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Iditarod mushers chasing snow across Alaska, praying for more

Jill Burke
Courtesy Albert Lewis

By late Friday afternoon, 68 mushers had signed up for one of Alaska's most grueling and competitive athletic events. The 41st running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an annual 1,000-mile trek from Anchorage to Nome, begins the first Saturday of March, and the field includes seven former champions. Stacking the lineup are mushers who've dominated the winner's circle in the last decade – 2012 winner Dallas Seavey, 2011 champ and speed record holder John Baker, four-years-in-a-row victor Lance Mackey and two other four-time champions, Jeff King and Martin Buser. Also in the game? The race's Iditarod’s winningest dog driver, five time champ Rick Swenson, now 61, and last year’s runner-up Aily Zirkle.

The deadline to sign up without paying a steep late-enrollment fee is midnight Friday, so the field is likely pretty-well set, according Erin McLarnon, the race's communications director. Late sign-ups are rare, she added.

As training season swings into full gear, mushers across the state are missing a key ingredient for their ritualized routines: snow. But that’s hardly a bizarre development; the race itself reliably delivers snowless sections of trail, wind-swept and rock hard. To be ready for the marathon distances the dogs must endure, now is when mushers look to get on their sleds and take their dog teams on longer runs. Brown ground on the horizon worries them.

“Absolutely it's a concern,” said McLarnon, who is also a musher. Instead of running with sleds, a lot of mushers will continue training with four-wheelers to get “miles on the dogs.”

It could be worse. Thanks to frigid weather, swamps and lakes are frozen, making it possible to get out on some longer runs in some areas with snowmachines.

Behind schedule

Getting out of the sled on snowless trails will chew up sled runners, but nevertheless it's good training for sled-handling conditions Iditarod mushers will face on exposed areas of the trail, McLarnon said.

Even as far away as the village of St. Michael, an island community in Norton Sound on Alaska's western coast, snowflakes have yet to fly. Rookie musher Louie Ambrose, who lives there, is signed up for his first Iditarod, in honor of his late father-in-law, Jerry Austin, an 18-time finisher of the race and a member of the Iditarod Hall of Fame.

“It's definitely putting us behind schedule,” said Ambrose, who was in Anchorage Friday for a rookies’ meeting with race organizers. He's been taking his team on frequent short runs – 20 miles at most – and is feeling he needs to get more distance on the dogs soon. The crushed gravel on the roads in his region have caused problems with the dogs' feet. Even though Ambrose has gone through a lot of booties, his dogs have developed bad rubs.

“It hasn't been any fun so far,” said the newcomer, who hopes to get a sled out when he gets back home and park his four-wheeler. “I can't hold off any longer.”

If there's an upside to his coastal training grounds, it's that temperatures have averaged 5 to 15 degrees above Fahrenheit.

The sub-zero weather much of Southcentral Alaska has endured has delivered mushers close to Alaska's largest city and the valley communities to the north another blow: feeding costs are up earlier than usual, as dogs need more fat to keep up with the demands of training in the deep cold.

Veteran musher Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake has his own strategy for overcoming the bare trails: fleeing. “We don't let the weather necessarily dictate our training. We find the weather we want to train in. You've just got to be ambitious and find the snow,” he said, fresh off a training run along the snow-covered Denali Highway, the 135-mile road between the Parks and Richardson highways that’s 160 miles north of Berkowitz’ home town.

Training on snow-covered highway

From October to May, the Denali Highway is unmaintained but well packed by snowmachiners and mushers using the road for distance training amid spectacular scenery with vistas of snow-capped mountains. Snow is ample  here, and Berkowitz, who scratched from last year’s Iditarod, is able to give his dogs serious run time in front of his Ford F-350 truck that helps pace the team.

“We've been lucky that we've been able to travel. We're putting in longer miles than we've ever put in before,” said Berkowitz, who's averaging about 70 miles a day in five-day spurts of serious training. The team comes home to rest for two days in Big Lake, followed by a day of shorter trips behind the four wheeler. Then it's back north for distance training.

This year, the snow pack on the Denali Highway is hard and fast, letting him finish runs in about half the time as last year, when deep snow slowed the pace.

While most Iditarod mushers are finding ways to adapt their training to the conditions, rookies who may suffer the most, McLarnon said. Race season for smaller events begins in about two weeks, and rookies hoping for a 2014 inaugural Iditarod run will be looking to successfully complete a series of required qualifying races of several hundred miles. Without more snow, some of those races could be in jeopardy of being cancelled or delayed, McLarnon said.

Here's a list of who's entered the Iditarod so far.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com