Snowless, warm winter hard on mushers and snowmachiners

Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- One of the warmest, driest winters on record has organizers of Alaska's extreme races hoping for some extreme weather.

The Tesoro Iron Dog Snowmachine Race, which was scheduled to start in Fairbanks on Feb. 9, has been postponed for a week because of poor trails conditions.

If conditions don't improve by the end of the month, the world's longest snowmachine race will be canceled. The warm weather means that more than 100 miles of the 2,000-mile trial is open water.

Iron Dog officials on Thursday announced the start of the annual snowmachine race from Fairbanks to Nome to Wasilla will be delayed until Feb. 16.

Iron Dog officials covered the entire route by snowmachine and airplane a little over a week ago and found about 150 miles of trail on the Happy River and the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River were still open water, said Iron Dog executive director Stacey Grohol.

There's also a little problem with little snow on the Bering Sea coast. Snow cover on the coast is minimal at best, especially from White Mountain to Nome, Grohol said.

There are some other areas of trail with marginal snow cover as well.

''We can't run without snow,'' she said.

Conditions in the Interior are satisfactory, according to Howie Thies of Fairbanks, who is handling organization for the race on the Fairbanks end.

''We've got some concerns on the Tanana River but we'll make it,'' Thies said. ''Just pray for snow and cold weather on the other side of the (Alaska) Range.''

Now in its 20th year, the Iron Dog has never been canceled. The closest call was in the race's first year when competitors flew their snowmachines to McGrath to start the race because of poor trail south of the Alaska Range.

Officials will meet Jan. 30 after another trail review, Grohol said.

At that point, a decision will be made to either postpone the race until after the Iditarod or cancel it altogether.

If the Iron Dog is canceled, it's likely the Serum Run 25 will be canceled too. The annual entourage of about two dozen recreational mushers and snowmachiners travel 768 miles from Nenana to Nome the week after the Iron Dog, which breaks trail for the Serum Run.

Despite reports of poor trail in the Alaska Range, officials with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which follows the Iron Dog trail from Wasilla to Nome, aren't panicking yet.

Race manager Jack Niggemeyer was planning to fly over the trail this weekend to survey the conditions, according to Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley.

''Obviously we're hoping something has changed,'' he said.

Hooley said Iditarod officials aren't contemplating a change in the March 1 start date of the race.

''We'll sit tight and let Mother Nature do her work,'' Hooley said.

Things are looking better for the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to Fairbanks, which is scheduled for a Feb. 9 start in Whitehorse.

Things are looking good after a dose of cold temperatures and snow in the Interior in the past two weeks.

''We're still on course,'' said Alaska race director Layne St. John in Fairbanks.

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