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3/9/15 - Due to warm weather, Iditarod Sled-dog Race gets a slushy ceremonial start

The change to start to the race in Fairbanks has mushers thinking about new strategies

By Zachariah Hughes, KSKA

The Ceremonial start of the 43rd Iditarod filled downtown Anchorage with dogs, fans, and snow trucked in from Goose Lake. Unusually warm weather has hampered Southcentral Alaska's winter snow-pack and led officials to move the race start to Fairbanks for only the second time ever. And it turned the 11-mile trail around Anchorage into mush. The new route through the Interior will challenge even the most tenured seasoned racers as long-held strategies are scrambled.

Light morning rain and temperatures in the upper-30s Saturday morning were yet another reminder:  it hasn't been a good season for mushers in Southcentral Alaska. Reliable training grounds like Willow, where many prominent veterans keep kennels, all the way down to Kasilof have been without good snow to put miles on their teams. That's led many, like 2014 finisher Monica Zappa, to spend winter on the move.

"We've basically been living out of our truck," said Zappa. "We haven't been able to train at home on the Kenai Peninsula for two-and-a-half months, so we actually ended up going to Wyoming."

While the switch in start locations may seem like an advantage for Interior mushers clustered around Fairbanks, many teams moved up there for part of the season to take advantage of the snow. And with the first leg of this year's route following smooth, fast rivers rather than the technical climb and descent through the Alaska Range in past years, veteran Richie Diehle says the terrain isn't to any one region's advantage.

"I'm from Aniak on the Kuskokwim River, so I love river traveling," said Diehle

But long stetches on the Chena and Nenana rivers early on present new challenges. Paige Drobny will be pacing her team in the first leg of the race.

"I'm gonna make sure to have my GPS on so that I don't let them go any faster than 10 miles per hour, is my speed," said Drobny. "Because it's flat and straight, it's really easy to let them run, and I think you can burn 'em out if you do that."

The other confounding variable is the distance between checkpoints. Iditarod mushers who design strategies around sprinting from one stop to the next will have a difficult time making it all 119 miles from Tanana to Ruby without stopping. And that, says Lisbett Norris, means making plans to camp.

"I packed an extra caribou skin, in addition to my regular sleeping pad," said Norris, "'cause I want to be comfortable and cozy."

There is one other long-distance sled-dog race where stretches on rivers and camping on the trail are the norm, and that's the Yukon Quest. While Brent Sass of Eureka has only run the Iditarod twice before, he's run the Quest nine times and just a few weeks ago came in first.

"Yeah, camping out is one of my main deals," said Sass. "I love camping out on the trail, and I'll be doing the same thing: building a big fire every stop I can."

Few mushers at the Ceremonial Start would reveal the details of their layover strategies--which is par for the course in a race where psychological advantages are their own tactic. But there are also some unknowns in the weather forecast, as temperatures are projected to drop to twenty below with a possibility of heavy snow. And for Kelly Maixner, changes in the layover rules are yet another variable to contend with.


"We do have a different option this year of taking our 8 before our 24," said Maixner. "So I'll just have to get out there and assess the situation, it's kind of gonna be an on-the-fly race this year for me."

In a year with so many adjustments, the one change that mushers across the board, like Hugh Neff of Tok, are looking forward to is the race's first ever stop in Huslia, home to George Atla who passed away just last month.


"Y'know, George Atla is the greatest dog-musher ever," said Neff, "and we're honoring his spirit this year."

The festivities were marred by the death of a sled-dog not involved in the ceremonial start. One of the dogs belonging to Lachlan Clarke, a race veteran from Colorado, got loose from the staging area at Campbell Tract,
and was hit by a car several hours later.

The race's official start is at 10 a.m. today [Monday].

Legislators set to work on state operating budget, Medicaid reform, Attorney General confirmation

Coming up this week in the state Legislature the focus will be on the House, which is expected to take up the state's operating budget. The House Finance Committee is working to finalize its version of the budget with amendments scheduled for Tuesday. The bill is scheduled for the House floor later in the week.
The committee heard hours of testimony and received hundreds of emails. Finance co-chairs Mark Newman and Steve Thompson indicated some adjustments could be made. But they and others also have said that cuts are needed and difficult decisions will have to be made.
Also this week, Senate finance committee co-chair Pete Kelly a Republican from Fairbanks plans to introduce a bill aimed at reforming reform Medicaid.
And the senate judiciary committee plans a hearing to confirm Attorney General nominee Craig Richards.