No snow could mean no go for Fur Rondy dogs

Beth Bragg

If Anchorage doesn't get a big dump of snow in the next two weeks, it can say goodbye to the Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship sleddog race.

The three-day sprint race, a staple of Anchorage winters since 1946, is the highlight of the city's winter festival.

But in this snow-challenged winter, there is no race trail to speak of, putting the 67-year-old race in jeopardy, said John Rasmussen of the Alaskan Sled Dog & Racing Association.

"We don't got nothing out there, maybe an inch of snow -- no way we can run on that," Rasmussen said Friday. "There's some places on the bike trail where underneath the bridges and culverts there's no snow at all."

Then again, this is Alaska, where winter can put in an appearance on short notice.

"There's still four weeks to go, and we all know a lot can happen in just a few days here," said five-time Rondy champion Egil Ellis of Willow.

The race has been canceled five times in 67 years because of poor trail conditions, including four times in the last 17 years.

The Feb. 22-24 race is a month away, but a decision on whether to cancel it or not is a little more than two weeks away, said Jennifer Harrington, Fur Rondy's new executive director.

A decision will be made Feb. 10, she said. An Alaskan since she was 5, Harrington knows the situation could easily change before then.

"I think it's way premature to say we're canceling," she said. "We're all anxiously and hopefully watching the weather."

Harrington said Rondy officials met with ASDRA representatives on Friday to discuss their options.

"We have a pretty fun contingency plan," she said.

She wouldn't say what Plan B is because she hadn't yet presented it to Rondy's board of directors, but she said it would involve sprint dogs and it would not be a single-day event.

"One way or another we're going to have dogs at the Rondy," Harrington said. "It's such an important element of Rondy."

The race is the centerpiece of Rondy, three days of sled dogs sprinting 25 miles each day through the heart of Anchorage.

It's also the centerpiece of many mushers' seasons, said Ellis, one of 17 dog drivers signed up for this year's race, which has a purse of $70,000.

"For us it's our No. 1 goal for the whole season, what we're working towards all year basically," he said. "It's the history, the purse, the prestige -- and it's the toughest sprint race you can do, because it's a fairly long distance to travel at high speed.

"That race has pretty much everything thrown at you."

Including, in recent years, uncertainty.

Three of the last 12 races have been canceled due to poor trail conditions, which usually means inadequate snow cover. The most recent cancellation came in 2006, following cancellations in 2003, 2001 and 1996. The 1986 race was also canceled, and the 1994 race was cut to two days because of strong winds.

For its first 40 years, the Rondy race happened with no cancellations.

What this year's race needs is snow, and lots of it.

"If we got a good foot, foot-and-a-half of wet snow, we may be able to pull it off," Rasmussen said. "But it has to come within two weeks, otherwise no way.

"It'd be nice if the trail was easy to work on, but it's a lot of swamp and rough going, and it takes quite a bit of snow."

In a winter that seems to have delivered as much rain as snow, ASDRA has had to cancel every race this season. So has the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association, which for awhile this month was allowing 4-wheelers on trails because of the snow shortage.

Ellis said the hot spot for sprint mushers is 15 miles of trail at Montana Creek near Talkeetna. The Montana Creek Dog Mushers Association canceled all of its early December races but was able to stage the Montana Creek Championships over the New Year's weekend and the Su Valley Championships last weekend. A one-day fun run is being held there Saturday.

"We have our trails in and they're in great shape," Ellis said. "It's the only place we've been training the last couple of months. It's starting to get a little boring, but it's better than nothing."

Some clubs are considering moving their races to Montana Creek, Ellis said.

"Everybody's anxious to race," he said. "There's eight or 10 dog trucks there every day.


Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.