Iditarod ceremonial start short on snow

Posted: Friday, February 21, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- With the restart moved to Fairbanks, Iditarod officials are now scrambling to make sure there's enough snow on city streets and trails for the ceremonial start of the race March 1.

Mushers and Iditarod officials reviewed the conditions of the Anchorage trail system earlier this week and concluded that the portion of the trail that runs along Chester Creek into Bicentennial Park and to Eagle River is much too icy and bare.

''We've ruled out Eagle River,'' Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley said Wednesday. ''There is just no way of doing that.''

Race organizers are now considering two alternatives. One is to end the ceremonial Anchorage leg of the race a mere 1.5 miles down the trail at Mulcahy Park. They had to do that once before, in 1994, during another nearly snowless winter.

But that would drastically shorten the ride for the Iditariders, the folks who've paid thousands of dollars for the thrill of riding in the basket of an Iditarod sled. This year, Iditariders offered winning bids that varied from $1,100 for a ride with a rookie up to $7,500 to accompany three-time Iditarod champion Jeff King.

Trying to salvage their experience -- and the income for the Iditarod -- race and city officials Wednesday began exploring a second option that would allow the ceremonial leg of the race to extend into BLM land in the center of Bicentennial Park, about 11 miles down the trail, roughly as far as the Iditariders usually travel.

But even that's a stretch.

Just laying down 1-1/2 miles of trail from downtown to Mulcahy Park, plus a staging area near the start, will take hundreds of dump truck loads of snow, according to Vince Mee, who annually oversees that job as director of the city's road maintenance crews.

So instead of adding snow to the Chester Creek bike trail or Bicentennial Park, Iditarod officials are hoping to roto-till the ice into a suitable track, using a machine that Mee calls an ice buster.

''It's like a rolling pin with teeth on it -- they'll attach it to the front end of a Bobcat,'' he said. ''It crushes the ice up into ice cube size, then they go over it again and break it up some more.''

City crews were out Wednesday doing just that, according to Rick Calcote, start coordinator for the Iditarod. It seemed to be doing the job, he said, though a final decision on which course to adopt won't be reached until Friday.

In the meantime, Iditarod officials would welcome a blizzard, though no one's holding their breath. Mee and his city road crews are planning to truck thousands of cubic yards of snow to be spread on downtown streets.

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