Tuesday, February 11
Iditarod start moving to Fairbanks to salvage race

Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Officials unanimously approved a plan Tuesday to move the restart of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to Fairbanks rather than cancel the event because of a lack of snow south of the Alaska Range.

"It's the correct decision in light of the present circumstances,'' Iditarod president Rick Koch said of the unprecedented detour from the historic restart site in Wasilla. "It will provide a safe race trail for dog and human competitors.''

Such a drastic change is a first since the 1,100-mile race between Anchorage and Nome began in 1973.

The ceremonial start March 1 is still set for Anchorage, but probably will be limited to 11 miles unless at least 6 inches of snow is on the ground. Trucking in enough snow to continue to Eagle River is not a realistic option, organizers said.

Unseasonably warm temperatures have melted much of the little snow that's fallen in the area this winter. The beginning of the actual Iditarod trail is marred by glare ice, bare ground and spans of open rivers.

The restart will take place a day late -- at 10 a.m. March 3 -- to give mushers time to drive their dog teams to Fairbanks, about 360 miles north of Anchorage.

"Logistically, there's a lot to do once we fold up the circus tents in Anchorage,'' Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley said.

The restart will take place on the Chena River about a mile from Fairbanks International Airport, although officials said the exact location has not been determined.

Specifics are still subject to the weather, but roughly the planned route will follow the Chena River where it flows into the Tanana River to Nenana, then an overland trail to Manley and Tanana.

From there, mushers will follow the Yukon River to Ruby then south to Cripple and Ophir, where they'll pick up the trail used during odd-numbered years.

The change will add between 75 and 100 miles to the race, officials said.

It's the first time the restart has gone beyond Willow, an occasional alternative to Wasilla. But officials pointed out that the new route is actually a return to the Nenana-to-Nome trail followed in 1925 by dog teams delivering lifesaving diphtheria serum.

The Iditarod commemorates that first run.

"For the first few hundred miles, everybody will be a rookie,'' Hooley said. "That changes things significantly.''

Race organizers had considered holding the restart in Nenana, but decided the Interior community of 444 was not equipped to accommodate 67 mushers and dog teams, handlers and fans. Also, there's less snow in Nenana than Fairbanks.

Race officials met this weekend to discuss the change and notified mushers, who have until Wednesday and Thursday to make their food drops although organizers are waiting another week to make drops in certain vulnerable areas south of Ruby. Several officials visited Fairbanks on Monday to meet with city officials, tour prospective sites and check conditions. They were met by rain, Hooley said.

"We saw wet trails but I'm hard-pressed to believe the trend in Fairbanks and surrounding areas will continue as it has in this area,'' Hooley said. "The ability to travel by dog team is there.''

Hooley said officials were encouraged by dropping temperatures Tuesday, when Fairbanks received light snow.

Officials also were heartened by the positive response from mushers.

Like other mushers, Perry Solmonson of Plain, Wash., said a change is better than attempting to cross an impassable trail. Solmonson, who scratched last year in his rookie bid, was on the road to Alaska when mushers were notified, so he didn't find out until a border guard broke the news.

"Obviously we don't have the right conditions,'' Solmonson said. "To force the situation would not be good for the dogs and it would be hard on equipment.''

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