Sled dogs will race on Fourth Avenue this week as part of Fur Rendezvous — they just won't be racing far, or for a world championship.
In order to hold a race despite trail conditions that are marginal at best, sprint dogs will do a true sprint — a 5-mile round trip between downtown and Mulcahy Stadium.
That's about one-fifth of the length of the traditional Rondy race, which features 26-mile heats each day.
"We have plans to do something quite a bit different," race marshal Janet Clarke said Tuesday, a day after the Alaskan Sled Dog & Racing Association (ASDRA) canceled the Open World Championship.
Racing will begin at noon Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Clarke said. The purse will be reduced from $75,000 to $25,000, she said.
The decision to stage a downsized Fur Rondy race prevents a second straight cancellation of the signature event of Anchorage's winter festival. Since 1946, the race has been canceled six times, including four times since 2001.
With snow near record-low levels in Anchorage, ASDRA and Fur Rondy volunteers spent much of last week building a trail from snow collected and stored by the city, Clarke said.
Then came Sunday's rain and high temperatures, which devastated the work that had been done on the trails around Campbell Airstrip in Far North Bicentennial Park.
"We worked rather diligently all the way through Saturday, and then Sunday we got that weather," Clarke said. "Our work went to naught. Places that we didn't even have to look twice at last week became trouble areas.
"We knew we couldn't make it to Campbell Airstrip and back. … When we knew we couldn't do that, we canceled the traditional Rondy race. Now we'll go to a backup."
Plan B will ensure that sled dogs remain a Fur Rondy centerpiece. The festival offers several days of events, ranging from snow-sculpture contests to carnival rides to snowshoe softball games and more, but few things draw crowds downtown like the sled dog races.
"Dogs needs to be relevant," Fur Rondy executive director Jeff Barney said Tuesday. "That is the key thing I come back on. If we don't have dogs on the avenue, people don't remember what the dogs are. Big part of (Fur Rondy) is having the dogs on the avenue."
Clarke said Fur Rondy's determination to preserve the race made all the difference.
"We are a dog club who, in our mind, the thing we value above all else is this championship race. It's the pinnacle of everything for us," she said. "When we realized we could not do (the full trail), for us, we (were) done.
"But (Fur Rondy) didn't give up — they showed a lot more grit than we did. They said, 'Let's go for it.' "
With the shortened course, this week's races will simply be called the Fur Rendezvous Race, Clarke said. It won't be considered a world championship race, something the reduced purse reflects.
"We're following the exact path the high school ski championships had to follow and the Tour of Anchorage is having to follow," Clarke said. ""We're running on a small loop."
Correction: An earlier version of this story, citing the Alaskan Sled Dog & Racing Association's announcement on Facebook, said the race was canceled. That version of the story was written and published before Fur Rendezvous officials reversed that decision.