Martin Buser mushed a familiar trail to the Little Susitna River only to find an unfamiliar scene: impassable open water.
That was in late January, not during break-up, which typically occurs three months later.
"I forgot my fishing pole," Buser joked on Facebook. "The silvers, the grayling and the trout were safe."
So was the trail from further use until the temperatures dropped and the river froze up again.
Welcome to 2014's winter of extremes, which featured bitter cold then freezing rain and temperatures into the 50s just about everywhere from the mushing hotbed of Willow to the Kenai Peninsula and beyond. With bare ground and exposed fields of hay, state forestry officials even issued a wildfire advisory for parts of the Mat-Su borough -- on Jan. 30.
"Challenging is probably a good summary," Buser, of Big Lake, said of training conditions as he prepared for his 31st Iditarod. "We've encountered a lot of water and a lot of ice. ... And rain."
Not much surprises Buser given his more than three decades of experience, but he expressed continued amazement at how sled dogs handle adversity with aplomb.
"(It's crazy) how well the dogs cope with all those challenges, how incredibly gifted they are with covering ground," Buser said by cellphone from his Happy Trails Kennel after finishing a run in late January.
Case in point: Willow musher Matt Failor titled a Facebook video "Should of made the team pull a surfboard" showing his huskies pulling his sled without hesitation through several inches of slushy water.
"We got our Xtratufs on. The dogs are swimming. It's the middle of January," Failor says in the video.
The adverse conditions wreaked havoc upon the mushing calendar as several races were canceled while others were contested amid slush and standing water, interminable glare ice and a "boilerplate" hard track.
While mushers prefer to train near their kennels, many were forced to truck hundreds of miles north to find suitable conditions on the unmaintained Denali Highway near Cantwell or the groomed Eureka Lodge system off the Glenn Highway.
Buser rode out the rough patches mostly on his home trails. At times he pulled a drag to scratch up the trails when they became so hard that injuring dogs was a concern. He also got creative in other ways.
"We have other tools in our arsenal," Buser said, referring to a treadmill previously used for elephants that can accommodate six canines simultaneously.
Because of a high training volume early this season, Buser said his mileage won't be compromised come Iditarod time.
'RIBBONS OF ICE'
Not so for fellow Iditarod legend DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, who conceded in late-January that she's down on training miles.
"It's been more trying than normal," Jonrowe said of the 2013-14 training season.
Jonrowe, finisher of 29 Iditarods, has dealt with trails that were too soft, too hard and full of so much debris that twice she was knocked off her sled and temporarily lost her team.
"Night runs were especially bad. You'd come around a corner and there'd be whole big systems of big trees down," Jonrowe said. "Then it stayed warm too long. Now (in late January) most of the trails are ribbons of ice that we are beating up with drags."
Despite a training trip to the Denali Highway, Jonrowe still has not logged the necessary mileage -- particularly long runs ranging from 50-100 miles.
She also was hurt by cancellations to the Northern Lights 300 and Tustumena 200 races. The numerous cancellations will also make it tougher for rookies -- who need to accumulate 750 racing miles -- to qualify for the Iditarod in 2015.
Jonrowe anticipates the training struggles in Southcentral will impact some mushers' strategy during the Iditarod and said adaptability will be imperative.
"Anybody that can read their dogs and can adjust strategy (will do well)," she said. "If you stick to a schedule -- now those guys are going to be in trouble."
Mushers from the Interior -- which includes Fairbanks, Two Rivers and Tok -- may have an advantage this year. Their training season, despite a warm spell in January, has been much more consistent, Jonrowe said.
Defending champion Mitch Seavey of Sterling said a key for adequate Iditarod training is flexibility.
Seavey said he's been fortunate that planned heavy training periods coincided with good conditions and planned breaks fell during poor conditions.
"I'm not at all down on miles," said Seavey, who traveled twice from the Kenai Peninsula to Willow and once to Cantwell to train. "Training gets compromised if you do not adjust."
That said, snow is obviously a necessary component for training and in late January there was a dearth of it near Sterling.
"There's minimal snow in some places and the pussy willows are budding," Seavey said.
Anchorage distance mushers, meanwhile, have little choice but to travel given the lack of suitable trails there, not to mention the paucity of snow through most of January.
Scott Janssen lives in Bear Valley and works in Anchorage but heads regularly to his new kennel in Knik. When the trails became marginal in Knik he traveled twice to the Eureka trails for runs ranging from 50 to 80 miles. Joining him there were the likes of Paul Gebhardt, Anna and Kristy Berington, Jake Berkowitz, Nicolas Petit and Ray Redington, among others.
"Actually I'm a little bit up on miles this year and it's a good feeling," Janssen said. "Most of that is because I now train on the Iditarod trail."
Training on less-than-ideal trails inspired Janssen to sometimes follow his team on a snowmachine instead of a sled. That gives him reliable brakes and allows him to hook up as many as 20 dogs at a time, four more than the maximum allowed to start the Iditarod.
Trucking dogs to places such as Cantwell comes with a downside for mushers, many of whom are perpetually strapped for cash.
"Whenever we have to start traveling, the expense goes up substantially," said Janssen, who is among the Iditarod minority with a year-round, traditional job.
The extra cost won't keep Janssen or the others off the Iditarod start line on March 1. What ramifications the tough training have on their journeys to Nome remain to be seen.Complete Coverage: Iditarod 42
By MATIAS SAARI
Anchorage Daily News