A winter of heavy snow in Alaska is keeping trail breakers busy clearing the route of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race but no one can remove other weather-related challenges like jumbled ice along the state’s western coast and the heightened possibility of run-ins with grouchy moose.
And as always in the unpredictable trek through wilderness and Alaska Native villages, there are mountains to climb, forests and frozen rivers to cross — and maybe some blizzards and fierce winds to battle after the competition begins Sunday in Willow, 50 miles north of Anchorage. A ceremonial start in Anchorage along an 11-mile urban stretch Saturday will give fans a close-up view of the 66 teams hoping to reach the finish line in Nome, an old gold rush town on Alaska’s western coast.
Participants are from Alaska, four other states and four other countries. They include past winners, veterans, young guns and rookies.
"Literally, this is as strong a field as I’ve seen," race marshal Mark Nordman said.
The contenders include defending champion John Baker, who won last year’s race in record time, and Hugh Neff, who comes in less than three weeks after he won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race by just 26 seconds. Beside Baker, five other past Iditarod champions also are signed up. They include four-time winner Lance Mackey, the only musher ever to win both the Iditarod and the Quest in the same year.
"The competition is getting stiffer every time we race this race," said Baker, who lives in the Arctic town of Kotzebue. "There’s a lot of good teams out there."
Baker, 49, is the first Inupiat Eskimo to win the Iditarod and the first Alaska Native to win it since Jerry Riley did in 1976. For this year’s race, Baker’s 16-dog team will include 11 dogs from his winning run.
Because of deep snow banking the trail, Baker expects to see more moose, and other mushers said they’ve had tangles with moose during training runs. Baker also expects some of the run across the frozen Bering Sea coast to be farther inland instead of on the ice, which is uncrossable in places this year. That means traveling on more hills and valleys, but Baker said his dogs are up to any task.
"They should be very strong," he said. "The team is definitely capable of anything that last year’s team was."
Mitch Seavey, the 2004 Iditarod winner, believes he has the team to beat. He’s got so many strong dogs that it will be hard to decide on just 16, said the 52-year-old Sterling musher, among three generations of Seaveys in the race. Seavey was withdrawn from last year’s race after nearly severing a finger while cutting open a bale of straw along the trail.
"I’m going to win," he said. "That’s all there is to it."
For this year’s Iditarod, organizers have cut out a notoriously steep and dangerous section called the Happy River Steps, a series of switchbacks, and rerouted the trail to a nearby winter road created by a mineral exploration company.
The change has elicited some grumbles that it eliminates some of the historical romance and adventure of the race. Others praise the move, including Willow musher DeeDee Jonrowe, an Iditarod veteran with 14 top-10 finishes, twice as runner-up.
Jonrowe, 58, dislocated her shoulder there last year, she said, and Rick Swenson, the Iditarod’s only five-time winner, broke his collar bone in the same race. Despite their injuries, both completed the race.
For Jonrowe, the rerouting was a good call.
"I really think that is what this race is all about. That is the highest standard of dog care," she said. "When it was the only way down, they did what they could to make it as safe as possible and we all had our hearts in our throats and went that way."
Organizers are now saying the northern Iditarod route taken on even years is actually 975 miles, not as long as the 1,150 miles quoted in the past, although some mushers believe the new estimate is too low and that the race is at least 1,000 miles. There are various reasons for the mileage tweak, organizers said, including the move of the competitive start north from Wasilla to Willow.
The total purse is $550,000 for the first 30 finishers, with the winner receiving $50,400 and a new truck. A record purse of $875,000 was handed out in 2008. In past years, the winner’s take was as high as $69,000.