Mushers get e-mail with changes in Iditarod route

Posted: Monday, February 10, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race have been notified by e-mail that the race restart will be moved north to Fairbanks or Nenana, due to rapidly deteriorating trail conditions in Southcentral Alaska.

It would be the first time in the history of the race that the restart would not take place in Southcentral Alaska.

Iditarod officials said an announcement on the race course would be made Tuesday.

The e-mail, sent to mushers by race manager Jack Niggemyer Saturday, said the restart would be somewhere north of the Alaska Range near Fairbanks or Nenana.

Mushers are busy repacking their food bags for the Interior route. They were also rethinking race strategy for a run down the Tanana and Yukon River valleys rather than traditional Wasilla restart and the climb over the Alaska Range that has marked the first 250 miles of the race since the first race to Nome in 1973.

''They say it will definitely (start) in either Nenana or Fairbanks,'' said last year's Iditarod winner, Martin Buser of Big Lake. ''I think it's great. In Wasilla, there's no trail, there's nothing.''

Near Buser's home, warm weather and rain have turned miles of snowpacked trail to bare ground. Creeks and rivers that are usually frozen have spans of deep, open water.

Musher Jon Little of Kasilof has heard reports from the trail through the Alaska Range of slopes of glare ice above open water.

''I don't know of any musher who would say they are ready to go up and down the Alaska Range this year,'' he said.

Mushers said that race officials told them they will meet Tuesday in Fairbanks to finalize their decision. They will also decide whether the race will start in Fairbanks or Nenana.

The Southern race route, which is run in odd-numbered years, is 1,122 miles from Anchorage to Nome. From Fairbanks, the proposed race would be 1,164 miles. From Nenana, the race would be about 50 miles shorter.

Mushers were enthusiastic about the new course. The serum run to Nome by dog mushers in 1925, which the race commemorates, went from Nenana, down the Tanana and Yukon rivers to the sea, then north along the coast to Nome.

''It follows the original route. It's sort of going back to the roots in a way,'' said Little, who placed fourth in the 2002 Iditarod.

The tentative route after a start near Fairbanks would follow the Tanana River Valley to Manley and Tanana, where the river joins the Yukon. Mushers will then follow the Yukon to Ruby, then jog south from Ruby to Cripple and Ophir, where mushers will join the traditional race trail, 679 miles from Nome.

The Interior is also being hit by warm weather.

Musher Bill Cotter said weekend rain has hurt trails in Nenana, where he lives, and led to overflow on the Tanana River.

''It's doable. But it's going to have to be colder before they use that river,'' he said.

Cotter has run the Iditarod 17 times but will not run this year. He said the roughly 460 miles between Fairbanks and where the race is now slated to join the traditional trail in Ophir may be easier on dogs than crossing the Alaska Range.

''It's possible the dogs will be coming in a little fresher,'' he said.

A different route will not change the spirit of the race, said Ramy Brooks, who placed second last year.

''The strong teams are still going to be the strong teams. It's not like its going to be a change in the outcome of the race,'' he said. ''The best team is still going to win.''

Race officials were under pressure to make a decision about the route. Drops of food and other gear are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. Numerous questions remain for mushers and organizers.

The March 1 start in Anchorage will go ahead, according to the letter. Niggemyer said that start may be shortened because of low snow.



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