A lack of snow in Alaska's largest city is forcing organizers of the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to ship tons of it by train for the event's ceremonial start.
The mild winter in Anchorage also could mean a shorter version of the 11-mile route for the fan-friendly event Saturday, when temperatures are expected to climb above freezing.
The competitive start of the race to the old gold rush town of Nome will be held Sunday in Willow, 50 miles north of Anchorage, where lower temperatures are expected.
There have been other low-snow years affecting parts of the nearly 1,000-mile race. In fact, some might argue that moving the real start of the race last year 225 miles farther north to Fairbanks was far more dramatic because there was a wider section bare of snow last year.
This year's conditions are likely affected by shifting patterns caused by El Niño, National Weather Service meteorologist Sam Albanese said.
Iditarod officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment Tuesday. But CEO Stan Hooley told the Alaska Dispatch News earlier this week that the ceremonial start may need to be shortened after days of higher temperatures further eroded the minimal snow on area trails.
The snow shipped from Fairbanks will supplement snow the area has been stockpiling for the Iditarod and the Fur Rendezvous, Anchorage's yearly winter festival. Festival organizers also are getting some of the Fairbanks snow to be used for events, such as the popular Running of the Reindeer event set to take place after the Iditarod's ceremonial start.
"It's makeup snow to kind of make it look prettier," festival executive director Jeff Barney said.
The Alaska Railroad donated the shipment, which is expected to arrive in Anchorage by Thursday morning, railroad spokesman Tim Sullivan said. The snow, totaling at least 300 cubic yards, will be traveling in seven tippable railcars that were available for the transport.
It's important to make sure such an iconic event continues, Sullivan said. "The ceremonial start of the Iditarod is a big part of what makes Anchorage Anchorage – and a big part of Anchorage's personality," he said.
This year, 85 mushers are signed up for the race. Standing between the mushers, their dogs and the finish line are long stretches of unforgiving terrain, including two mountain ranges, the mighty Yukon River and the wind-scoured Bering Sea coast.