ANCHORAGE - Weather was again the culprit behind a last-minute decision to move the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race farther north, race officials said Saturday.
Because of a lack of a solid snow base, the March 6 restart will be held in Willow, an occasional alternative to Wasilla.
Similar conditions last year forced officials to move the restart to the same spot on Willow Lake, about 30 miles northwest of Wasilla, said Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George.
"The Palmer-Wasilla area is like a little banana belt right now," he said. "In the Interior, there's plenty of snow for the rest of the race."
The March 5 ceremonial start is still set for Anchorage, but will be limited to 11 miles instead of a 20-mile run to Eagle River, officials said. The same shortened route was used last year.
The last time the restart took place in Wasilla was in 2002, officials said. That was also the last time the ceremonial start went the distance to Eagle River.
"Unfortunately, our repeated observation, as late as earlier today, of the overall trail conditions between Anchorage and Eagle River and Wasilla and Knik is that they are not adequate for 79 dog teams to safely travel," said race marshal Mark Nordman.
Conditions may be less than ideal, but they're nowhere near the dismal shape they were in for the 2003 race, when the official start was moved about 300 miles north to Fairbanks. That year, the beginning stretch was marred by glare ice, bare ground and spans of open rivers.
Such a drastic change was a first since the 1,100-mile race between Anchorage and Nome began in 1973.
Mushers were being notified Saturday about this year's plan, which calls for racers to continue on the Susitna River, then on to the Yentna checkpoint. The detour will shave about 65 miles from the course, officials said.
"Trail conditions in the early miles of the race are even more important and the commitment of this organization to the mushers and their dogs is to ensure that decisions such as this are made with their best interest in mind," said Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley.
At least one top musher - 2004 Iditarod winner Mitch Seavey of Seward - had no problem with the clock starting in Willow for his 12th run to Nome.
"Honestly, most of the mushers like that better," he said. "The schedule works out easier for us to get away from civilization and out in our element. The quicker I can get out in the wilderness the happier I am.
"And the bottom line is that we as mushers have a lot of faith in Mark Nordman and the others to put the safety of the dogs first."