ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) In a normal year for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, things would be getting dangerous right about now.
Within the first few days of the 1,000-mile trek across Alaska, mushers would be crossing a mountain range that is home to Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak.
The expanse of wilderness is risky on its own, but last year poor trail conditions there led to many crashes.
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Amid another dry winter, teams are following a different route this year, one that organizers hope will be safer. Here’s a look at what that means for competitors:
Race officials decided to bypass the Alaska Range and moved the trail to a more northerly route, starting in Fairbanks.
The switch means no dog teams will be speeding through the cliffs and canyons of the Dalzell Gorge, where many mushers got hurt last year.
Racers also won’t be skirting exposed boulders and tree stumps in the Farewell Burn, or risking life and limb bouncing down the misnamed Happy Steps.
But they will be traveling nearly 600 miles on river ice as they head for the finish line in the Bering Sea coastal town of Nome.
Mushers expect it to be a very fast pace on the river ice, though others warn of unknown hazards as dog drivers and their teams test the new wilds of Alaska.
”The river can throw a lot of obstacles and hurdles and wind and even drifting,” two-time champion Mitch Seavey said. ”We all expect a variety of conditions and prepare for that, and I think we’re going to be fine.”
Musher Lance Mackey noted that not one dog competing in the race has been over the new trail, which he called ”kind of cool.”
”Everybody’s on the same playing field in that aspect,” the four-time champion said.
The winner is expected sometime early next week, and will pocket $70,000 and the keys to a new pickup.
Another difference this year is that many new Alaska Native communities are serving as checkpoints, such as Huslia, an Athabascan village of about 300.
That takes any edge veteran mushers have in judging how their teams are doing based on how many hours it took them in past races to get from one village to another.
”I think it will take a bit of an advantage away from mushers who are statistically aware,” said defending champion Dallas Seavey, a two-time winner like his dad, Mitch.
Instead, he believes it will come down to mushers’ ability and trust in their teams.
Changing the race isn’t totally taboo for the Iditarod.
Its competitive start typically takes place in Willow, but a portion of the trail alternates yearly between a northern and southern route.
Both sections are a part of the historical Iditarod Trail, the traditional mail and delivery path from central Alaska to Nome.
When the race first started, mushers traveled only the northern route, according to the Iditarod’s website. But after several years, officials learned the annual event was heavily affecting some smaller villages on the trail. That’s when they started alternating part of the route on even and odd years.
This year marked only the second time the Iditarod’s official start was in Fairbanks, about 225 miles north of Willow. Similar conditions moved it there in 2003.
Mackey thinks it’s time for another change for the Iditarod – allowing for a southern route, a northern route and a Fairbanks route.