Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race CEO Stan Hooley said this week he could sum up the 2017 race trail in three words: "Lots of snow."
The endless snow and below-zero temperatures expected for the trail out of Fairbanks are a departure from the comparatively warm days of last year's race, and the forecast had some mushers bracing for bone-numbing chill.
"The cold from the time I started my Iditarod process has been one of my biggest fears," musher Kristin Bacon said at vet checks on Wednesday in Wasilla.
Bacon, who has a kennel out of Big Lake and ran her first Iditarod last year, said when she checked the Fairbanks forecast for Monday and saw lows of 27 below zero, "I had a little moment of panic."
Bacon and 71 other mushers and their sled dog teams will depart Fairbanks for the official start of the 2017 Iditarod beginning at 11 a.m. Monday, two days after the ceremonial start in Anchorage. It's the third time in the race's 45-year history that the Iditarod will start in the Interior city. Typically it begins in Willow.
"We're supposed to have good snow, you know, which we haven't had in the past couple of years," said Mark Nordman, Iditarod race director and race marshal, on Wednesday. "It's pretty good snow all the way up."
However, he cautioned, "That could blow away at any time."
Snow and cold
By Thursday, about 78 inches of snow had fallen in Fairbanks, nearly 26 inches more than last year, according to the National Weather Service.
"We haven't really seen anything quite like this in some time," NWS meteorologist Ryan Metzger said about this winter's total snowfall — the most the city has gotten since the winter of 1992-93.
Metzger said the cold Arctic air diving into the Interior would drive temperatures below zero next week, with lows of 20 to 30 below zero in the area west of Fairbanks on Tuesday and temperatures warming up to a low of 20 below the following day.
"It looks like it should be relatively clear skies, which kind of corresponds to the colder temperatures," Metzger said.
Typically, temperatures between zero and 10 below are optimal for racing sled dogs, said Iditarod chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson.
"The colder it gets, the more concern that they're maintaining good hydration and the caloric need goes up just to stay warm," he said.
Despite Fairbanks' current cold, the Iditarod start will take place on Hoselton Road near Pike's Waterfront Lodge on Monday because higher temperatures last month led to open water on parts of the Chena River, according to Lanien Livingston, Fairbanks North Star Borough spokesperson.
"We had that really warm weather about 10 days ago, so there were some places where the river was really soft," Livingston said on Thursday.
The sled dog teams will meet up with the Chena a bit farther downriver, where race organizers had no concerns. Running on the river will continue much of the way through the Interior, mainly on the Yukon River, far and away Alaska's longest.
Nordman said Wednesday that he had not heard reports of any open water on the race route outside of Fairbanks.
Compared to the normal trail out of Willow, the route from Fairbanks is flatter, involves more racing on frozen river ice and has only 16 checkpoints, compared to the typical 22 or 21. Some of the checkpoints on the trail will see the race for only the second or third time in what's the 45th edition of the race to Nome.
That includes Nenana, the first checkpoint out of Fairbanks, 60 miles away.
Mayor Jason Mayrand said the community of about 450 planned to bring stew and soup to the tribal hall for the mushers to eat, as well as hardtack biscuits they can take when they leave.
He said Nenana looked forward to the Iditarod coming through, especially because of the historical significance of dog mushing in the community. Nenana served as the start of the original serum run of 1925, a dog mushing relay that delivered life-saving diphtheria serum to the gold-mining town of Nome.
"For us, it's kind of a recognition of the importance of what happened back then, even though the Iditarod is technically not a recreation of the serum run, per se, it's still nice to see them go down the traditional trails that they went down way back when," Mayrand said on Thursday.
Mayrand said Nenana received a lot of snow and wind this winter, which had swept the snow into piles on the river. If the wind picks up again after trail-breakers come through, he anticipated an "interesting" run with snow berms for the first teams into Nenana.
"The guys out front are probably going to be working pretty hard to get that first run," he said.
Mushers will continue to follow the Tanana River to Manley Hot Springs before hitting the Yukon and following that river to the villages of Tanana, Ruby and Galena. They will head overland 82 miles north to Huslia and then back south to Koyukuk, returning to the Yukon, which Nordman described as "a freeway."
Tom Kriska of Koyukuk, has been traveling much of the trail between Koyukuk and Huslia by snowmachine to prepare it for dog teams, he said, placing dozens of reflective trail markers and trimming willows.
"I didn't want willows hanging over them and slapping them in the face at night," Kriska, 55, said on Thursday. "The trail is nice and wide. It's a good trail."
That morning temperatures hovered around 25 below, he said, and had dropped to 50 and 60 below in the area this winter. He said the community was readying for the Iditarod, preparing space for the sled dogs to rest and a warm building for the mushers. It's the second time the race will go through the village.
"Oh, they get real excited," he said of the community. "And we talk to the snowmachiners and all that to be aware. We need to be on top of our game."
Mushers will travel from Koyukuk to Nulato to Kaltag, rejoining the traditional trail on their way to Nome.
Correction: This story originally reported the year of the diphtheria serum run from Nenana to Nome as 1935. The year was 1925.