For only the second time in its 43-year history, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is headed to Fairbanks.
A unanimous decision to move the race start from Willow to Fairbanks was announced Tuesday night during a special meeting of the Iditarod board of directors and only hours after members returned from a flight to view potentially problematic sections of the traditional race trail.
Organizers said minimal snow coverage on rugged parts of the trail led to the board's decision. The race will start March 9, and the Anchorage ceremonial start is still set for March 7.
The 1,000-mile sled dog race has been moved north only once before, in 2003, when poor snow coverage in Southcentral Alaska also forced organizers to move the restart to Fairbanks.
The race trail will start in Fairbanks and travel along the Tanana River to Nenana, then on to Manley Hot Springs and the village of Tanana before reaching the Yukon River at Ruby. The race will then go to Galena before leaving the river and heading to the village of Huslia -- the new halfway point -- then back down to the Yukon River village of Koyukuk before rejoining the original Iditarod Trail in Nulato.
Race Marshal Mark Nordman said after the vote that the decision was made more than three weeks ahead of the race with logistics in mind. Drop bags for mushers are due soon.
Board member and 2015 musher Aaron Burmeister said after the vote he deemed the Dalzell Gorge -- a notorious section of trail that left mushers battered and bruised last year -- "impassable" after viewing it Tuesday.
He said there were exposed boulders he'd never seen in all his years of racing. Normally those are covered with snow, along with tall willows usually compacted with snow. This year you can see right through them, he said.
"That's something that by all means is not safe to travel on," Burmeister said.
Fellow board member and musher representative Paul Gebhardt agreed. He joined Burmeister to view the trail and said a renovated 20-mile section of trail outside Rohn was "doable," even with no snow.
But after looking down at sections of the gorge covered in glare ice Tuesday, he said a dog team could not manage it.
"You can't take the danger out of it without snow," he said.
The decision to reroute the trail comes after mounting pressure from mushers who said the snowless, rocky and rough Dalzell Gorge trail in 2014 was among the most dangerous they had ever experienced. Numerous mushers ended their races or were seriously injured there.
Things did not get better for mushers after that as the 80-mile trail from Rohn to Nikolai was equally snow-free and difficult.
The 2015 trail will include villages that have never before seen the Iditarod, including Koyukuk and Huslia, home of mushing legend George Attla.
Nordman said having to reroute the race was a huge disappointment for villages and commercial interests along the established trail but that he spoke to residents Tuesday about the pressing safety interests of the mushers.
"It's a big gain for a new group of people and a disappointment for others," Nordman said. "But everyone understands why the decision had to be made."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing