Iditarod makes city maintenance crews reverse their roles

Casey Grove

City road maintenance crews began dumping thousands of pounds of snow through the heart of Anchorage late Friday to build the in-town portions of the 20-mile-long course for the ceremonial start of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

It's a welcome role reversal for the city's plow and truck operators who lay down the snow for the Iditarod start, foreman Paul VanLandingham said.

"It's a big deal, I mean it's the Iditarod," VanLandingham said. "To have your name attached to a race like that and be able to build the track, the guys take great pride in doing it. They look forward to it every year."

This is VanLandingham's 15th year on the course set-up crew. Over the years, they've gotten the process down to a science, he said.

The first bit of science is meteorology, said VanLandingham said, who watches the weather throughout the winter to better formulate a plan.

In dry years, the workers have scoured Anchorage's outlying areas to get enough snow, VanLandingham said. This winter has produced sufficient cover, he said.

The purity of the snow matters, too. They take snow from Merrill Field, the municipal-owned airport east of downtown, where it's clear of dirt and rocks, VanLandingham said.

Ahead of race day, the snow is piled in three strategic locations closer to the course. This lessens confusion and make it easier for dump truck drivers to navigate around each other, VanLandingham said.

At about 8 p.m. the night before the race, the plow guys begin performing their jobs in reverse, dumping load after load in the city's streets.

Six to eight dump truck loads are dropped along each city block, for a total of 180 to 190 loads, depending on the snow's consistency and where along the course it belongs, VanLandingham said.

"Obviously, if it's sugary snow and we're having a hard time for it getting a base, we're going to need to put a little bit more snow out there," he said. "If it's a wet, heavier snow, we can cut back on the load count a little bit."

That takes about four hours, he said.

Sometime around midnight, graters begin smoothing the snow. Then a skid-steer Bobcat loader pulls a sled across the course to groom the snow and set ridges, which the dog sled runners will catch.

A second shift takes over at about 5:30 a.m. and puts the finishing touches on the course, said VanLandingham, who monitors the course until the start at 10 a.m.

The whole operation is usually done without incurring overtime, he said.

Estimates from Mayor Dan Sullivan's office put the cost of construction and cleanup at $34,500.

There are also 52 city police officers assigned to the Iditarod who are tasked with shutting down streets and towing cars Friday night and directing traffic Saturday during the race. That costs about $38,000, said Sarah Erkmann, the mayor's spokeswoman.

Once the Iditarod race marshal signs off on the course, VanLandingham watches the first musher take off and heads toward 16th Avenue and Cordova Street, he said. He watches one more dog team mush past the intersection before heading home after a long night, he said.

"It's a good little spot right before they enter the woods there," VanLandingham said. "It's just a place I picked years ago, and that's where I go watch 'em come through."

Reach Casey Grove at or 257-4589.