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Warm weather, lack of snow has Alaska sled dog races scrambling

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 21, 2015

Snow appears to be in Alaska's forecast, but sled dog races are still pondering serious trail re-routes or cancelations due to the lack of winter weather.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is considering moving its restart to Fairbanks. The Yukon Quest from Whitehorse to Fairbanks is looking at moving its start due to open water on the Yukon River not far from the Whitehorse. Every sprint race in Anchorage has been canceled due to lack of snow. Numerous mid-distance races across the state are hanging on, hoping that weather improves enough to make the races safe.

Take, for example, the Northern Lights 300. Race Manager Sue Allen said the weather was "certainly affecting" the race, scheduled to start Friday. Lack of snow is the biggest concern right now, she said, noting that the course, which starts at Martin Buser's Happy Trails Kennel outside of Big Lake, has a "ribbon of ice" on it and "some nice hoar frost."

"It's really bad when we're counting hoar frost as accumulation," Allen said. "At this point, every little bit helps."

Allen said Tuesday that 20 of the 38 mushers signed up for the race were attempting to qualify for the Iditarod. The Northern Lights race serves as one of the few 300-mile races in Alaska -- a distance any musher hoping to run a 1,000-mile race must first complete. The Northern Lights race does not offer prizes for winning, but many mushers' main goal is finishing.

Allen admitted she was slightly nervous sending all the new mushers out on a lousy trail. The race has already reduced the maximum number of dogs from 14 to 12 in an effort to slow teams down. She said they plan to ask racers to carry blocks of ice with them to melt for water, since there's not enough snow accumulation to melt for drinking water.

The decision to cancel is a tough call this year. Last year Allen had to cancel the race the day before the start due to rain.

Allen said it's especially hard to see people working toward their dream of racing in the Iditarod hurt by the difficulty of getting into a qualifying race. Still, safety is a priority.

"We want people to go out and have a really good time," Allen said. "But it's really hard to have to a good time when you've shaken all your teeth out of your head."

Knik 200 Race Manager Bob Sexton noted that his race, which traditionally starts on Knik Lake, is considering a move to Willow's Deshka Landing because of poor trail conditions. There's concern that even the lake -- a former Iditarod checkpoint -- doesn't have enough ice to hold all the dog trucks that usually park on the lake ice.

"It's unbelievable this year," Sexton said, noting that race officials would make a call Wednesday night on whether to move the race or cancel it.

Sexton said this year's Knik 200 field of 40 filled up in 38 minutes.

"So many people are trying to qualify for races, and the races get canceled or they can't get into the others," Sexton said. "It starts compiling."

The Tustumena 200 on the Kenai Peninsula is hoping it can finally host the 30th running of its race after also canceling in 2014. As of Tuesday, things weren't looking great.

"As of today, we have no trail," said Race Director Tami Murray.

The race has already been moved from Feb. 7 to Feb. 21. Murray said the race wouldn't make a decision about whether or not to go until closer to the start date.

"We're ready, we're just waiting for the snow to make an appearance," she said.

So are sprint racers. John Rasmussen, manager for the Alaska Sled Dog and Racing Association said no one in Anchorage has even been able to train their dogs on the icy, tussocky trails of the Tozier Track off Tudor Road, let alone race on them. He said mushers don't even show up to the weekly meetings anymore; there's no reason to until more snow falls.

But Jeff Barney, executive director of the Anchorage's Fur Rendezvous, which hosts the Open World Championship, wasn't too concerned Wednesday. He said a lack of snow is always a concern for organizers of the sprint race, but with more than a month to go, he wasn't worried yet.

"We're definitely just waiting," Barney said. "It seems to always work out."