Iditarod start stays in Willow despite safety worries

Casey Grove
A sled dog team in the chute of the Iditarod race start in Willow, Alaska, on March 3, 2013. reader submitted photo
A dropped dog is picked up by the Iditarod Air Force in Nikolai in March 2013.
Bill Roth
Musher Anna Berington, left, pulls her dog team up to the start line as Jessie Royer, right, talks to her leaders during the Iditarod Restart in Willow on Sunday, Mar. 2, 2013. Sixty-five mushers hit the Iditarod Trail on a 1,000 mile journey across the Alaska wilderness to the race finish in Nome.
Bill Roth
A musher drives they dog team down the start chute across Willow Lake during the Iditarod Restart on Sunday, Mar. 2, 2013. Sixty-five mushers hit the Iditarod Trail on a 1,000 mile journey across the Alaska wilderness to the race finish in Nome.
Bill Roth

The 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will start, in earnest, in Willow as originally planned. Race officials were considering a move north to Fairbanks.

Following the March 1 ceremonial start in Anchorage, the 70 mushers currently signed up to run the 1,000-mile race to Nome will set off from Willow on March 2, Iditarod officials announced Monday. The Iditarod Trail Committee's nine-member board of directors met for about two hours Monday at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla to make the decision, race director Stan Hooley said.

"I think the board was very, and rightfully so, interested in as much detail as we could come up with in terms of the scope of work and the plan of attack to improve what today is a pretty poor trail and transform it into something that, come race day, will look quite different," Hooley said. "It's a lot of different types of work, but all focused on making a safe trail."

Several veteran mushers said Monday they worried about the trail conditions but had faith that the restart decision was made with safety as a priority.

A lack of snow and a January warm-up left trails icy or bare and many people wondering about increased danger to dogs and mushers. Race officials began considering a move in early February. Only once in the Iditarod's 41 previous runnings, in 2003, has the race started in Fairbanks.

The change would have bypassed the Alaska Range and put mushers on a trail following several unfamiliar checkpoints -- including Nenana, Manley and Tanana -- before following the traditional route from Ruby.

But early Monday afternoon, Iditarod officials said the board had decided to keep the restart in Willow. The decision was unanimous, Hooley said, but the discussion preceding it took longer than expected.

The final call hinged on a belief that heavy equipment can grind up about 65 miles of ice into snow down the trail from Willow, in the Susitna and Yentna rivers area. And that work depended on whether the river ice could support the equipment, Hooley said.

Over the weekend, samples showed the ice was thick enough, and grooming is set for a few days prior to the race, he said.

"You really don't want to do it too far in advance," Hooley said. "There's no reason for it to get a couple weeks of traffic before it needs to be used for the race."

Of course, over such a long distance, there are other concerning sections, like the Dalzell Gorge and Happy River steps, but nothing the usual crews of trail workers cannot handle, Hooley said. They'll have to build ice bridges over open water, smooth out ruts and clear brush in some areas, he said.

"If you went up there today and looked at it, you would say, 'You can't run dog teams through here.' We're confident with the work that's planned that those areas can be repaired in a way everybody will be happy with," Hooley said.

Without the powerful groomers working closer to the race's restart point, Hooley said, "it's clear to me we'd be headed to Fairbanks."

"I don't think any of us would have had any problem with going to Fairbanks. Because that community turned itself inside and out to make for a very successful restart in 2003," Hooley said. "We appreciate that mind set, that attitude, that spirit very much."

Asked if Iditarod officials feared criticism during the race for keeping the restart in Willow, Hooley said no.

"I think everyone understands that there is risk to the Iditarod regardless of where you are. There would be risk running the race from Fairbanks. There's risk running the traditional route. I think most people will realize that and understand it."

Big Lake musher Jake Berkowitz, who finished the Iditarod in eighth place last year, said he and other veteran mushers were questioning the decision Monday. Still, Berkowitz said he had always trusted the race officials to make the right call.

"I hope that this year as well they're going to do what they can to provide us with a healthy and safe trail. We don't need a perfect trail, but we do need a safe trail," Berkowitz said. "I've never put my dogs in what I consider danger, and if I get out there and it's as bad as I expect it is right now, I'm not going to ask my dogs to put their lives or my life on the line to finish a dog race. We're going to do what's most safe and healthy for ourselves."

Among the Iditarod mushers with whom Berkowitz was discussing a possible restart change, most, if not all, favored Fairbanks, he said. First-hand accounts from snowmachine racers in the Iron Dog, which follows much of the same trail, reported the roughest trail the racers had ever seen, Berkowitz said.

"I hope Iditarod delivers on their promise for a safe trail. And as of now, Iditarod hasn't let me down before, so all I can do is believe that they're going to put us on a safe trail. But, you know, I'm going to hold them to it," he said. "We're going to be as tough as they come, and we're going to suck it up, but we've worked too hard and these dogs have worked too hard to go out there and not be safe."

Returning champion Mitch Seavey said he was not worried. The race officials, he said, would not have been swayed by any outside pressure to keep the restart in Willow just to maintain tradition rather than safety.

"I just don't worry about it. Whatever's out there, we can do it. As far as the safety of the dogs, that's my concern, meaning that's my job as the driver," Seavey said. "I just have a lot of confidence in the people making this call."

Others, like veteran DeeDee Jonrowe, sounded more apprehensive. The trail could use more snow, Jonrowe said in a Facebook post.

"I must say I am nervous," she wrote.

Wasilla musher Karin Hendrickson, also writing on Facebook, anticipated a bouncy ride: "Will be packing extra large tool kit and large supply of Advil!"

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