FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - Winter has finally cooperated with the Iditarod.
More than four inches of new snowfall greeted Stan Hooley, the chief executive officer of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, when he arrived in Fairbanks on Sunday, a day before the competitive race begins.
“Seems a little bit more like the Iditarod when you actually have some snow around,” said Hooley.
Warm temperatures have played havoc with the Iditarod all winter long as the same stalled jet stream that buried the eastern seaboard in snow has left Alaska unseasonable warm and dry. Officials last month decided conditions in the Alaska Range were so poor because of a lack of snow that the competitive start would be moved over the mountain range to Fairbanks.
That wasn’t the only change officials were considering, and the ceremonial start in Anchorage could have been moved to Fairbanks, as well, also because of the weather.
“It was closer than I’d like to admit, yeah,” he said. “We like to tell people the Iditarod will never be canceled, and it wouldn’t. But the possibility of the ceremonial start needing to be moved as well, was very real.”
The temperature of 14 degrees and light snow in Fairbanks Sunday morning were very different from the conditions mushers faced in Anchorage a day before, when it was 40 degrees and rainy. Municipality of Anchorage crews trucked in snow so mushers could travel downtowns streets for the ceremonial start, but Hooley said if the event had gone on another hour, that all would have been melted away.
There was one casualty during the ceremonial run when Stuart, a dog on Buena Vista, Colorado, musher Lachlan Clarke’s team, was struck and killed by a car in Anchorage after it got loose.
Fairbanks hasn’t been entirely without weather worries either. The race was to have started on the Chena River, but a string of days near the freezing mark prompted worry the ice wouldn’t be strong enough to handle the weight of mushers, dog teams and all the volunteers needed at the start. Officials have moved the start a few hundred feet onto land, and mushers will go about a half-mile before getting on the river.
The route change will put 78 mushers on an entirely new route to the finish line in the old Gold Rush town of Nome on the Bering Sea, most of it on river ice. The winner, who will pocket $70,000 and the keys to a new pickup, is expected in about nine days.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins thanked community volunteers for making the Fairbanks start a reality in spite of the short turnaround.
“You know, Fairbanks steps up to it,” he said.
It helps Fairbanks has an extensive history with the sport. The 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, considered by some to be even more rugged than the Iditarod, alternates its start and finish each year between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. Fairbanks also plays host to many sled dog sprint races throughout the year, and hosted the Iditarod start in 2003, another low-snow year.
“Fairbanks is dog mushing. It’s more than a sport here, it’s a lifestyle,” said Deb Hickok, president of Explore Fairbanks.
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