FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Lack of snow and uncommonly warm temperatures could cancel the next Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
For the first time since the race began in 1984, a deadline has been set to decide if the 2003 race will be run.
There have been low-snow years before, but this year's conditions have left many of the rivers and lakes along the trail unfrozen, prompting the Yukon Quest International Council to set a Jan. 15 deadline, said Layne St. John, the executive director for the Fairbanks staff. This date was picked to give mushers a substantial warning before having to have their supplies ready for the food drop deadline of Jan. 21.
But St. John is confident there will be a race.
''Three weeks ago I wouldn't have said that, but now that I've looked at forecasted weather conditions, there's going to be three races,'' St. John said, referring to the 120-mile Junior Quest that starts in Fairbanks Feb. 1 and the 1,000- and 250-mile versions of the Quest that start Feb. 9 in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
Tony Davis, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Fair-banks, said temperatures will gradually start to dip as colder air starts moving in within the next week. There is a chance for some snow flurries but no big snowstorm looming in the foreseeable future.
''Winter hasn't officially arrived, but we'll see temperatures reach down to 10 below or 10 above for the high and low ranges,'' Davis told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
The worry revolves around the large stretches of open water on rivers that dog teams will have to traverse. Rivers -- most notably the Yukon, Fortymile, Birch Creek, Takhini and Chena -- account for several hundred miles of trail.
The Klondike River running from Whitehorse to Dawson City has frozen and thawed at least two and possibly three times in some places so far.
Ice is frozen about a foot thick on the Yukon River where it meets the Klondike River at Dawson City, said Royal Canadian Mounted Police Constable Jeffrey Kalles. Vehicles are crossing the river on temporary ice bridges.
''It's rough right now, but we're expecting the snow to be there by Quest time -- if it ever snows,'' Kalles said. The area has 2 to 3 inches of snow and temperatures are in the 20s, he said.
But the majority of the river running is done in Alaska.
The trail runs on the Fortymile and Yukon rivers for three-quarters of the 150 miles between Dawson City and Eagle. Except for a couple of Bush trails that briefly come up off the river after Eagle, most of roughly 158 miles between Eagle and Circle is on the Yukon River.
''There's probably just 30 to 40 percent of the river covered with ice flow,'' said Eagle resident John Borg. As of Friday, temperatures had yet to reach zero in Eagle. ''Six is the coldest I think we've hit.''
Borg said this year broke the previous record for the latest the river has frozen in the area. The previous record was Dec. 11 in 1950 and 1981.
Farther up the trail, there is a half-mile stretch of the Yukon River still open in front of Circle, said Dick Hutchinson. However, Hutchinson said the area is covered with about 6 inches of snow, more than what has blanketed other towns along the Quest trail.
As of Friday, there was open water on the Chena River where the finish line ends at the Cushman Street Bridge and a recent light dusting of snow just barely covers the ice in Fairbanks.
There are other options used over the years to deal with less than ideal trail conditions for the race that has been dubbed the ''Toughest Sled Dog Race in the World.'' There could be shorter detours around problem areas. In a previous year, teams started with 10 dogs rather than 14 and were allowed to add the rest of their team at a later checkpoint.
''It's been known the day of the race all of the sudden the bottom drops out of the thermometer, the snow starts coming down and the wind picks up,'' St. John said.
But even in the worst-case scenario, the route could be detoured to a more ground-based trail running through Tok, St. John said. This route would include river crossings, instead of long stretches of river travel.
''We have talked about it and it's been brought up, but to the best of my knowledge it's never been officially declared an alternative route,'' St. John said. He was a bartender when four mushers sat at a Fairbanks bar and dreamed up the race in 1983. He's been the executive director in Fairbanks for the last 4.5 years.
As the deadline draws near, 29 entrants have signed up for the race. Others have until midnight Sunday to add their name to the list.
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