Warm temperatures, low snow complicates Iditarod training

Unseasonably warm weather in parts of Alaska has complicated training for some mushers already signed up for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Officials say weather won’t affect race, but some mushers are skeptical

In this Sunday, March 4, 2012, photo, Ray Redington Jr. leaves as the first musher during the official start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Willow, Alaska. Redington was among the early leaders of the race on Monday. (Mary Pemberton/AP Photo)

Unseasonably warm weather in parts of Alaska has complicated training for some mushers already signed up for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

It has also forced the cancellation of several qualifying races for future rookies of the famous 1,000-mile trek to Nome.

But there's still plenty of snow along much of the route, Iditarod officials said Tuesday. They said there's no need yet to worry about drastic changes to the race, which will start March 2 with a ceremonial run in Anchorage. The competition begins the following day in Willow, 50 miles to the north.

Race marshal Mark Nordman said it's too soon to plan a repeat of 2003, when the restart was moved more than 300 miles north to Fairbanks because of too much open water in rivers and creeks that cross the route.

"If we can get out of Willow, then we have an event," Nordman said. "No panic mode yet."

Veteran musher Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake, Alaska, isn't so sure. He's heard reports about overflow on the Yenta River past Willow. Unless conditions change drastically, he doesn't see how the race can start in Willow, although Alaska is a place where temperatures can plunge very quickly.

"If we get a cold spell and everything freezes up again, I think we'll be good," he said.

3 qualifying races cancelled due to weather

In Big Lake, about 15 miles southeast of Willow, it's impossible to train. There's standing water everywhere, he said. Berkowitz plans to head north and get in some 60- to 100-mile runs with his dog team to prepare for the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in February before he runs the Iditarod.

Conditions were pretty dismal during the just-concluded Copper Basin 300 race to the east.

Berkowitz, who placed third in the 300-mile race, said the snow there was punchy with temperatures far above freezing, making for a slow, difficult race that had his dogs sinking in the soft snow. Ideal conditions are closer to —15, so Berkowitz stopped regularly to let his dogs roll around in the snow to cool off. There was no snow in parts of the route, and sleds were covering everything from concrete and grass to gravel and rain-slick ice.

"You know, 40, 50 below — that's a tough race, but I'd take 40 or 50 below over what we had in this race any day of the week," Berkowitz said. "There's not a musher out here that wouldn't say the same thing."

The deteriorated conditions led to three qualifying races being cancelled. To qualify for the Iditarod, mushers must either complete the Yukon Quest or complete two 300-mile races and other matches for a total of 750 miles. Then they must be approved by a qualifying board. Once mushers are eligible to run the Iditarod, they generally don't have to qualify again.

Iditarod hopeful Bill Piccolo, who handles sled dogs in Willow, is angry at the weather for cutting him off before he can complete a second 300-mile race, quashing his dream to be in the Iditarod next year. Now he's been offered a job in Cape Cod, Mass., that he can't turn down.

"I'm angry at the weather," he said. "But you can't do anything about the weather."