WILLOW, Alaska -- By 9:30 most mornings here in the world's unofficial dog-sledding capital, Luan Marques has harnessed 10 Alaskan huskies to his sled and shot off into the awakening woods for a training ride, his sights set on the famous Iditarod competition next month.
The thick, powdery blanket of snow on the trails and the frigid temperatures have made a musher haven out of Willow, where locals joke that dogs outnumber humans.
But as Marques rode this winter, he and his huskies trudged over dirt patches and bramble, surrounded by tree branches that once held fluffy snow. Instead of subzero conditions, which are ideal for the sport, temperatures have been in the 30s and 40s.
"It's raining and not snowing," Marques said during a recent training ride, maneuvering the dogs to avoid puddles on the trail. "That's not good."
It has made for a trying winter for mushers. Several Iditarod qualifying events have been postponed, rerouted or canceled because of a lack of snow.
The John Beargrease sled dog race, a trek of some 400 miles in northern Minnesota, postponed its start to March 10 from Jan. 27. In Alaska, the Don Bowers Memorial 200/300, the Sheep Mountain Lodge 150 and the Knik 200 have been canceled. The Copper Basin 300 in Glennallen had to cut its trail for several teams by 25 miles because there was not enough snow at the finish line; the mushers finished the race with their hats and gloves off and jackets unzipped.
"That was crazy with the warm weather," said Zack Steer, one of the race's organizers. "It was such a drastic change from last year, but the trail at the end was dirt. It wasn't safe."
Blake Freking, a musher who trains Siberian huskies on the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota, said he planned to compete in the Beargrease race in January.
"With global warming, it's hard to deny that there are some big changes going on right now," he said. "We're in it. It isn't looking good."
During last year's snow season, defined as July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, Anchorage had 134.5 inches of snow, according to Jake Crouch, a climate scientist with the National Climatic Data Center. This season's tally in Anchorage was 39.2 inches, through Wednesday. North of Fairbanks, another area where mushers train, snowpack is 21 percent of average.
"This is a pretty big deal," said Crouch, who is among the climate experts who attribute the conditions to global warming. He said climate change had resulted in warmer temperatures for Alaska over the last century.
"One of the things we're seeing with climate change is that the high latitudes are experiencing the brunt of it," he said. "They're very vulnerable."
Mushing in Alaska originated with Native American settlers and pioneers who traversed the chilly landmass using dog sleds out of necessity. Canine-powered transit was a practical option for transporting fur, medicine, freight, mail and passengers in the snow.
Even as airplane travel diverted much from mushers' daily business, the culture endured along with the Iditarod trail, which stretches about 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome.
"It definitely has us concerned," Erin McLarnon, a musher and spokeswoman for the Iditarod, said of the long-term effects of the weather. She is among the mushers breeding dogs with thinner coats, more suitable for warmer weather.
The lack of snow especially affects rookie mushers. To qualify for the Iditarod, mushers must complete at least two 300-mile races and additional smaller races to log a total of 750 miles. "There just aren't that many 300-mile races," McLarnon said.
Monica Zappa, a musher based on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, was among those whose first Iditarod was delayed because qualifying events were canceled. She even had to use an all-terrain vehicle for training rather than a sled for a month longer than usual this season.
For the dogs, running on ground that is hard or bumpy "can be like running on a cheese grater," she said.
Most sled dogs run best at temperatures ranging from minus 20 to zero. When temperatures are higher, dogs risk overheating and suffering injuries from stepping on bramble. (Some mushers are using booties as a protective measure for dogs' paws.)
Zoya DeNure, a musher who trains in Delta Junction, southeast of Fairbanks, said she crashed her sled once this season because of bumpy conditions. A 2008 Iditarod finisher, DeNure said three of her training races were canceled this season.
Kelley Griffin, a veteran musher who trains in Wasilla, said the unusual conditions forced her and her fellow mushers to "get creative." With races canceled and the cost of traveling to snowier terrain high, she made her dogs camp outside in her front yard. The dogs sleep just a few feet from their regular kennels, but she hopes it will mimic the experience of the trail.
"It's to get used to camping," Griffin said. "It's not ideal, but it will make for an interesting Iditarod."
Then there's the costly wear and tear on mushing gear.
"I've broken a number of things," said Scott Janssen, a musher who trains in Kasilof and operates funeral homes. (He is known as the mushing mortician.) Rough terrain has meant broken bridles and worn-out sled runners, which can cost hundreds of dollars to repair.
"All the talk about global warming does worry us," Janssen said. "We joke, but there's a big concern about these river crossings."
Back in Willow, Marques recalled a recent seven-hour drive he made with Vern Halter -- an Iditarod musher of 35 years who owns and operates Dream a Dream dog farm, where Marques trains -- to train in Iditarod-level snow.
Marques wove the sled back along the trail to the kennels, where the majority of the 60 dogs here were barking wildly, including Peanut, Mocha, Pencil, Syringe and Book.
"My family thinks I'm crazy," Marques said. "I've always liked the cold, and that's what I came for here. But I guess it's warmer than I thought it would be. Sometimes it's more like an ice-skating rink."
Marques and Bob Storey, an assistant at the kennel, unhooked the dogs from the sled, many giddy after their run. One canine plopped onto the snow to rest, a blanket of brown and black fur, tongue hanging out.
"It's almost like she's sunbathing," Storey said.