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Bad weather in Southwest means training woes for Alaska's toughest mushers

If there's one thing all mushers can commiserate about this season, it's the weather.

From the Kenai Peninsula to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, training conditions all over the state have been downright miserable. Some mushers have traveled north, spending serious time on the Denali Highway -- the unplowed, 135-mile road -- which became a superhighway of training for most Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushers leading up the race. Its snow-packed trail offered an oasis for mushers who otherwise would have been left to train on ice-covered, frozen, rocky trails unsuited for dog teams.

While the talk of bad trails has stayed focused on Southcentral Alaska, it hasn't been the only region. Even the small contingent of Iditarod racers from Southwest Alaska -- Pete Kaiser, Richie Diehl and Mike Williams Jr. -- have dealt with challenges of their own. All three hail from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, an area where the sport is seeing a slight resurgence. While the region isn't known for the greatest snow conditions, thanks to the river system mushers can usually move from village to village to chase down good snow and better trails.

But wacky weather conditions have made that a challenge this year.

Diehl, 28, of Aniak, spent a good portion of the winter traveling around the state looking for snow. Hoping to stay in his home region, Diehl said his dogs stayed off the trails for 10 days before heading to Nenana in early December. After training there with Iditarod musher Aaron Burmeister, he flew back to Bethel in early January for the Kuskokwim 300. He hoped that following the race he'd be able to stay closer to home, but after another two weeks of waiting for good weather, he gave up and returned to Nenana to finish the season.

"It seems like (the region) just got locked in to really poor conditions all winter," Diehl said. "Last time I talked to people in Aniak, I heard that the frost is really adding up."

Not alone

Kaiser, 26, joined Diehl in Nenana with Burmeister. Last year the Bethel-based musher drove his team about 150 miles upriver to Aniak to train with Diehl. But this season, not even Diehl's small village of 500 had the snow it needed.

"Bethel is used to less than perfect conditions, and I've trained on it quite often," Kaiser said earlier this week. "But (this season) it's the worst I've ever seen, which is saying something."

Kaiser said in Bethel they haven't had more a week of good training conditions at a time. It would snow, then rain, melting away whatever had managed to stay on the ground. Everything is hard, frozen and ice-covered. While mushers can still go out for shorter runs, it makes it hard to get long runs in -- a crucial element when training for a 1,000-mile dog race. Dogs aren't able to wear booties in icy conditions -- they need their claws available to have extra traction on the ice -- and mushers have to be careful to avoid wear and tear on the dogs' feet.

No snowmachines all winter

Williams said he hasn't used his snowmachine once this season, instead using a four-wheeler to train his dogs. He lives in Akiak, about 35 miles upriver from Bethel, where they had similar snow conditions to Bethel, with lots of snow, rain, slush and ice.

For Williams, 29, leaving Akiak wasn't an option this winter. His wife gave birth to twin boys in November and he didn't want to leave them.

Earlier this week, Williams said training conditions were getting better, but the collective bad weather had done him no favors. He's had to take a lot of time off from training, even in the final days heading into the race, which starts March 1 in downtown Anchorage.

"I think I have 16 solid dogs for the Iditarod, but I don't want to risk having some of them getting injured and getting left behind," he said.

Williams, a four-time Iditarod finisher, was hoping to have an impressive run this year. He finished eighth in 2012 but a disappointing 23rd in 2013 after "jumping the gun" early in the race. He said last year he started training late and didn't get the miles on his team he needed. This year he tried to fix that, getting an early start on training in the fall. But the bad weather held him up.

He said going into this year's race, he has few expectations.

"I'm going to go out there and do what I can do with them," he said, "and make it to the finish as fast as I can get there safely and without overrunning."

Any advantage?

None of the mushers feel like training in the tough conditions will give them an edge going into this year's race, which is expected to be difficult. Conditions were so bad in Southcentral that race officials considered moving the race restart from Willow to Fairbanks. From Willow to McGrath, snow conditions are less than ideal, and even on Alaska's western coast, signs indicate that trail isn't good either. Iron Dog racers had to reroute from Shaktoolik to Koyuk, adding about 20 miles to the trail to avoid ice-free patches in Norton Sound. Snowmachine racers on the trail indicated that snow conditions are far from ideal.

Kaiser, who finished 13th last year, and in the top 10 two years prior to that, is hoping for another top 20 finish, though he noted that his team is capable of a top 10 finish.

While Kaiser said it's been difficult being separated from his girlfriend and son, who remained in Bethel while he trained in Nenana, he's content with the decision he made to come North.

"If I thought it was an advantage to stay out there on crummy trail, I would have stayed out there," he said.