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Once snow-starved, Alaska winter races are looking up

Craig Medred
The notorious Farewell Burn on the Iditarod Trail between Rohn River and Nikolai often sees years short on snow. Loren Holmes photo

Update, Feb. 10: Marshals for the 2013 Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship Sled Dog Race announced today that the race is officially on despite recent warm, wet weather.

Just in time for the season of madness along the Iditarod Trail comes the snow that’s been missing much of the winter.

And it may be just in time to help mushers, snowmachine racers, fat-tire bikers, distance runners and other racers who take to Alaska’s most-famed trail this time of year to ply their craft and have been worried about thin snow cover. Those worries faded fast after a National Weather Service warning Friday afternoon. "A large winter storm will move over southern Alaska this weekend," the agency predicted. "Blizzard conditions will develop will persist through at least early Sunday morning." On Saturday the forecast did not improved much, with warnings and advisories covering most of the state.

Jean Gabryszak at the Yentna Station Roadhouse, a year-round lodge in Southcentral Alaska some 40 miles from the nearest road, reported 9 inches of new, white fluff atop the ice and frozen overflow of the Yentna River when she drove a new snowmachine home from Wasilla on Thursday. More snow was in the forecast, with the National Weather Service forecasting another 3 to 7 inches of snow  on Saturday.

Iron Dog set to roar 

That's good news for the Iron Dog, which sends the first of its racers up the Iditarod Trial from Big Lake to Nome on Friday Feb. 15. They're the vanguard of trail riders in front of the world's longest, toughest snowmachine race that begins two days later, a 2,000-mile chase north and west to Nome, and then back there to the race finish line to the east in Fairbanks, the second largest city in Alaska.

After the Iron Dog, the Iditarod Trail Invitational sends a gang of 55 fat-tired mountain-bike riders and runners up the trail on Feb. 24. About 20 of them claim Alaska as home, but the majority are slightly crazed individuals from Europe and the Lower 48 chasing that Alaska adventure of all adventures. Most of them are bound only for the Interior Alaska town of McGrath on the other side of the Alaska Range, some 350 miles north and west, but some of the cyclists plan to continue another 600 miles on to Nome as well.

And, of course, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race -- the grandaddy of all Iditarod adventure races -- starts March 2 with a big show in downtown Anchorage before mushers hit the trail out of Willow the next day. Sixty-eight teams are slated to put paws on the starting line this year, but only about a dozen have any chase of winning the race. The rest will be chasing the same thing as the Invitational competitors and many of the Iron Dog riders -- adventure.

The Iditarod is the last, great wilderess trail in North America. It is so wild much of it doesn't even exist in summer. In many places, the trail melts into nearly impassable swamps and bogs, or lakes and rivers simply impassable without a boat. In winter, though, there's an ever-shifting, thin-ribbon-of-trail atop the ice and snow that takes those brave enough into a journey into another time and place. But in low-snow years, portions of the trail melt down to frozen dirt.

Will Rondy be run?

Alaska’s premier sprint-dog race has also been in jeopardy after Anchorage organizers announced earlier this week that they need considerably more snow to make the trails safe for dog teams that run upwards of 25 mph on a trail that includes downtown streets, bike trails and wooded trails in Far North Bicentennial Park.

“Trail groomers are heading out to inspect the course this weekend,” said Alaskan Sled Dog & Racing Association President Christine Tozier. The organization will make its final call Sunday on whether to hold the Fur Rondy Open World Championships. The additional snow Anchorage received this week helped quite a bit, Tozier said. However, a high wind warning for Anchorage that's in effect until 4 p.m. won't help.

If the race, a centerpiece of Anchorage’s mid-winter Fur Rendezvous celebration, is a go, it will be the first sprint race contested in Alaska’s largest city this winter due to low snow. Sprint mushers, with their large teams of 15 to 18 dogs, haven’t been able to set their hooks, she said. There hasn't been enough snow to do that on the frozen, swampy trails.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com. Reporter Suzanna Caldwell contributed to this report.