Mushers gearing up for the 2016 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race said at their annual banquet Thursday they expect a hard and fast trail to Nome — marked by stretches of snow, bare ground and ice.
"We heard everything from lots of snow to no snow," said Brent Sass, who won the 2015 Yukon Quest.
Jim Lanier, who will start his 19th Iditarod, said race organizers told mushers Thursday morning that in some areas the snow has melted in warmer daytime temperatures and is frozen at night, making for a crunchy and bumpy trail.
"The whole trail is going to be pretty unfriendly," Lanier said.
Mark Nordman, race director and marshal, called the trail "hard and fast" at a media briefing on Wednesday, at least for the 30 or so miles from Willow to Skwentna. The Iditarod's 85 mushers will leave Willow beginning 2 p.m. Sunday.
"Out of Willow, it's going to be pretty dicey," said Hugh Neff, this year's Yukon Quest champion.
Dalzell: Good as it gets
Musher Ralph Johannessen of Norway said he moved into a cabin close to the trail in February and has been training from Willow to Skwentna. Because of ice on the trail, he has had to separate his dogs into two teams of eight in an effort to cut speed.
"It's icy, but it's OK," said Johannessen who broke a few ribs during the 2014 Iditarod while traveling through the treacherous Dalzell Gorge. This year, he just hopes to make it to Rohn uninjured.
Nordman said once mushers reach Skwentna they should expect snow — 4 or more feet of it between there and Rainy Pass. Past Rainy Pass, Nordman said, trail breakers have spent days working on the often perilous gorge.
"The gorge is as good as it gets," said Bill Merchant, who runs the Iditarod Trail Invitational race for fat bikers, runners and skiers. Merchant, in a phone interview from McGrath, said credit should go to Iditarod trail breakers, who "chopped a beautiful path through all that mess."
"They literally built bridges with brush and snow across running mountain rivers," he said. "And carved their way through ice chunks."
Past Rohn, Merchant said, there's bare ground until the trail reaches the Farewell Burn en route to Nikolai. He said he traveled about 50 or 60 mph on snowmachine to McGrath during the Invitational's 350-mile race earlier this week.
"That should tell you it's as flat as a pancake," he said.
'Never seen a trail that good'
Andrew Runkle, a 31-year-old who lives in Nikolai, said Tuesday he regularly travels about 55 miles from his home toward Rohn by snowmachine to go trapping. He said there's definitely more snow in the area than two years ago, though wind has blown snow off lakes, leaving "nothing but glare ice."
Runkle said he expects the trail from Rohn to Nikolai to be better than in 2014, especially the 20-mile portion out of Rohn where the Iditarod Trail Committee spent weeks chainsawing and widening the trail following that race.
"I've never seen a trail that good," he said.
After that, the trail narrows to about the width of a snowmachine, he said, which could give mushers trouble.
Nordman said Tuesday there was "good river traveling all the way to McGrath," with more snow than normal at the checkpoint. In Cripple, there are about 2 feet of snow on the ground, he said.
The trail between Kaltag and Unalakleet, he said, "is extremely rough," with trail breakers headed out this week in an attempt to smooth it out. The long portage run off the Yukon River from Kaltag to Unalakleet is the gateway to Norton Sound and the final 260 miles of trail.
At this point, coming off the Yukon, there is plenty of snow and a good, packed trail for 70 miles to the Chirosky River. But things change near the coast.
"For the last 16 miles, from Chirosky to Unalakleet, there isn't much snow," said Iditarod veteran William "Middy" Johnson, who finished the 2010 race to Nome. Johnson has a cabin 19 miles up the Unalakleet River valley and travels the trail weekly. "We've seen temperatures in the upper 30s and if the warm trend continues, mushers will see mushy trail and a lot of tundra from Chirosky to Unalakleet," Johnson said.
The same goes for heading north to Shaktoolik. From Unalakleet to Egavik River, 14 miles north, there is a significant lack of snow.
"There's a lot of brown tundra surrounding Unalakleet. The snow that is on the trail in and out of Unalakleet is compacted to ice. If it's cold, it'll be fast. If it stays warm, the runners will be on a lot of bare tundra," Johnson said.
Once in Unalakleet, Iditarod mushers will most likely be greeted by something unusual. There is no shore-fast ice in the ocean surrounding the town.
Looking west from Unalakleet, the only ice visible is what has formed from freshwater flowing out of the Unalakleet River. Strong east winds and above-zero temperatures have kept the ocean mainly ice-free since November.
Instead of snowmachining 1 to 5 miles offshore to set crab pots in holes cut out of at least 2 feet of ice, some residents have launched boats, which is unheard of in March.
"But there is ice north of Shaktoolik (40 miles northwest), heading toward Koyuk (another 50 miles down the trail)," Unalakleet resident Karl Erickson said.
Erickson recently snowmachined from Unalakleet to Iglutalik, a river near Koyuk to go caribou hunting. "The trail from Shaktoolik to Koyuk, on the ice, is like a highway," Erickson said. "It's smooth and fast."
Nordman also reported little to no snow along the coast.
But some mushers Thursday discounted the reports, saying they plan to take the race day by day.
"I'm not worried about it," said Dallas Seavey, defending Iditarod champion. "We can't sit here and try to predict the race."
Watching Iditarod on TV
• Restart from Willow Lake, 1:30 p.m. Sunday on GCI Channel 1 and 999