Warm winter forces Iditarod dog sled race to move north

In this photo taken Thursday, March 5, 2015, are Bare patches of grass and mud on sled dog trails in Anchorage, Alaska. Warm weather and barren trails south of the Alaska Range prompted Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race officials to move the official start of the 2015 race from the greater Anchorage area to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Mark Thiessen, AP

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Much of the start of the world's most famous sled dog race is covered in barren gravel, forcing Iditarod organizers to move the start farther north where there is snow and ice.

A weather pattern that buried the eastern U.S. in snow has left Alaska fairly warm and relatively snow-free this winter.

"If I have one more person say to me to move the Iditarod to Boston, I'm going to shake my head," said race director Mark Nordman.

The nearly 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race starts Saturday with a ceremonial run through Anchorage. But the official start two days later has been moved 225 miles north, over the Alaska Range, to Fairbanks to avoid the area that left many mushers bruised and bloodied last year. Iditarod officials said the conditions are worse this year.

The race's chief executive officer, Stan Hooley, called the conditions "pretty miserable." And last year was no picnic.

A rescue helicopter picked up one musher last year after making it through the treacherous Dalzell Gorge only to hit his head on a tree stump. Knocked unconscious for at least an hour, Scott Janssen got back on the trail after waking up. But shortly after, he broke his ankle while walking on ice trying to corral a loose dog.

"As an outdoorsman, to have to be rescued from the trail isn't a wonderful thing," Janssen said.

This year's race will feature 78 mushers, including six former champions and 20 rookies. The winner is expected in Nome in about 10 days.

Alaskans can thank the jet stream, which has been delivering warm air from the Pacific, said Dave Snider, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage.

It is "allowing a lot of cold air to flow out of the Arctic into the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard, (but) we're locked into the warmer part of that pattern," he said.

Anchorage gets about 60 inches of snow in a normal year, but only about 20 inches have fallen this year.

The new route, which puts mushers on river ice for about 600 miles, could level the playing field.

"Nobody has a plan," said Nordman, the race director. "You're not going to be stopping and putting your snow hook into the same tree you had the last 20 years. It's a whole new ballgame."

Brent Sass of Eureka, Alaska, is running his third Iditarod, and is coming off a win in last month's 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

"It doesn't hurt a guy like me who has only run the race a couple of times," he said of the route change. "For the guys that have run the race 20 times, it's not just the normal routine, so it might throw them off a little bit."

Among the veterans in this year's race is defending champion Dallas Seavey, and 2014's bizarre finish will be remembered as much as the poor trail conditions.

A sudden blizzard blew four-time champion and race leader Jeff King out of the race when he was about 25 miles from the finish line.

Aliy Zirkle, who was solidly in second place, waited out the storm at the last checkpoint, 22 miles from Nome. She got back on the trail when Seavey blew through the checkpoint, but lost the race by two minutes, 22 seconds. It was her third straight runner-up finish with no wins.

The route change eliminates the mountainous terrain and treacherous gorge, but it could present mushers with a whole new set of problems with a flat trail on unpredictable river ice. Plus, because it's an entirely new route, mushers say they can't rely much on information, even something as simple as the mileage between village checkpoints, provided by Iditarod officials.

By removing the Alaska Range, mushers may assume it will be a very fast race, Seavey said.

"Just because it's a flat trail does not mean your dogs can all of a sudden do 10 times what they've been able to do in the past," said Seavey, a two-time champion.

"In the end, this race will not be won on tricks or gimmicks. It will be won on good dogmanship," he said.