All eyes on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race are focused on the condition of the trail in an Alaska winter characterized by little snow, an unseasonable meltdown in January and a refreeze that turned the mushy leftovers into hardened ice.
Those factors mean at least two added concerns for the 70 mushers signed up for the Last Great Race. Has the thin snowpack allowed for enough quality training time before the ceremonial start in Anchorage on March 1? And what changes to plans will the mushers have to make if, instead of restarting as usual in Willow on March 2, the Iditarod Trail Committee decides to restart in Fairbanks on March 3?
Organizers said they will decide by Monday if the restart will move north to Fairbanks for the first time since 2003 and only the second time in the race's history.
The trail's year-to-year quirks are always a topic of conversation, but this year the situation seems particularly unusual, Iditarod director Stan Hooley said.
"When people ask me the question, 'Well, what's the trail like?' my response, generally is, 'Which hundred mile section do you want to talk about?' Because you really have to break it down and analyze it in that way," Hooley said Friday. "But in an overall sense, certainly in my 20 years, this is as strange as things have ever been."
Down the trail from Willow, glare ice on river crossings is a major concern, Hooley said. He said the trail committee may decide to enlist the volunteer help of Dave Cruz and his Palmer-based Cruz Construction to have a heavy-duty groomer churn up 60 to 65 miles of ice and hard-packed snow into something softer. That depends on whether ice on the Susitna and Yentna rivers is strong enough to support the equipment. A group will be drilling over the weekend to sample the thickness where the trail crosses the rivers, Hooley said.
Heading through the Alaska Range into Rainy Pass and on to the Nikolai checkpoint, there were reports of more ice, with deep ruts in places, and little or no snow. Keeping dogs safe and sleds upright on the winding, icy, steep parts of the trail, like the Dalzell Gorge, is on the minds of some mushers. As it stands now, braking or planting a snow hook would be difficult, Hooley and others said.
Trail checkers for the Iron Dog snowmachine race also reported open water on creeks and rivers they had to skip across. Hooley said recent cold weather should heal up those areas and building temporary bridges could solve the problem.
"I don't think we've seen an area with open water that we can't look at and say, 'We can fix that,'" he said.
By the end of the week, weather around the Alaska Range was cloudy and snow was in the forecast, even if it was just a little. According to the National Weather Service, scattered snow showers could bring 2 to 4 inches of snow to the region in the next week and temperatures were expected to stay cool.
After that, it's anybody's guess.
"We could definitely use more snow. Even a few inches would make a huge difference," said Steve Perrins II by phone from the Rainy Pass Lodge, which his family owns and operates. "Most of the trail is still doable, I'd say, but there are a few spots where there's open water and hard, frozen ground. That frozen ground could be hard on the dogs' feet."
Perrins and his family, as much as anyone else, were waiting for an answer on the restart location. They make a huge investment each year to be ready for the influx of visitors the Iditarod brings, Perrins said, and a course change would cause the race to bypass them. The extra supplies would become an unnecessary expense, and the scheduled visitors might cancel their bookings and ask for refunds, he said.
"It is a pretty spendy thing," Perrins said.
Restarting in Fairbanks would require a new set of checkpoints: Nenana, Manley, Tanana, then to Ruby and Kaltag. Data for run times between those checkpoints only exist for the 2003 race, under weather and snow conditions for just that one year, making the 2003 information much less valuable than the decades of numbers for the traditional route.
That could even the playing field, said returning 2013 champion Mitch Seavey, who has run the Iditarod 20 times. A restart in Fairbanks might have less effect on mushers with fewer runs on the normal Iditarod Trail, Seavey said. The flip side to that notion is that many years of mushing dogs -- on a variety of trails, not necessarily the Iditarod in particular -- stills gives an advantage to the more-experienced mushers, he said.
"If somebody can adapt, it's going to be me and maybe the rest of the older veterans," Seavey said. "Obviously you have different checkpoints, and different distances, and a different type of terrain, so absolutely it changes a lot of things."
"Different ways to win, man," he said. "The more obstacles there are, the more ways there are to beat other people."
One of those that Seavey is most competitive with is his own son, Dallas Seavey, the 2012 champ and the youngest person to win the Iditarod. While both men said they do not discuss their race plans with each other in any detail, the younger Seavey had similar thoughts about the possibility of starting the race in Fairbanks. Such a move could "rewrite the script," Dallas Seavey said.
"I have to plan for both ways. It really doesn't matter to me either way," he said.
Iditarod strategy is all about choosing from a set of options and making decisions based on different variables as they change throughout the race, Dallas said. Storms, rough trails, high or low temperatures -- many different things affect the race and can put mushers into a "scramble" situation, and that includes uncertainties about a relatively untested trail, he said.
"It's going to come down to making judgement calls on the move," Dallas said. "What is normal on the Iditarod? Every year is extreme in one way or another. That's exactly what the Iditarod is. It's dealing with the unknown."
At least one veteran musher has a strong opinion in favor of moving the restart to Fairbanks. DeeDee Jonrowe, running the race for the 32nd time this year, said she was worried about the dogs' safety on icy terrain and areas of open water. Teams tend to run faster on ice, sometimes to their detriment, and the rougher icy sections will take their toll on the dogs, the sleds and the mushers, she said.
"If we have a safe option, and we know we have a safe option, we ought to take that. It's not about how tough a trail you can run, it's about what's right for the dogs," Jonrowe said.
Jonrowe said she will also pick her team depending on which route they run. A hard trail surface typically wears down bigger, heavier dogs, so Jonrowe would use smaller females if the race stays on its normal track through the Alaska Range, she said.
Planning food drops has been difficult, said Jonrowe, who turned in hundreds of pounds more than usual in case the restart location changes.
"It's a challenge to get your food drops right when it might go one way or the other," she said.
The Seaveys both said they were able to find good snow not far from home but had taken trips north for training runs off the Denali Highway. Jonrowe had done the same but said the cancellation of some mid-distance races had hurt her team's training. And poor trails from warm weather heading into the new year meant she was unable to go on the longer runs she would have liked to log, Jonrowe said.
The early training went well, and the dogs look good now, but as Jonrowe said of the rest of training season, "This one's a little awkward."
Iditarod rookie Lisbet Norris, who has continued to work at her family's feed store in between race preparations, said the limited terrain and ice on the trails she uses in her part of Willow caused her to take fewer dogs on each practice run. With the sled already flying along the ice, it seemed dangerous to train with a larger, faster team, she said.
"It's a numbers game with the dogs. I wasn't able to take out as big of teams as I ordinarily would've been able to," Norris said. "Like it was really only safe to take out six-, seven-dog teams. And I work, I only have so many hours in the day, so I had a hard time getting out all the dogs that I needed to get out."
That can be a problem for any musher with a day job, said Hooley, the Iditarod director. Because of the lack of snow, some mushers had moved their operations, if only temporarily, he said. But work commitments kept others tethered closer to home, Hooley said.
"That's a hardship," he said.
Norris, reached on her cell phone while giving her dogs a snack on a 40-mile run, said her family had pitched in to give her enough time away from the store to run dogs. Two weeks out from the race, when full-time mushers like the Seaveys were thinking more about strategy and staying healthy than training dogs, Norris was putting in the last hours and days getting her team ready.
That, and getting herself prepared for her first 1,000-mile race to Nome.
"I'm just trying to get my head screwed on straight," she said.