Sterling's Mitch Seavey learned long ago that an Alaska musher should never depend on ideal winter weather, nor forget how to adapt to changing conditions before hitting the trail with a team of sled dogs.
Take early January, for example, when Seavey went for a training run in a complete downpour near Willow, where his son and reining Iditarod champion, Dallas, lives. Of all things, Seavey packed a raincoat.
"It wasn't the best day of mushing," said the 2004 Iditarod champion. "The seams leaked and I got soaked."
This winter has been frustrating for mushers in Southcentral Alaska.
Snow levels were less than ideal to start the season and the unseasonable rain and warm temperatures that followed forced some to travel great distances to either find good snow or to improvise a training routine in order to log enough miles before this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
OTHER RACES CANCELED
"It hasn't been an easy winter," said Ray Redington Jr., a third generation Iditarod musher who lives in Knik.
Redington signed up for the Knik 200, one of many sled dog races that were canceled this winter because of adverse weather conditions. Also canceled: The Don Bowers Memorial 200 and 300, the Knik 100 and the Sheep Mountain 150.
The Copper Basin 300 had to eliminate the final 24 miles of the 300-mile race because of open water and icy trail conditions -- temperatures that weekend soared into the low 40s.
A year ago, the Copper Basin faced the opposite dilemma. Officials stopped the race when a section of the trail became "impassible due to unusually deep snow conditions, high winds and bitter cold."
In early February, officials in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race had to shorten the 1,000-mile race by about 50 miles because American Summit -- a 3,420-foot climb near Eagle -- was determined too dangerous for mushers to attempt.
'NATURE OF THE SPORT'
So what do all of this mean for the Iditarod -- the Super Bowl of all sled dog races? Are mushers worried that global warming could melt away the Last Great Race?
It depends who you ask.
"I think last year was the coldest, snowiest frickin' winter I've ever seen," Seavey said. "Every time it's warm we say, 'Oh it's so warm,' and every time it's cold we say, 'Oh that's normal.' I think it's just the nature of the sport. You're so keyed into the weather that every time there's a cold day or a wet day it's a big deal, so we amplify it in our minds."
Seavey doesn't deny the Arctic is changing. It's always changing, he said.
"(But) every 20 to 30 years things switch," he said. "It was colder and wetter when I was a kid than 12 to 15 years ago. Now it's colder and wetter again. But that doesn't mean anything compared to 100,000 years ago."
Seavey, 53, is referring to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a term coined by two fisheries scientists, Nathan Mantua and Steven Hare, at the University of Washington. In a nutshell, their hypothesis is that climate records dramatically shift in the Pacific basin every few decades due to ocean surface temperatures.
Mantua and Hare said in a 2002 Journal of Oceanography article that PDO is important because "it clearly demonstrates that 'normal' climate conditions can vary over time periods comparable to the length of a human's lifetime, and climate anomalies that persist for one to a few decades can cause especially large impacts on ecosystems and societies."
Whatever is happening to weather patterns in Alaska, Seward's Travis Beals doesn't like it. The 21-year-old rookie in this year's Iditarod spent most of his winter training anywhere but his hometown.
"Dude, it's all ice," said Beals, who owns Turning Heads Kennels. "I don't think we have two inches of snow. It's bad. I haven't trained in Seward all year."
In good snow years, Beals can run 40-milers out of his kennel. This year he had to adjust his training and use races like the Copper Basin, Northern Lights 300 and Tustumena 200 as training.
The conditions in Seward, he said, will certainly effect how he plans to run his dogs in the Iditarod.
"If you want to compete, you gotta have the miles," Beals said. "I'll only have about 2,200 total. I wanted a lot more than that, so we're going to train for the first five days of Iditarod. If we still have a team after that, then we'll race. If not, then we'll continue our training schedule and get to Nome."
'IT GETS PRETTY BORING'
Until recently, Robert Bundtzen of Anchorage has spent little time on a sled to get his dogs into Iditarod shape.
The 61-year-old doctor trains on weekdays at Beach Lake Trails in Chugiak, but trail conditions have been so poor in the Anchorage Bowl this winter that he's only been able run his dogs in front of a four-wheeler.
"It gets pretty boring," he said.
