The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is starting in Willow, despite questions over whether the trail can actually support the race.
Race officials announced the decision Monday after a conference call with organizers. Executive Director Stan Hooley said new technology -- mainly a set of groomers capable of crunching slick river ice into more navigable shaved ice -- will be deployed to provide better traction between the Willow start and the second checkpoint of Skwentna, 72 miles into the race.
"As that trail exists today, you would not want to stage the Iditarod on it," Hooley said. "But the equipment that Dave Cruz (of Cruz Construction) has offered to use has the ability to transform what is a pretty bad trail into something that will be quite nice."
Warm weather has wreaked havoc on trail conditions this winter. The first 350 miles of trail from Willow to McGrath include open water and bare ground in several spots. In the weeks leading up to the race start, questions emerged over where the race would begin and whether the traditional Mat-Su start would have to be moved 400 miles north to Fairbanks.
Hooley said there will be some trail diversions, with teams following overland trails as much as possible to avoid the slippery river ice on the way to Skwentna. Any diversions to the trail wouldn't change the distance of the race, he said.
However, the decision comes with a caveat. Hooley said if the region gets more snow, the traditional trail will be followed and the groomers will not be used.
Infamous parts of the trail known for their difficulty -- including the Happy River Steps and Dalzell Gorge -- remain part of the route to Nome, with no plans to divert around them.
Reaction from mushers was mixed Monday.
"I hope they know what they're doing," said four-time champion Jeff King when reached by phone in Denali Monday.
With trail reports as poor as they've been, King, an innovator in the sport, hoped organizers might consider changing the rules that ban mushers from putting wheels on their sled this year.
"I totally admit this comes as a shock, but I do know that the times there have been rough trail and the things they're most worried about, (the race) figures out how to deal with it, often at tremendous expense," King said, noting the broken bones and busted sleds of racers past.
"Experience will be key," he said.
Dallas Seavey, the 2012 champion, said while he would have been satisfied with either decision, he was worried about the safety of mushers. Seavey, who trains in Willow, said it would be a shame to see top-tier mushers end their races because of broken bones, concussions or gashes.
Expect to see more tired mushers on the trail, Seavey said. Spots where mushers could rest or ski pole will be replaced by pushing through rough terrain that will require nimble sled handling skills. Young or old, fit or far from it, this year's Iditarod should be a challenge for every racer.
"I don't know that there's anyone out there who can do this without being destroyed by the finish line," he said.
Buser not worried
But fellow four-time champion Martin Buser called the development "excellent." The Big Lake musher has been training in the area all season, and while he's had to scale back the size of his dog team on training runs from 16 to 12 animals, he said the trails near his home "aren't as bad as people thought it would be."
When asked whether he was worried about his safety on the trail, he quickly answered no.
"You've got to put trust in the race organization and train your dogs to listen to you," Buser said. "I feel pretty confident we're going to make it along just fine."
Hooley heard the concerns of mushers, but was still confident in the decision to start in Willow. "We think we have a solution that will make the Iditarod trail as safe as it can be," Hooley said. "But I think everyone understands that you can't remove all risk."
Fairbanks off the table
It's not the first time organizers have suggested moving the race. In 2003, the race start was moved to Fairbanks. It was a massive undertaking, and in the days that followed organizers scrambled to move drop bags, rally volunteers and set up checkpoints in places that had never seen the Iditarod in their community.
That year also marked a bit of a sea change for the race. Norwegian Robert Sorlie asserted his dominance along the unusual course, charging into an early lead he hardly relinquished. Sorlie's strategy of long, slower runs marked by shorter rests triggered a resurgence of that style of racing in a race that for decades had been dominated by speedier teams that took long breaks. Lance Mackey, who would go on to win four consecutive Iditarods, modeled his strategy after the Norwegian. Sorlie would come back to Alaska to win again in 2005, that time on the traditional course over the mountains of the Alaska Range.
Sorlie is back in the Iditarod this year for the first time since finishing 12th in 2007 in his fourth race. He was ninth as a rookie in 2002. His winning percentage of .500 is tied for best in Iditarod history. In comparison, defending champ Mitch Seavey of Sterling has gone two for 20, for a winning percentage of .100.
Whether Sorlie will be able to re-create his dominance remains to be seen, since he'll be contending with a slew of fierce competitors including both Seaveys, four-time champions Buser and King, plus two-time runner up Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers and past champ John Baker from Kotzebue.
Undefeated dog teams
Both Buser and Zirkle's dog teams remain undefeated coming into the Iditarod, though both teams have captured titles with a different musher driving the team.
Seventy mushers are expected to start the 2014 race, beginning March 1 at the ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage. The restart will begin in Willow March 2.
Race organizers will hold off on bringing the groomers out until next week at the earliest. Until then?
"It wouldn't hurt to keep to praying for snow," Hooley said.