31st Iditarod kicks off in new location

Posted: Monday, March 03, 2003

FAIRBANKS - Sixty-four dog teams pushed off on the frozen Chena River this morning, launching the 31st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race along a novel route born out of Alaska's warm winter.

Mushers and their dogs lined up for the 10 a.m. restart in Fairbanks, enjoying snow, which was in short supply for Saturday's ceremonial start in Anchorage. Amid the din of barking dogs, several thousand fans turned out to witness the Iditarod's first appearance in Fairbanks.

"I don't know what to expect, and that's the neat - and intimidating thing - about this year," Kasilof musher Jon Little said before setting out. "I don't know what's around the next corner."

An unusually warm season and lack of snow south of the Alaska Range has created the oddest Iditarod since the 1,100-mile race to Nome began in 1973. In addition to the Fairbanks start, the revised route extends the trail by 70 miles and leaves a lot of unknowns, even for veteran mushers.

Even Fairbanks, 260 miles north of Anchorage, has had warmer temperatures and less snow than usual. There are patches of open water on the east bank of the Chena River, but that's mostly due to overflow from the city power plant several miles to the north.

Still, one spectator crossed over the orange tape sealing off a slushy section and broke through the ice today before the start, according to Alaska State Troopers. He wasn't hurt, said Lt. Gary Folger.

Compared with Anchorage, Fairbanks is a winter wonderland.

Musher Aliy Zirkle, who lives in nearby Two Rivers, said her dogs have had plenty of training hours this year. Meanwhile, many of her southbound peers have been forced to train on ice, with four-wheelers or far from home.

"I'm just happy I haven't fallen in the river yet," Zirkle said, laughing.

From Fairbanks, mushers are following a trail to Nenana, Tanana and other stops before taking a loop along the Yukon River from Grayling to Kaltag. From there, mushers will follow the usual route to the Norton Sound coast and Nome.

Little and other mushers are worried about the potential to get lost after leaving Nenana. Tight corners and a maze of swamps at the mouth of the Kantishna River could prove confusing, they said.

Ninilchik musher Tim Osmar, who is running his 16th Iditarod, wasn't sweating it.

"I'm just real happy they figured out a way to get to Nome," said Osmar.

Mushers are vying for a $600,000 purse.

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