Soon after they start competing, participants in the Iditarod — Alaska’s iconic, 1,000-mile sled dog race — find themselves cold and lonely, darting across the state’s vast, snowy expanse.
But that’s not how the so-called “Last Great Race” begins. The Iditarod’s ceremonial beginning in Anchorage is half parade, half sporting event: Spectators line the streets, cameras are out and balloons bob above sponsor banners.
It’s 11 miles of off-the-clocks pomp. Usually.
When this year’s iteration of the Iditarod starts Saturday, the ceremonial route will be much shorter than normal — just three miles — because of a lack of snow.
Alaska’s winter has been so mild that even that abbreviated route will have to be lined with imported powder.
“It’s a rare occasion that there isn’t enough snow in Anchorage,” said Tim Sullivan, spokesman for the Alaska Railroad, which delivered seven cars full of snow to Anchorage for the event on Thursday morning.
Alaska Railroad volunteered to transport the snow at the request of organizers of the Iditarod and Fur Rendezvous festival — known locally as Fur Rondy. It was hauled in from a Fairbanks rail yard, some 365 miles away, and was attached to the back of a freight train already headed to Anchorage, Sullivan said.
“The Iditarod’s an icon here — it’s the state sport — and really important to us here at the Railroad that it’s able to go off without a hitch,” Sullivan said. “It’s really an important thing to Anchorage and to the state.”
The lack of snow is not a new concern for the Iditarod.
A similar problem along the race’s route last year forced organizers to move the post-ceremony starting point — the “Restart” — from Willow to Fairbanks for just the second time in the race’s four-decade history. (The first was in 2003.)
And for three years now, organizers of the Iditarod, Fur Rondy and the snowmobile race known as Iron Dog have been in touch with the Alaska Railroad about the possibility of transporting snow to Anchorage, Sullivan said. This week happened to be the first time it proved necessary.
“There just isn’t enough snow to make due, so they needed some more to supplement it,” he said. “This is a very unusual circumstance.”
In a statement announcing this year’s truncated route, Iditarod organizers said that officials worked hard to find a way to proceed with an 11-mile track.
“Unfortunately, the warm temperatures persisted and it is no longer possible this year,” Iditarod Trail Committee chief executive Stan Hooley said in a statement.
But, he told race fans, fear not: “The excitement of having more than 1,000 of the most finely-tuned sled dogs in the world will, as always, make for an electric environment.”
The environment, however, is the problem.
January was the fifth-warmest on record in Alaska, with temperatures 15 degrees above the long-term average for the state, which is warming faster than the rest of the nation.
“Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as rapidly as the rest of the United States, with state-wide average annual air temperature increasing by 3°F and average winter temperature by 6°F, with substantial year-to-year and regional variability,” reads an entry in the federal government’s 2014 National Climate Assessment.
And Anchorage is experiencing one of its mildest winters on record. Snow depths there typically peak between mid-February and early March, according to climatologist Brian Brettschneider.
Yet, as he points out, last month was far from typical: The city logged the only February day in more than a half-century with zero inches of recorded snow depth.
In the end, that lack of snow forced Iditarod organizers to act.
“We’ve done everything we can do to have any sort of start here in Anchorage,” Hooley said Wednesday, according to the Alaska Dispatch News.
Like the snow, the ceremonial route will be dramatically scaled back.
Cody Strathe, a musher who is participating in his first Iditarod this year, told CNN that he has seen a dramatic change in Alaska’s winters since moving to the state 15 years ago, from the Midwest.
“A smart musher will train on all conditions throughout the year and know how to handle low snow conditions,” Strathe said. “Sled dog racing will have to adapt to this trend of low snow and warmer winters.”
Saturday’s forecast in Anchorage calls for highs in the mid-30s and a low of 24, according to Accuweather.