WASHINGTON, March 6, 2014—Mushers at the Iditarod, the annual nearly 1,000-mile sled-dog race across Alaska, are complaining that the unusually warm weather is causing dangerous conditions along the course.
“It’s the roughest I’ve ever seen,” said Jeff King, who has finished the race 22 times, to Think Progress.
With several crashes, busted knees, sprained ankles and damaged equipment, several of the 69 mushers that started are already out of the race.
Know as “the Last Great Race,” the Iditarod begins in Anchorage on the first Saturday of March and ends when the first racer arrives in Nome, on the Bering Sea coast, nine to 12 days after starting. The 2014 Iditarod officially began last Saturday in Anchorage with a ceremonial start, and kicked off in earnest on Sunday afternoon from Willow.
“The race is really a reconstruction of the freight route to Nome and commemorates the part that sled dogs played in the settlement of Alaska,” says Iditarod.com. “The mushers travel from checkpoint to checkpoint much as the freight mushers did eighty years ago—although some modern dog drivers […] move at a pace that would have been incomprehensible to their old-time counterparts, making the trip to Nome in under ten days.”
There are actually two routes on the Iditarod, the 975-mile-long Northern Route, used in even-numbered years, and the 998-mile Southern Route, used in odd-numbered years.
Seventy-two mushers signed up for the 2014 Iditarod—16 rookies and 56 veterans—from seven U.S. states and seven countries. Nineteen women started this year. American mushers are from Alaska, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, and Washington; international mushers have come from Australia, Canada, Jamaica, Norway, Sweden, and New Zealand. Sixty-nine mushers ultimately made it out of the starting line Sunday.
“We have everything you need for the perfect Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race,” said Beth Bragg in the Anchorage Daily News. “Except the perfect trail.”
According to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), January 2014 was the warmest since 2007 and the fourth warmest January on record. The temperature in Nome on January 27 reached 51 degrees—the highest January temperature in 100 years and an extraordinary 40 degrees above seasonal averages.
Along the trail, the unusually warm weather melted snow early, making it dangerous for sled-dog racing once the temperatures returned to normal in February and the melted snow refroze into ice. To add to this, snowfall in February was also below average–nearly a foot below in places like Fairbanks.
The lack of snow this year prompted race organizers to consider moving the start from Willow to Fairbanks, 300 miles north. However, Cruz Construction, a company specializing in building ice roads, offered to groom the trail with special equipment, allowing the race to begin from Willow as planned.
“The problem has been frequent mild days, which have been knocking down the snowcover,” said Jack Boston, AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist.
During previous races, organizers have been forced to pack down 10-foot snowdrifts to set checkpoints and allow for “pit stops” along the course. This year however, there is so little snow that organizers have had to drill into the ice in some places in order to mark the course.
Besides the ice, mushers are also encountering slush, water and rain along the course.
“I heard it’s pretty sketchy,” said Dean Osmar, a veteran musher who has several dogs running, but is not driving a team himself, to the Anchorage Daily News. “Warm weather we don’t need. There’s patchy snow from Rainy Pass to Nikolai. It’s gonna be pretty treacherous.”
The dogs seem to be adapting to the conditions better than the mushers, however.
“(It’s crazy) how well the dogs cope with all those challenges, how incredibly gifted they are with covering ground,” said Martin Buser to the Anchorage Daily News as he was training for his 31st Iditarod in January.
The unusually warm winter has not only affected the Iditarod. Several races have been postponed, moved and cancelled, and mushers complain that they have been unable to log as many training miles as they have in previous years, as they have been forced to travel further from their kennels in order to find suitable trails to train on.