Iditarod will start in Willow; ceremonial start in Anchorage still on

The 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to Nome is going with Plan A this year, which means it will start in Willow on Sunday, March 6, the day after a ceremonial start in Anchorage.

Despite little snow in Anchorage this winter, Iditarod Chief Executive Officer Stan Hooley said Friday after an Iditarod Board of Directors meeting that he has complete confidence in trail conditions after crews on several flights, as well as volunteers on the ground, scoped out the trail.

Hooley said the perilous Dalzell Gorge that battered mushers and their dog teams in 2014 has more snow this year than it has had in the last 15-20 years.

"We would have to have a serious, extended meltdown for that area to not be navigable," he said.

Hooley said volunteers have some work to do on the first few miles of trail outside Willow, "but that's not atypical to other years." Paul Gebhardt, an 18-time Iditarod finisher who serves on the race's board of directors, said there's some open water on the Susitna River, which could lead to an altered route outside of Willow.

Gebhardt, one of 86 mushers signed up for this year's Iditarod, said Friday he was "all in favor of the decision" to start in Willow. He said he is sure it will not turn out like 2014. He described the Dalzell Gorge that year as "basically running down frozen dirt trenches with boulders and stumps."

"It was horrendous," he said. "It was the scaredest I've ever been on the dog sled."

'Very confident'

Aaron Burmeister also ran the 2014 Iditarod and serves on the race's board of directors. He said Friday there is more snow this year and he's "very confident" in the decision to have the Iditarod restart in Willow.

"All of the rain that Anchorage has been getting has been coming down as snow out in the Alaska Range," he said.

Willow and Anchorage are the traditional starting spots for the Iditarod, but last year the board moved the race start from Willow to Fairbanks for only the second time in race history because of poor snow conditions.

That meant re-routing more than 600 miles of trail because portions of the original trail were deemed impassable. Consequently, communities and commercial interests along both the old and new trails had to regroup.

Some 15 checkpoints along the planned southern route were eliminated by the Fairbanks start, and some villages along the new northern route — such as Huslia, Manley Hot Springs and Koyukuk — saw Iditarod racers pass through for the first time.

This year, the Iditarod race will follow the northern route as it does in even-numbered years, passing through Cripple, Ruby, Galena, Nulato and Kaltag.

Iditarod Race Director Mark Nordman said he expects the Saturday, March 5 ceremonial start in Anchorage to run its usual 11-mile route on city streets and trails from Fourth Avenue to Campbell Airstrip.

But to do that, the Iditarod is going to need some snow and some help before 86 Iditarod mushers and their dog teams run through Anchorage.

Bill Ludwig, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said Anchorage hasn't seen snow since mid-January.

In total, the city has gotten 25.8 inches of snow since November, compared to 20.3 inches of snow last year. Normally, Anchorage residents see about 54 inches of snow by this time, Ludwig said.

"Last year was the least snowiest year in Anchorage history, so we're just barely squeaking ahead of that," he said.

What about trail system?

Alan Czajkowski, Anchorage's director of maintenance and operations, said Thursday that the municipality has snow stockpiled specifically for the Iditarod and other scheduled races.

One mound of snow, scraped from the streets and stored in piles in the Mountain View neighborhood, should be enough to line the streets from Fourth Avenue to the Sullivan Arena for the ceremonial start, he said.

However, if between now and March 5 "it rains buckets for weeks," then that snow pile will not suffice, he said. The municipality has backup snow at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, he said. It will need between 180 and 200 dump-truck-size loads of snow.

While that snow may cover city streets, it doesn't address Anchorage's trail system.

John Rodda, director of Anchorage's Parks and Recreation Department, said Thursday his department would be "hard pressed" to try to haul snow onto the narrow trails.

"It's just an odd year. I don't know what to say," he said. "It's grass. It's ice, but there's no snow, that's for sure."

Nordman said there's no plan at this point to shrink the ceremonial run, which he said "a lot of people want to happen."

The ceremonial start attracts crowds and filters millions of dollars each year into the Anchorage economy. IditaRiders also bid top dollar in a race fundraising auction to ride in mushers' sleds during the 11-mile jaunt.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.