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Mild weather vexes mushers, skiers

Beth Bragg
Bob Hallinen

This is Bizarro world, not the winter sports world. Dog paddling instead of dog mushing? Water skiing instead of nordic skiing?

It's nearly come to that.

With daytime temperatures in the 40s and nighttime temps seldom dipping below freezing, with rain pouring down and puddles forming, Southcentral Alaska's winter playground has turned into a soupy mess.

Organizers on Thursday called off this weekend's Northern Lights 300 sled dog race in the Susitna Valley, while to the south, race officials are nearing a decision on whether next weekend's Tustumena 200 is a go or not. A decision could be made as early as Monday about the race, scheduled to begin Feb. 1.

Trails at Kincaid Park are barely skiable and the stadium is a mess, said John Christopherson of the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage. Sunday's Pia Classic, part of the AMH Anchorage Cup series, has been cancelled.

Sunday's Skate with the Seawolves, set for Westchester Lagoon, will move indoors. It'll be at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex, where the ice isn't melting.

Meanwhile, sprint mushers and high school skiers remain optimistic -- wildly so, given what's going on out there -- that they can salvage weekend events at Tozier Track and Hilltop, respectively.

"We're meeting tonight to find out what we're gonna do," said John Rasmussen of the Alaskan Sled Dog & Racing Association, which has a Saturday race planned for juniors and a Sunday race planned for senior racers at Tozier Track.

"Yesterday it was icy. Now there's a soft top," Rasmussen said. "In a way that's better, because it doesn't hurt the dogs' feet as much."

Alpine skiers and snowboarders have had marginally better luck. Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood was closed Thursday morning but open for night skiing, although Chair 7 and the Glacier Bowl Express were closed all day. In Anchorage, Hilltop Ski Area in Anchorage closed Saturday due to high winds but has otherwise been open daily.

High school cross-country skiers hope conditions hold up to allow a skate race Saturday at Hilltop. The course for varsity skiers would be an eight-kilometer loop that includes the lighted loop and Gasline Trail, Christopherson said.

"The conditions on the trail are fair right now," Christopherson said early Thursday evening. "The major problem area is in the stadium area near Service High. Some water has puddled up, and we're just going to have to see how that develops.

"There's supposed to be big winds tonight, so we just don't know what we'll have left tomorrow. But we'll see if we can pull this off."

The mild weather, which is expected to continue for another week, could have a serious trickle-down effect, and we aren't talking the drip-drip-drips coming off once-snowy rooftops.

Icy trails and puddling trails make for difficult training for mushers preparing teams for the Iditarod and skiers getting ready for the Tour of Anchorage marathon, the Junior Olympics and other big races. Among the casualties of the meltdown is Sunday's Pia's Classic at Kincaid.

"There's water everywhere," said Meg Stehn of the NSAA. "Apparently we could float rubber duckies at the stadium."

A full field of 50 mushers had signed up for this weekend's Northern Lights 300, which runs from Big Lake to Finger Lake and back -- but even before the race was cancelled, 20 teams had withdrawn, many because poor conditions meant their teams aren't in racing shape.

A full field of 40 is registered for the Tustumena 200. The field includes some of the biggest names in the sport, but it also includes -- as did the Northern Lights 300 -- a number of mushers trying to qualify for next year's Iditarod. Both are Iditarod qualifying races, and losing one or both of them will make it more difficult for rookies to meet qualifying standards.

For skiers eager to ski at Kincaid Park, Christopherson is urging patience. The stadium is in awful shape, and "not very much" of the park is skiable, he said.

"In low points, there are places where the water is flowing under the snow and across the trails," Christopherson said. "It'd be good for people to stay off (the trails).

"It's going to be wrecked for the rest of the year if we can't preserve what we've got right now."

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.


By BETH BRAGG
bbragg@adn.com