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Iditarod to decide tonight whether to move race restart to Fairbanks

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 10, 2015

With minimal snow on the ground so far this winter in Southcentral Alaska and little in the forecast, the Iditarod Trail Committee board of directors will decide Tuesday whether to move the race restart from Willow to Fairbanks.

The meeting comes a day after a four-person trail committee and race staff team spent the day flying over and landing on portions of the trail, according to Iditarod Executive Director Stan Hooley. A decision is expected by 8 p.m.

The 1,000-mile sled dog race has been moved north only once before, when low snow conditions in Southcentral Alaska forced organizers to restart in Fairbanks in 2003.

In an email, Hooley said trail conditions have been a "question mark all winter, in some areas more than others." He said that while there is some snow on the south side of the Alaska Range that will allow the race to "salvage" its Anchorage ceremonial start -- if the snow doesn't melt or blow away before the March 7 start date -- other parts of the trail appear to be lacking.

The worst parts of the trail appear to be north of the Alaska Range, including the Dalzell Gorge and a stretch between the checkpoints of Rohn and Nikolai known as the Farewell Burn.

Those areas drew ire from mushers in 2014 who said the snowless, rocky and rough course was among the most dangerous they had ever experienced. Numerous mushers ended their races or sustained serious injuries as they traveled across the treacherous section of trail.

In an effort to deal with those concerns, the Iditarod Trail Committee spent the fall renovating a 20-mile section of trail between Rohn and Nikolai in an attempt to continue to run the course in low-snow conditions.

But the 80-mile section between the two checkpoints is still rough, according to longtime Nikolai resident and Iditarod volunteer John Runkle, so rough that he hasn't been able to travel from Nikolai to the newly renovated section of trail.

"There is a trail, but it is rock-hard and rough," Runkle said from Nikolai on Tuesday.

The potential decision to move the restart comes as mushers finish their preparations for the race. Drop bags of supplies for the trail are due next week, and decisions on what to pack will depend on which start the race decides on.

Numerous mushers said Tuesday they would respect whatever the board decided. Bethel musher Pete Kaiser said after the outcry from mushers following last year's race, he had faith that race officials would be taking the decision to move the race even more seriously this year.

"I'm not stressed out about it right now," he said from Bethel Tuesday. "If they decide to go through Alaska Range, I'm pretty sure it will be good. If not, I'll be happy to go somewhere else and not have to go through the gorge like last year."

Anchorage musher Scott Janssen, who broke his foot traveling near Tin Creek last year and was airlifted out, said he too trusted officials.

"Knowing those guys, and the officials, they'll make the right decision," he said.

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