ANCHORAGE - Snow is a rarity in Anchorage these days except for occasional dirty piles scattered about. Yet organizers of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race say they'll be ready for Saturday's ceremonial start downtown.
The real competition begins Monday in Fairbanks, one day late and more than 200 miles north of the traditional restart site in Wasilla just north of Anchorage. Because of an extremely warm winter, organizers revised the route, which will be 70 miles longer than the traditional 1,100-mile Iditarod.
Rains have melted much of the little snow that's fallen in Anchorage. But Iditarod officials say there's still enough snow around town to create an abbreviated version of Saturday's event.
"We're targeted to go," said Rick Calcote, in charge of the Anchorage start. "In a sense, how we've overcome these obstacles is in keeping with the spirit of the Iditarod - a can-do attitude. However we can get there, we'll do it."
Sixty-four mushers - including defending champion Martin Buser - are vying for a $600,000 purse in the 31st running of the race to Nome. The winner will take home $68,571 and a new truck.
Iditarod officials made the unprecedented decision in mid-February to move the restart north because of a lack of snow south of the Alaska Range. They later modified the new route after trail surveyors discovered open water on creeks and a lack of snow around planned checkpoints in Cripple, Ophir and Iditarod.
Those areas were eliminated and replaced with a loop along the Yukon River from Grayling to Kaltag. From there, mushers will follow the usual trail to the Norton Sound coast and on to the finish line in Nome.
As for Saturday's ceremonial start, officials have shortened the usual 20-mile run to Eagle River to an 11-mile sprint through Anchorage streets and trails. That's roughly the same distance traveled by Iditariders, people who have paid thousands of dollars to ride in the basket of an Iditarod sled. Bids this year totaled more than $103,000.
Because of the low-snow winter, three Iditariders have dropped out, costing organizers a total of about $2,000 in bids. That's not unusual in any race, said Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley. What is unusual is that Iditariders aren't obligated to honor their bids as in previous years.
"It's not the winter we all expected," Hooley said. "It's created unusual demands to make logistical changes. It's a challenge but we're up to the task."
Another twist in this year's race, organizers point out, is that everyone essentially is a rookie in the uncharted portions of the trail.
Buser, a four-time champion, said even his workouts are different because of a lack of snow around his property in Big Lake northwest of Anchorage. He's had to drive 3 1/2 hours to find better training conditions to prepare for his 20th Iditarod run.
Like other mushers, Buser is positive about the changes to this year's race.
"It's going to be a totally new experience for everybody on a format never tested before," he said. "I'm getting excited."