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Year after a winter deluge, frigid Iditarod Trail is snow-starved

Craig Medred

SHELL LAKE -- Mother Nature isn't playing nice with Alaska's two premier winter sports competitions: the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmachine race.

In many years, snowmobiles would by now have packed the Iditarod Trail up the Yentna River, into the Skwentna swamps, through the Shell Hills and on past Finger Lake into the Alaska Range. And both the snowmachine racers and mushers would be out there training on snowy winter trail.

Not this year. 

Winter 2012-13 has brought plenty of cold, but little in the way of snow. At the Shell Lake Lodge on Monday, it was hard to tell which of those weather conditions was generating more grumbling. The temperature was a frigid 30 degrees below zero, chilly for mid-December. And there were but a few inches of white fluff. Some Iron Doggers had managed to battle their way north to the lake from Wasilla, said lodge owner Zoe Brinker, but nobody had gone much farther north toward the Alaska Range.

No trail north of Shell Lake

This time last year, there were riders already working their way toward Rainy Pass high in the mountains.

Given the snow drought, things are wholly different. There is no trail as yet north from Shell Lake, and back to the south the trail is reported to be very rough between Shell and the community of Skwentna. Plus, fall flooding took out a bridge, creating more problems on that 20-mile run.

Conditions start to get a little better from Skwentna south, though Cindi Herman warned on the Skwentna Roadhouse Facebook page that "anybody running the Su or Yentna (should) use caution -- even on marked trail. The way the river froze left thin shelf-ice that can fall through at anytime. The trail overall is fairly good and marked from Yentna Station up to Skwentna ... (but) be careful and safe." 

Conditions generally improve south from Yentna. Jean Gabryszak reported from the Yentna Station Roadhouse that the Yentna River trail has "been groomed, marked, and diverted around most overflow (water running over ice)," but from the air Tuesday most everything in the Susitna Valley looked to be as much icemobiling as snowmobiling. That makes for a rough ride on a snowmachine, and it's no fun at all with a dog team. But the fat-tire mountain biking could be good for the truly hardy. 

Riding your bike at 20 or 30 degrees below zero is not the Tour de France. But it is an adventure, and Alaska is all about the adventure. Some of the most adventurous will race the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile or 1,000-mile affair, beginning Feb. 24. 

A year later, everything's changed

It is amazing what difference a year makes. By this time last year, there was nearly 6 feet of snow at Shell Lake, which is pretty much the norm for the south side of the Alaska Range. Winter storms moving into the state from the Gulf of Alaska often sweep over Anchorage, the state's largest city, and head north toward the mountains carrying a lot of moisture. It gets dumped as snow as the weather pushes north.

Usually by December, the few people who live in the area are busy shoveling the snow off their roofs to make sure buildings don't cave in under the load. Record snows last winter flattened a lot of cabins that weren't maintained. That doesn't appear to be a worry this winter. The posts and beams below the deck at the Shell Lake Lodge were still visible Tuesday. That's an oddity for this time in December.

Usually the snow has filled in all around the deck, and Brinker is busy keeping it clear with her snowblower. The snowblower was sitting cold and idle on the deck.  

Everywhere people are pleading for more snow, but the National Weather Service doesn't seem optimistic. The best in the forecast for the week ahead is "a chance of snow" or "a chance of snow showers." Beyond that, the situation doesn't look any more hopeful. The National Weather Service's extended forecast talks about "the evolution of high-latitude blocking ... resulting in clear and cold conditions initially with the chance for sporadic snow as the upper low moves toward the west."

That's largely reflective of the pattern locked into the region, with those sporadic snows proving sadly short on volume.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com