Good morning, Iditarod students. Here is your pop quiz for the day: How many miles is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race?
G) None of the above
Trick question. The answer: All of the above.
Nobody really knows the Iditarod's exact length. The Iditarod National Historic Trail, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, is a 2,400-mile system that includes a lot of trails the sled dog race ignores, including a branch from Knik to tidewater at Seward.
That's part of the problem. Which trail do you measure?
Are you counting Anchorage to Nome? Knik to Nome? Willow to Nome? Anchorage to Willow to Nome as the race runs this year from start to restart to finish?
All sorts of distances have been offered up since the race began in 1973. The Iditarod Trail Committee once pushed 1,049 in recognition of Alaska being the 49th state and the trail being at least 1,000 miles long.
The most recent "official'' guide to trail mileage puts the northern route trail distance at 1,112. But that includes 20 miles from Anchorage to Eagle River that wasn't run this year, 29 miles from Eagle River to Wasilla, 14 miles from Wasilla to Knik and finally 52 miles from Knik to the Yentna Station Roadhouse, none of which were run this year.
Deduct those 115 miles, add back in another 35 miles to go from the Willow restart to Yentna, and the distance comes out closer to 1,032 -- which is still more than the first-cut estimate from IonEarth's Global Positioning System.
The high-tech system pegged the distance at 908.5 miles, but Iditarod public relations director Chas St. George said that's just an estimate being refined as tracking devices travel from Willow to Nome in 18 dog sleds this year.
Those tracking devices will record a musher's position along the trail every few minutes. From that should come the most accurate distance yet.
"We're going to learn (the Iditarod's) distance this year," St. George said Tuesday from Iditarod headquarters at the Millennium Alaskan Hotel. Other distances are "just an estimate."
The old, 1,112 mile distance comes from the odometer of a trail-breaking snowmobile. They are not the most accurate measure since these odometers record distance any time the track spins. Get stuck, spend 15 minutes spinning the track trying to get out, and you can go miles on the odometer while never moving.
The length of the trail might indeed turn out to be 1,100 miles, the rounded down ballpark figure everyone has been using for a decade. But there are also reasons to believe the original IonEarth measure might not be that far from the reality.
A Daily News editor who sat down with a map-measuring wheel and carefully followed the trail on its twisting, turning route across the faces of the U.S. Geological Survey maps came up with a distance of 957 miles from Willow to Nome. That measure counted most of the kinks in the trail, but not ups and downs.
Maps are two-dimensional. The Iditarod Trail is very three-dimensional. Up and down distances could add significantly.
If the Iditarod Trail measures less than 1,000 miles, its reputation as "the longest sled dog race in the world" may be in jeopardy. The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race purports to be 1,000 miles.
"No matter where we land here in terms of miles, you still have to go through the same old mountain range," St. George said of the arduous climb up and over Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range.
Trail distances can also grow and shrink depending upon the year and conditions snowmachiners find when they're breaking a trail. Overflow, wind-blown debris or snowless terrain make the Iditarod Trail an ever-evolving route.
"Whatever you get this year won't be the same next year," said Leo Rasmussen, a board member of the Iditarod National Historic Trail.
At 67 years old, Rasmussen counts the Iditarod Trail's distance by the original mail route, surveyed in 1908 from Seward to Nome. But Rasmussen uses just one distance for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which uses two alternating routes to Nome.
"I've always considered Anchorage to Nome 1,100 miles," Rasmussen said. "The rest can just eat turkey."
Ninilchik musher Tim Osmar, who's finished 22 Iditarods but is sitting out this year's race, said he's convinced the Iditarod Trail's distance is no longer than 1,000 miles.
"It's about 945," he said.
On the other hand, Osmar played devil's advocate, questioning the high-tech GPS devices' accuracy. He wonders if the units factor elevation accurately.
"If you're looking straight down on a map, it might be less than 1,000," he said. "But when you're going up and down hills, how does a GPS chart that?"
Clearly, too, the technology isn't foolproof. Along with recording distances, the GPS is also supposed to report the speed mushers are traveling along the trail.
Early in the race, it reported one of them traveling 93 mph.
Find Kevin Klott online at adn.com/contact/kklott or call 257-4335.