FAIRBANKS - Mushers competing in this year's Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race can look forward to a much better trail.
Last year, mushers had to traverse a 40-mile section of trail in the Kankik River area that was fraught with jumbled ice caused when the river thawed, then refroze.
It was enough to make a weary musher want to scratch.
"It was so jumbled that every footstep the dogs took, they were going into little cracks and crevasses," said Joran Freeman, who finished fourth last year. "It was just a mess of obliteration. If you were lucky, the ice would break instead of your sled."
This year things will be different, said race manager Adam Berg.
Preliminary trail-breaking indicates the river is smooth. Berg said volunteers will be breaking the rest of the 1,000-mile Quest trail in sections from now until the race starts on Feb. 9 in Fairbanks.
"There's going to be a lot of trail-breaking from here on in," Berg said.
On the Alaska side, teams of volunteers on snowmachines are laying trail. The Canadian Rangers are laying trail in the Yukon Territory to Whitehorse.
Berg said initial worries about the Yukon River having open water can be put to rest.
"We're fine," he said. "We've got a much colder winter over there this year than last year."
Steve Verbanac has been laying the 50 miles of Quest trail from Angel Creek Lodge to 101 Mile Steese Highway since the Quest began in 1984. This year he'll start laying trail on Monday. Verbanac owns the lodge, which is the first official Quest checkpoint.
"We always like to make sure the trail is in good shape and the accesses are blocked off so nobody gets lost," Verbanac said.
Verbanac will have about four or five people with snowmachines to help him. The trail breakers travel one behind the other in order to pack down the snow. They put up markers and reflectors and carry saws to cut any tree branches that may have grown or blown across the trail since it was last groomed.
Verbanac likes to keep the trail just wide enough to get a snowmachine through.
"We don't get them any wider than that because then the dogs have a tendency to wander off."
After the race starts, the trail is regroomed in front of the lead mushers to the finish line.
"I went all the way to Whitehorse in front of the dogs one time," Verbanac said. "You get out and see some country and take some guys who haven't been out before.
"It's a nice time of year to go if the weather is cooperative."