Bundtzen, a 12-year Iditarod veteran, hardly ever concerns himself with how much snow has fallen between Willow and Nome. It's just not worth the effort, he said.
"I've run the Iditarod when there was nothing," he said. "To set a snow hook you snagged a tussock."
Whenever Bundtzen thinks it's tough training dogs on a four-wheeler when he should be on a sled, he thinks of guys in northwestern Alaska, guys like John Baker who train on windswept tundra.
"They get on the sled and let the dogs drag it," Bundtzen said. "They just deal with it."
Lack of snow might not be the only X-factor on the Iditarod Trail this year. In late January, Seavey and Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman talked briefly about trail conditions near Rohn.
"Got some wings?" Nordman joked.
"Water wings?" Seavey asked.
Some Iron Dog snowmachiners reported bank erosion that Nordman said could give mushers a bit of trouble.
"Everybody knows how much water we had (last year), so we'll have our challenges there," Nordman said.
Seavey seemed to be half-joking when he asked about water wings. Bank erosion can be dealt with, but open water can be costly. It's the sort of thing that cancels races or causes major headaches for race organizers.
The Iditarod has never been canceled since it began in 1973. The closest officials may have ever come to pulling the plug happened in 2003 when the restart was moved to Fairbanks. Nordman said it was moved because of open water outside of Rohn.
Every Iditarod mushers depend on the stability of ice bridges as well as frozen rivers and lakes to get them safely into Nome. As of early February, Nordman had zero concerns about open water along the 1,000-mile trail.
WEATHER CHANGES QUICKLY
Fairbanks musher Ken Anderson has learned from past races that sometimes it's best to take Iditarod Trail updates with a grain of salt -- even the last-minute updates.
"We've had years that Mark Nordman told us at the driver's meeting there was tons of snow in the burn, and by the time we got there, there wasn't any snow," Anderson said. "I've just learned that you just roll with the punches."
Weather in the Interior and along the coast can change so quickly, Anderson said, mushers never know the true trail conditions until they are on the trail.
"On the Iditarod you have to be prepared for anything," he said.
Nordman reported some trail improvements made this past summer near the steps, a notorious dip that leads the Iditarod Trail over a cliff to a frozen river. The steps, located about 20 miles south of the Rainy Pass Lodge at Puntilla Lake, have been known to break sleds, bones and dreams.
Thanks to some funding from the Bureau of Land Management, the Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance was able to send a crew into Puntilla, where it worked its way up to the steps armed with high-end, thousand-dollar brush hogs. Workers cleared brush, cut trees and did some bank work, Nordman said.
"It's never been as cleared as much as it is now," he said. "By no means will it be a highway. You're still going across the Alaska Range."
A few of the Iron Dog snowmachiners told Nordman the trail clearing allowed them to train and travel early for the race because the big alder was cut down.
"That was a big deal," Nordman said. "It took six or seven feet of snow to run on top of that. It's now much safer travel."
Last year Nordman made plans for Iditarod mushers to avoid the steps entirely and reroute the trail to go down a winter access road used by a mining company. Some mushers thought avoiding the steps was a smart decision, while others thought it might strip away one of the race's biggest challenges, therefore making the Iditarod easier.
When trail breakers reached the access road, however, Nordman said they reported it had snowed so much the snowdrifts made it impassable.
"On high snow years, the steps are the way to go," he said. "With a low snow year we might go down (the road). It's a last-minute call."
MUSHERS NEED MULTIPLE PLANS
Regardless of trail conditions or weather reports, Seavey knows one thing is for sure: his dogs must get exercise. That's why he always makes himself a plan A, B and C.
Good winter weather "comes and goes," he said. "And we always have ways of dealing with all of that. We certainly don't let the weather dictate our success or our moods."
He can run dogs on a snowmachine, a four-wheeler, a truck or a dog sled. He can even do a double-dog sled, if necessary.
"There's always someplace where I can go to run dogs," Seavey said. "Alaska's a big place and we've been blessed enough to be able to afford fuel and go where the snow is."
And if it's raining cats and dogs?
"My dogs are ready for anything," he said. "They get out of the truck and have no idea what kind of trail it's going to be. They're just used to that stuff."
Kevin Klott is a former Daily News reporter who covered three Iditarods.
By KEVIN KLOTT
Daily News correspondent