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Will the snow ever come? Doubts creep in for mushers, skiers, trappers and snowmachiners

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: December 9, 2018
  • Published December 9, 2018

Bryan Bearss heads out on a training run on a four-wheeler on December 23, 2014, at Karin Hendrickson's home north of Willow. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

The lack of snow over much of Alaska has turned the thoughts of winter enthusiasts to, “What now?”

Paxson has most of the snow, but every snowmobile on the highway system can't run to Paxson.

Skiers are finding a little snow here and there, albeit it’s somewhat skimpy and rocky. Trappers are beating their machines to oblivion over stumps and bumps. Dog mushers are singing the blues, either because of broken sleds or the bruises on their butts from bumping along on four-wheelers behind 14 raucous huskies.

A month ago the snow was late. No worries, it's a-comin'.

Maybe. That tiny worm of doubt is beginning to creep in.

The recreational snowmachiner can leave his rig under the cover. The skier can lean her skis against the wall of the garage. Neither will be worse for wear. Trappers can shorten their lines a bit and slow down, because at least there is ice.

But snow or no snow, the dogs still eat. And eat.

Recreational mushers are on their ATVs for the most part. The Fairbanks area has enough snow for small teams on the sled, but just barely. Stopping might be a problem.

Race teams are a different animal. The professional musher-types need to run big teams. They have big dog yards and that more-is-better attitude. For them, the intrusive doubt-worm is making itself known. Will snow come in time for the races?

The forecasts don’t show much of a possibility for substantial snow over the next week. The start of the Yukon Quest is about seven weeks away. Thirty mushers have signed up, and more may enter before the Jan. 4 deadline.

Snow is not the only issue for the Quest. The Yukon River likes it quite a lot colder than it is right now for it to freeze for safe travel.

I recall the 2014 race when Matt Hall, Dave Dalton and I came up on an open lead 75 miles above Circle City. Four or five teams had gone ahead of us and made it across.

We three looked at it and shook our heads. Getting across would have taken a running start on a paddle track. Fortunately, Matt Hall had a wonderful leader, Keeper, who broke trail for us on the north side of the river. He took us through a couple of miles of overflow until we found a safe crossing above the lead.

The 2019 Quest could see much worse than a relatively short open lead. Whitehorse, where the race will start, has three inches of snow. There is an increase in Yukon Quest entries this year, and some are a bit light on winter travel experience.

The Quest’s boon is partly due to the Iditarod’s woes.

The Iditarod took a public hit in 2017 when allegations of dog abuse and neglect surfaced among some of the perennial contenders' kennels. Those allegations, coupled with the Dallas Seavey doping controversy, brought negative attention to the Last Great Race. The Iditarod Trail Committee countered with a few rule changes and some much-heralded dog care guidelines.

Those dog-care guidelines not only came to naught. They actually removed some dog-care requirements.

In the past, Iditarod entrants had to be members of the Mush With Pride organization, which has kennel standards. Evidently fearful that Pride would require member kennels to actually meet the kennel standards, the Iditarod removed the Mush With Pride membership requirement. Kennels must now only certify that their kennel follows Mush With Pride guidelines.

Hmm. That dog won't hunt.

New Iditarod Trail Committee board members were put in place at the demand of the Iditarod Finishers Club, and the revamped board had been relatively quiet until last week. That’s when it issued a public apology to Dallas Seavey for the troubles he faced after four of his dogs tested positive for Tramadol at the end of the 2017 race.

I have to scratch my head over that one. The ITC never accused, censored or penalized Dallas Seavey for anything. They simply publicized the results of the tests. Speculation did the rest.

It is likely the low number of Iditarod entrants (53 is the fewest since the 1980s) is a reaction to the rule controversies. Mushers on the fence are adopting a “we’ll see how it goes” attitude.

Many of the holdouts are now patting themselves on the back – there may not be snow anyway. There are only four entrants who are not on the road system. A couple are from Bethel, which has no snow. Martin Reitan may be in the best shape. He lives in Kaktovik, and Kaktovik has snow.

The middle Yukon and the western coast probably have sufficient snow to run dogs and snowmobiles, and March is a long way off.

December and January are historically low-snow months in the Interior of Alaska, but times are changing. November was more like September. For the sake of winter in Alaska, let’s hope that December can mimic late October.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time Yukon Quest champion.

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