The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is known for its highs and lows, and the decision to move the restart from Willow to Fairbanks has kindled those feelings in mushers and communities that lost or gained the world’s richest distance dog race.
After word came Tuesday night that organizers would re-route more than 600 miles of trail because portions of the original trail were deemed impassable, communities and commercial interests along both the old and new trails were regrouping.
Steve Perrins, owner of the Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake, said he suspects he’ll lose $25,000 worth of business this year.
“That’s just quick math,” he said. “That hurts this time of year, but what can you do?
“We take it in stride and go on to the next step.”
Takotna checkpoint manager Nell Huffman said Wednesday the tiny community of 50 had been preparing for the race, with some supplies purchased and more than $4,000 raised to help fund the checkpoint. She said Wednesday residents have already received boxes of donated supplies for the famous Takotna pies from schools in South Carolina.
The villagers will hold on to those supplies until next year’s race, but Huffman said some money and food will go toward school activities. Pies may show up at an array of community events in the next year.
“We half expected (the restart decision),” Huffman said. “We hoped it came here and understand why it’s not. This is the highlight of the year for Takotna.”
McGrath Mayor Dustin Parker said while the community understands the safety concerns behind the move, it’s still hard to swallow for the hub community of about 400. Many residents look forward to the seasonal jobs the race brings, from picking up extra shifts on the airport baggage ramp to helping bag groceries at the Alaska Commercial Co. store.
“Those are all the jobs put on hiatus,” he said.
But other communities will benefit.
The Fairbanks race restart in 2003 brought $175,000 to the city of Fairbanks, according to Deb Hickok, president and CEO of the Explore Fairbanks convention and visitors bureau. Hickok said Wednesday that number is expected to be higher this year due to the growth of the Iditarod and winter tourism in Fairbanks.
“To us, this is the icing on the cake to have Iditarod,” Hickok said.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said his office had discussed an alternative route with the Iditarod Trail Committee well before Tuesday night’s decision. Planning this year was helped by discussions about a similar move last year, he said, even though the race ultimately remained on the original trail in 2014.
Figuring out where to put all the mushers may be the biggest logistical challenge, Hopkins said. When the race started in the Interior Alaska community in 2003, 64 mushers started. This year 79 mushers are expected to start the race.
There are also community decisions to be made, such as whether school will be canceled for the Monday start, as it was in 2003, to allow families to enjoy the event, he said.
Hopkins also noted that with the Yukon Quest set to finish in Fairbanks next week and the GCI Open North American Championship Sled Dog Race scheduled for March, there’s no shortage of sled dog races in the Golden Heart City.
“Dog mushing is going to be ours this spring,” Hopkins said.
For Tanana, a village of 300 at the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon rivers, the planning was a more low-key. Musher and longtime resident John Erhart said the move was the buzz of the town Tuesday night. In a town with about seven mushers, a couple of whom have more than 50 dogs, Erhart joked that there are more dogs than people in Tanana.
He said people are still figuring out next steps in preparation. As in many rural Alaska communities, there will be plenty of banding together, including where to put people and who will be cooking what. “It’ll be interesting — it will be cool to watch,” he said.
As villages regroup, so are mushers in the middle of packing for food drops due next week. Most seemed to support the Iditarod’s decision.
Kotzebue musher and 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker said he was looking forward to seeing the trail and finishing his food drops. Only hours after the board’s decision, he said he still hadn’t looked at the new route to begin plotting his race strategy.
“I was totally not expecting this,” he said.
Fairbanks musher Ken Anderson praised the race board’s decision, noting that his 2014 race experience was one the “scariest” he’d ever experienced in 14 Iditarods. Anderson, who placed fifth in the 2003 race, said it would be fun — and challenging — for mushers to try a new course.
“I’m sure every musher is excited about going to Huslia,” Anderson said, noting that the village is the home of champion sprint musher George Attla, who also finished fourth in the inaugural Iditarod of 1973. “That’s going to be exciting, to see that new country. George Attla has been a childhood hero. I can’t think of better way to do it than via dog team.”
Defending Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey said after hearing about the poor trail conditions between the Alaska Range and Nikolai on the traditional route he was pleased the Iditarod made the decision to move to Fairbanks.
“It’s preferable to have a great winter with lots of snow, but that’s simply not the case,” he said.
Seavey said Wednesday he considers himself a “scramble” racer, thriving when the race throws challenges his way. He said while there’s plenty of talk that this year’s race will make everyone a rookie, he thinks the more experienced dog drivers will still lead the way. However, the only other time the race started in Fairbanks, Robert Sorlie won in what was just his second Iditarod.
Seavey said he won’t be surprised to see bold and unexpected moves on the new course. Whether those work will be anyone’s guess.
“At the end of the day, it’s just about driving dogs,” he said. “It’s going to be who can drive dogs 1,000 miles and the best dog man or woman is going to win. It’s not going to be won on tricks and gimmicks.”
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Warmth, lack of snow in Yukon threatens winter events, Radio Canada International
Norway: Norwegian contingent prepared for Iditarod challenge, Alaska Public Radio Network
United States: Iditarod board moves race restart from Willow, Alaska to Fairbanks, Alaska Dispatch News