Alaska News

Fewer checkpoints, wild weather could be obstacles in rerouted Iditarod

Forget the Happy River Steps and the always treacherous Dalzell Gorge when it comes to this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Those notorious parts of the trail are not in the rerouted race, and their equivalent doesn't exist on the new trail from Fairbanks.

But that's not to say this year's Iditarod won't have its own challenges. The weather can always be a major problem, as last year's race demonstrated when the leaders were battered by a windstorm not far from the finish line.

"Technical challenges, I don't think they will exist much at all," said veteran racer and Iditarod "armchair musher" Sebastian Schnuelle. "But the weather challenge will exist."

That could also come in the form of brutally cold temperatures this year, or the opposite -- warm weather that leaves mushers battling overflow and soft trail as they travel atop the ice on the Tanana and Yukon rivers for long portions of the first 600 miles of the race.

And then there's the Norton Sound coast, which by all accounts is icy and bare. Even if the region does get more snow, which it might, Schnuelle said that without a base, snow is unlikely to stay put.

But even without a mountain range to cross and a steep, tortuous descent, the new north trail challenges mushers.

Danny Seavey, son of two-time winner Mitch and brother of defending champion Dallas, has finished three Iditarods and updates his family's Facebook page with race insights. He noted that Galena is closer in mileage to Takotna, where many mushers take their 24-hour layovers on the traditional race course.

On paper, Huslia, the new halfway point, looks like a good checkpoint for a 24-hour break, but it's the equivalent of traveling as far as the more distant checkpoints of Iditarod or Cripple on the southern race route. Those aren't uncommon rest points for competitive mushers, but they're not as widely utilized, either.

Seavey and other armchair mushers suspect that mushers will rest later in the race than they would on the traditional Iditarod trail, partly due to less-challenging river-running and perhaps opting to spend more time in communities new to the Iditarod.

One of the key differences in this year's route is the checkpoint layout, Seavey said. There are fewer of them -- 13, down from 18 -- meaning more long runs in between. On the traditional southern route, the longest distance between checkpoints is the 85 miles between Kaltag and Unalakleet. This year, there are five runs of more than 80 miles, the longest between Tanana and Ruby at approximately 120 miles. Seavey said that will mean mushers will have to carry more food and gear for campouts along the trail instead of resting in checkpoints.

With so much flat river-running, Seavey also expects to see more mushers carrying dogs -- in sleds or in carriers behind the sleds -- in an effort to rest them. Whether all that extra carrying plus pushing teams over longer distances will lead to burnout remains to be seen.

In the only other Iditarod to start in Fairbanks in 2003, 31 percent of the 64 starters scratched.

"It's almost a perfect storm for catastrophe," Seavey said. "There are a lot of factors at play, and none are the ones people are looking at."

Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman said he "hadn't heard a word" from mushers on how they would approach their race strategies on the new course, which some mushers have suggested puts everyone in rookie status.

"Everyone is keeping (their strategies) real close," Nordman said Wednesday in Anchorage.

Nordman thinks "patience will be a virtue" on this year's trail. With trail conditions well-groomed and in good shape, on the rivers some mushers might try to push the pace early, only to burn out later.

"You want to race the same speed you trained them," Nordman said.

Schnuelle said from what he's heard, most people's training was already set by the time the race board of directors voted to move the restart to Fairbanks in early February. That means top-tier mushers likely won't be tinkering with their schedules dramatically. While there might be a few who make brash moves early in the race -- such as Martin Buser's dramatic long runs early in the 2013 and 2014 races -- Schnuelle said that could spell disaster without proper training.

"If the coast happens to be easy, you might be able to get away with it," Schnuelle said. "But with low snow and the coast the way it is, I don't think it's going to be easy running either way on the coast."

Schnuelle said for serious racers, that means setting up for the last half of the race knowing that the real race to Nome will begin on the Seward Peninsula.

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.