Another low snow year in Alaska is playing havoc with the world's most famous sled dog race, at least for the start.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race always begins with a ceremonial, fan-friendly slow jaunt through the streets and trails of Anchorage, held a day before the start of the competitive portion of the nearly-thousand mile race.
A lack of snow last year north of Anchorage forced the race from the normal start in Willow, about 120 kilometres north of Anchorage, further north to Fairbanks. The conditions in Willow are much improved this year, but the problem is in Anchorage, where the snowfall in the city for the last two years has equalled only about two-thirds of a normal year.
"Our real challenge right now is trying to figure out whether we've got adequate snow to make Anchorage and the ceremonial start happen," Iditarod Chief Executive Officer Stan Hooley told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
"We're pretty confident in where we're going to officially start the race. In terms of that all-important ceremonial start, we've got some work to do," he said.
Important for fundraising
This will be the 44th edition of the sled dog race to Nome, and the ceremonial start has always been held in Anchorage.
That won't change, but Hooley says he's not quite sure how it might look just yet. He said in 1994, there wasn't enough snow to cover the 18-kilometre route from downtown Anchorage to the race's end in east Anchorage, and it was shortened.
One important aspect of the ceremonial start is fans across the world participate in an auction with the winners — called Iditariders — getting to ride with mushers on the Anchorage course. In each of the past few years, the auction has brought in more than $200,000 for the Iditarod.
"It's an important part of our overall fundraiser mix," he said, noting it pays other dividends.
"Those folks (Iditariders) are our very best goodwill ambassadors, because when they go back to their own little corners of the world, they do it with smiles on their faces and talk a lot about that experience. So we need to continue to nurture that program," he said.
Hooley is not ready yet to shorten the ceremonial start, and is hoping Mother Nature will help with some late February snow.
Official start likely in Willow
But Luis Ingram, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage, said there is no significant snow in the seven-day forecast, and confidence isn't high for any after that.
Anchorage set a record for low snow totals last year at 25.1 inches (63.8 cm). This year's total so far is 25.8 inches (65.5 cm), while a normal snowfall total in Anchorage is 74.5 inches (189 cm).
Hooley said there is plenty of snow outside the Willow area, and he's pretty sure that is where the race will have its official start on March 6. The board of directors will decide the official start location — either Willow or Fairbanks — on Friday.
There's also plenty of snow in traditional dodgy areas like Rainy Pass, the Dalzell Gorge and the Farewell Burn, where mushers have been injured in recent races by crashing sleds on rocky trails.
The snow in those areas is the best it's been in 15 or 20 years, Hooley said.
Dog checks begin
Meanwhile, preparations continue for this year's race, which has drawn the third-largest field ever with 86 mushers.
Part of those activities are taking place this month in a trailer set up outside Iditarod's headquarters in Wasilla, where vet tech co-ordinator Tabitha Jones is making sure all the dogs that might be in the race are getting their blood checked and hearts monitored.
Each musher can start the race with 16 dogs, but if they haven't decided on their team yet, that means they could bring in 24 dogs for those examinations. All the dogs also get an identifying chip inserted.
If every musher brought in 24 dogs, there would be more than 2,000 hounds taking part in this program.
"It's the pre-race screening program that all the dogs in the Iditarod or the potential dogs that could be on a team have to go through in order to run," Jones said.