ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Scant snowfall across the state has forced frustrated mushers to leave their sleds in the garage and turn to training on four-wheelers.
From Fairbanks to the Kenai Peninsula, huskies are hauling ATVs on dirt trails. It's a common practice in summer and fall. But at this time of year, mushers are normally ramping up training mileage on sleds.
Training with a four-wheeler is effective, mushers said.
Iditarod musher Linwood Fiedler of Willow said controlling a dog-pulled four-wheeler is actually easier than driving a sled. The musher can rev the engine a bit to help the dogs along on hills, and the precise steering and braking make four-wheelers easy to control.
''With sleds this time of year and scant snow, it's hard to stop,'' Fiedler said.
It's not just the lack of snow that is messing with the mushers. It hasn't been cold enough yet for many lakes, ponds or rivers to freeze.
Iditarod champion Martin Buser of Big Lake said local lakes and ponds aren't safely frozen yet, keeping mushers from reaching bigger trail systems. That means running the same boring trails over and over again.
Some mushers have reported that running on the hard, frozen ground has damaged their dogs' paw pads. That happened to Fiedler's dogs, so he shut down his training until several inches of snow fell last week.
''With the frozen ground, the little rocks become like very rough sand paper,'' he said. ''It wears the pads down.''
Buser's solution has been to cut distances to about eight or nine miles a day, though it still takes him most of a day to run every one of his 50 or so dogs. Buser said pulling a four-wheeler, which is considerably heavier than a sled, acts like weight training for the dogs, which has positive and negative aspects.
''They work harder. One mile on a four-wheeler is like two miles on a sled,'' he said. ''Eight or nine miles (behind a four-wheeler) easily converts to 15 or 20 miles once the snow is here. But they can bulk up too much. That's what we don't want. We want running muscles.''
Both Buser and Fiedler said they've spent idle time fixing sleds, tuning dog trucks and double-checking equipment. Buser said he's been calling friends across the state in search of snow. Should a sufficient dump occur anywhere, he's ready to pack up and go.
''If there is some snow, you're going to see a big migration,'' he said.
As of Monday, there still wasn't enough snow in most areas to run dogs. Anchorage received trace amounts Sunday and Monday.
Evy Gebhardt, wife of Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, said a light covering of snow there has at least provided soft cushioning for the dogs' pads. But it's still not enough to run a sled, she said.
One advantage is their location near the beach, where the dogs can run on soft sand.
Still, everyone misses snow.
''It's part of the game,'' she said. ''But the dogs are bummed out.''
Fielder's only stress comes from the fact that he's burning a lot of gas, and he's getting to know his four-wheeler a little too well.
''My butt's getting form-fitted to the four-wheeler,'' he said. ''If we ever get to run the Iditarod, it's going to seem easy.''
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