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Road to Iditarod: Mushers Expect the Unexpected At Every Turn

The recent Yukon Quest provided a look at the mettle of some of the mushers and teams for the upcoming Iditarod, and was a reminder that if you have any expectations in a sled dog race, put them aside or prepare to be surprised.

Within three days of the Quest’s start, five mushers had scratched, among them Jeff King, who “cited concern with the amount of dog food needed to travel the distance to Dawson City at these extreme temperatures,” race officials reported. (King, you may recall, was on his way to a fifth Iditarod title last year when he and his team stalled in blowing snow with low to no visibility on an icy trail, and was forced to scratch just miles from the finish line.)

In the Quest, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who had held onto third or fourth place since the race’s start, scratched on Feb. 15, citing the well-being of his dogs.

By the time Brent Sass (winner of the 2015 Yukon Quest) crossed the finish line, 10 mushers had scratched and Mackey – four-time Quest and Iditarod champ -- was 15th in a field of 16 remaining mushers.

Another expectation-defying surprise: Snow, or lack of it.

While some his Iditarod competition competed in the Yukon Quest, Pete Kaiser, Yup’ik, (who has two top-10 finishes in five Iditarods) and team were home in Bethel, preparing mentally, physically and strategically for the Iditarod.

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On Feb. 10, Kaiser was preparing drop bags for his team – 3,000 pounds of dog food, booties and other supplies he and his dogs will need during the Iditarod. Barring any significant snowfall at home, he and his team would fly 427 miles northeast to Tanana to get in some work. “We still don’t have a lot of snow [in Bethel],” he said that day.

Associated Press

A bag drop during the Yukon Quest.

He was succinct in his view of the Quest, and what it could say about competition in the Last Great Race: “Any top competitors in the Quest are top competitors in the Iditarod,” he said.

Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan, the 2014 Iditarod’s Most Improved Musher, finished 13th in the Kuskokwim 300 in January, had planned to race in the Tustamena -- 200 miles of trails in the Caribou Hills on the Kenai Peninsula – as a final pre-Iditarod test. But that race – postponed from its Feb. 7 start date to Feb. 21 -- was cancelled for lack of snow.

On Feb. 13, Diehl was watching the weather. The weekend forecast was 40 degrees with rain that threatened to turn into slush the little snow that had fallen this year. If needed, he and his team would fly to Anchorage.

“We’ve got 3-4 inches on the ground. We used to get 3-4 feet, sometimes more,” he said. “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.”

And not just in Aniak. Other mushers have said lack of snow is forcing them to travel farther to train. And this year, lack of snow in the Alaska Range compelled the Iditarod race committee to change the race’s official start from Anchorage to Fairbanks (the ceremonial start will still take place in Anchorage). It’s only the second time in the race’s 43-year history that the start location has been changed.

“While some snow did fall east of the Alaska Range over the past couple of weeks, other parts of the trail, in very critical areas, did not get much or any of it,” Iditarod CEO Stan Hooley said on the Iditarod website Feb. 11.

Looking ahead to the Iditarod, Diehl has a lot of confidence in his team. They’ve been spending a lot of time on the trails and “they’re looking good,” he said. Of his race strategy in the Iditarod, he quipped, “I’ll leave that to myself.”

Ditto for Chuck Schaeffer, Inupiaq -- raced in the 1985 and 1990 Iditarods -- who said he expects the teams that come off the Quest will be more ready for the Iditarod. “The dogs are trail-tough and used to a schedule,” he said. “I do watch the Yukon Quest fairly closely, but [I’m] mostly focused on my own thing.”

One aspect of this year’s Iditarod he’s looking forward to: Mushing into Huslia, the hometown of Alaska Sports Hall of Fame musher George Attla Jr., who passed away on Feb. 15 at the age of 81.