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Climate Change Changes the 2015 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

The 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race will be remembered for jolts on and off the trail, as well as its examples of perseverance.

Brent Sass, 2012 Iditarod Rookie of the Year, was considered a title contender this year, having just won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest a month earlier. He was in fifth place when he checked into Manley Hot Springs, only 161 miles into the race, when he was disqualified because he was carrying … an iPod Touch. He carried the iPod so he could listen to music on the trail. But the device was capable of connecting to Wi-Fi, a violation of race rules.

It was the first of several surprises early in the 43rd Iditarod, which got under way March 9 in Fairbanks (the March 7 start in Anchorage was ceremonial).

Zoya Denure, who with her husband hosts the Gin Gin 200, the earliest Iditarod qualifier of the year, scratched on day 3 of the big race “because of personal reasons,” the Iditarod race office reported. She pulled into Tanana, 227 miles into the race.

Lance Mackey, a cancer survivor and winner of four consecutive Iditarods (and four consecutive Yukon Quests), told Iditarod Insider on day 3 of the race that this may be his last Iditarod because of circulation problems that are affecting the feeling in his hands and feet.

On March 12, Wyatt, a 3-year-old male dog in Lance Mackey’s team, died suddenly between Tanana and Ruby. Chief Veterinarian Stuart Nelson Jr., DVM, reported the next day that no abnormalities were found in a necropsy that could identify the cause of death.

Earlier, during the ceremonial start in Anchorage, a dog not participating in the ceremonial start ran off while he and the rest of his team were being snacked and watered. He was found later, having been struck by a vehicle and killed on Old Seward Highway.

Stuart, a dog belonging to Iditarod musher Lachlan Clarke, “was playing with the other dogs and his chain became unclipped and he took off,” Clarke’s wife, Linda, told the Iditarod race office. Race fans and volunteers tried to help catch Stuart but he ran into the woods and began roaming Anchorage, the race office reported. The Clarkes received many phone calls, texts and emails about sightings of Stuart.

“The outpouring of love from the city of Anchorage has been overwhelming,” Linda Clarke said through the race office. She and her husband thanked race fans and volunteers who helped in the search for Stuart.

Lachlan Clarke and his team are running the race in memory of Stuart.

These are examples of how the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, aka the Last Great Race on Earth, is not only a test of strength and will for musher and dog, but also an event in a harsh environment where anything can happen.

The move of the race’s start 300 miles north to Fairbanks seemed the latest confirmation of what Alaskans, particularly rural Alaskans, say they are witnessing: The climate is changing here.

RELATED:Iditarod 2015: Lack of Snow Forces Route Changes; Pioneers Honored

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In October, veteran musher Mike Williams Sr., Yup’ik, was glad to see snowfall. “It kind of looks good right now. I forgot what it looked like,” he quipped at the time. “There’s been a change of ice conditions in the river. It used to freeze in September. Now it’s not until November.”

This year, two major pre-Iditarod races – the Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship Sled Dog Race and the Tustamena 200 – were canceled because of lack of snow or unseasonably warm, rainy weather.

In February, musher Richie Diehl said of his hometown of Aniak, “We’ve got 3-4 inches on the ground. We used to get 3-4 feet, sometimes more. Everybody I talk to, all of the elders, they say this is not how it used to be. [Climate change] is right in front of us.”

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