew is ahead of them, and the trail, at the very least, has a bottom in it all the way to Nome.

Village trail crews have also been out working to smooth what was rough trail over the 90-mile Kaltag Portage from the Yukon River to Unalakleet, he said. Though a statewide thaw early in February took a lot of the snow out of the Farewell Burn, it left enough to fill in the low spots between the notorious tussocks there.

Defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey and his competitors will find that to their liking. The Fairbanks musher is seeking his fourth consecutive victory in a sled dog ultramarathon. The string started with his winning the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to Fairbanks last year. He followed that up with his first Iditarod victory and successfully defended his Quest crown last month.

If he can pull off a four-peat, unprecedented wouldn't begin to describe the accomplishment.

But it won't be easy.

Five other past Iditarod champs and some notable Iditarod wannabes are all prepared to battle for the winner's share of a $875,000 purse to be divided among the top 30 finishers. They'll be joined on the trail by 33 rookies, none of whom have much hope of winning.

The race also starts this year free of the animal right's protests that have marked past races. The Humane Society of the United States, which has led those protests, is not endorsing the race but is not actively campaigning against it.

The organization is focused on other programs, said spokesman John Balzar, who once served as a press liaison for the Quest.

"Three to four million dogs are euthanized in America in shelters every year for not having a home; 300 million farm animals are kept in cruel confinement and 75 million animals are killed for their fur alone," Balzar said. "The Iditarod and competitive dog mushing are not one of our programs."

Iditarod officials, mushers and other supporters say huge strides have been made in dog care. And mushers say critics are just wrong when they say the dogs are forced to run.

"No way we can make a dog go a thousand miles by being mean to it," Mackey said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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