ANCHORAGE - Cheechakos from the Lower 48 might have a hard time getting their minds around it, but the big question in this year's Iditarod Trail sled dog race is about snow.
Mushers wonder whether Alaska will have enough of it to run their sleds safely on the 1,161-mile route from Anchorage to Nome. Relatively warm temperatures, wind and rain have created poor trail conditions near Anchorage, prompting race organizers to move Sunday's restart from the town of Wasilla to Willow. The restart follows Saturday's ceremonial start in Anchorage.
"The last couple of years have been a cakewalk in the park, weather-wise," said five-time champion Rick Swenson. "I think it might be pretty mild this year, too. At least I don't think we'll get the real cold weather we've had in some races."
Highs in the Anchorage area are supposed to be in the low 30s through the weekend.
But when Swenson's team of championship huskies hits the trail, he will be concerned with a lot more than warm temperatures around the state's banana belt.
"It still looks like it's going to be a pretty rough run," said Swenson, from Two Rivers, Alaska. "We had record amounts on snow on this side of the Alaska Range and not much inland. The coast got the biggest snow in 20 years, but then we had a lot of wind and rain that melted it and blew it away, and the rest turned to ice."
In addition to sparse snow in some inland areas, sections of the Alaska coastline on the final third of the trail are open water this year, said race director Joanne Cox. The mushers usually travel on relatively smooth sea ice in that stretch, but they will be forced to take a longer and rougher route on land.
After the ceremonial start in Anchorage, the teams make a 22-mile run to Eagle River, where the dogs and sleds will be loaded on trucks and driven to Willow. Then the serious racing begins.
"Anchorage isn't really Alaska," Kelly Williams said of the state's biggest city. "At least we don't think it is. You probably get more snow there in Michigan every winter than Anchorage does."
Williams is Swenson's partner in the Lightning Bolt Express Kennel, where they breed sled dogs, take greenhorns on dogsled tours and teach them how to mush.
Swenson and Williams will get to Anchorage a day later than most of the mushers because Swenson's 11-year-old son, Kevin, was performing a viola recital Wednesday in Two Rivers.
"We arrive in Anchorage on Thursday just in time for the mushers' meeting, but the dogs don't arrive until Friday, when a good friend drives them down," Williams said. "We figure it's better to keep them at home in familiar surroundings rather than have them living in a truck for a couple of days, especially with all the excitement around the start of the Iditarod."
The Iditarod is called the Last Great Race on Earth, and nobody has won it more times than Swenson, whose last victory came in 1991.
Swenson, 49, moved from Minnesota to Alaska in 1973 to become a better musher and race in the Iditarod. Unlike other competitors, whose parkas and sleds carry as many sponsor logos as a stock car, Swenson has had a 23-year relationship with Iams dog food as his sole backer, and he likes it that way.
The Iditarod has been run 28 times, and Swenson has entered 25 of them. His record is staggering. After finishing 10th the first time out in 1976, he won in 1977 and has followed that with four more victories, three seconds, two thirds and five fourths.
He finished eighth last year.
In 25 years, Swenson has finished out of the top 10 only twice -- in 1998 when he was delayed for seven hours to tend a sick dog and was 11th, and in 1996, when a controversial disqualification over the death of a dog left him so angry he didn't enter the following year.
A jury later ruled that Swenson was wrongly disqualified.
"It was a sort of self-imposed exile the next year," he said. "I was still upset about the disqualification, and we had to sell the team to cover the cost of the race. That meant I really didn't have a team that I thought could win the next year, and I don't go out there just to take a dogsled ride. I go to win it."
Swenson said three elements must combine to make an Iditarod victory possible -- the musher, the dogs and luck, and the greatest of these is the dogs.
"Young guys might have the talent as a musher to win the Iditarod, but they don't have the athletes, the dogs," he said. "It takes years to develop a kennel with the kind of animals that you have to have."