Unseasonably warm weather has wreaked havoc on Iditarod mushers all winter, affecting everything from training to packing gear. With the race rerouted north, something as routine as packing drop bags suddenly became a little more complicated.
That was evident Wednesday as mushers dropped their bags at Air Land Transport in South Anchorage for shipment to Fairbanks and then the trail. The bags -- most weighing about 50 pounds, with some up to 100 -- are a vital component of the race.
Mushers fill dozens of nylon sacks with all the gear and food their team will need along the 1,000-mile trail to Nome. They're the result of months of preparation, figuring out what to bring and where to pack it.
For most mushers, lining up drop bags in the front yard and packing them with kibble, dog booties, people food and plenty of frozen meat and fish for the dogs is an annual activity. With temperatures usually well below freezing, the yard serves as a makeshift freezer until mushers' supplies can be shipped to checkpoints along the trail.
But this year, with record-breaking temperatures climbing well into the 40s on Tuesday, mushers had to improvise.
Veteran Wasilla musher Ellen Halverson said she packed the frozen elements of her drop bags after dark Tuesday night to take advantage of the lower evening temperatures. Some fish she'd kept in an outdoor freezer melted a bit. She said the fish will be fine for the dogs but might be frozen into a solid mass that's hard to break up.
Veteran Charley Bejna also began working at getting his frozen food into drop bags late Tuesday night, packing up the last bits around 10:30 p.m. He said packing this year was more difficult due to the new checkpoints. The names on the drop bags stayed the same, but they were assigned to different checkpoints, making it slightly confusing.
"I'm glad it's over," Bejna said. "This is one huge step getting close to Iditarod. Once it's done and off your mind, you can get back to training."
Race Marshal Mark Nordman said making the decision to change the race start to Fairbanks in early February gave mushers more time to prepare. He said a decision to move the start in 2003 -- the only other time the race began in Fairbanks -- came with much less notice, forcing organizers to scramble to get gear and food to the appropriate checkpoints.
'No worries about logistics'
This year's decision was made before anything was sent out. Nordman noted that straw went to new northern checkpoints soon after the decision was made. All the new checkpoints will have supplies, like the drop bags, delivered soon. Every checkpoint except Manley Hot Springs has bypass mail access for gear shipments, but the town on the Tanana River won't pose a problem. Trucks can drive there from Fairbanks.
"I have no worries about the logistics at this point," he said Wednesday.
Anchorage rookie Mark Selland said he woke up early Wednesday to put the final touches on his remaining bags. The previous day, all his bags were spread out in the garage of veteran musher and friend Robert Bundtzen, with everything ready except the frozen dog and people food.
Selland's big worry was that he didn't pack enough, at least compared to what others had. He said he was told only one musher packed less. But Selland insisted he'd packed plenty of food but less gear than others did.
Fellow rookie Ben Harper had the opposite problem. The 18-year-old Knik musher finished packing his bags four days ago. He had an overflowing pickup full of bags, with as many as four bags going out to multiple checkpoints. At least one Iditarod volunteer snickered at the weight of Harper's bags, saying some of them weighed more than she did.
Harper said he began packing his bags at the beginning of the month under the assumption the race would follow the traditional trail. Part of the reason he had so many bags is that instead of repacking, he just went with what he packed.
He said that might mean too much at certain checkpoints, but he'd rather have more than less. Plus, repacking seemed like an unnecessary challenge so close to the race start.
"I didn't want to stress myself out," he said.