FAIRBANKS - Lack of snow and uncommonly warm temperatures could cancel the next Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
For the first time since the race began in 1984, a deadline has been set to decide if the 2003 race will be run.
There have been low-snow years before, but this year's conditions have left many of the rivers and lakes along the trail unfrozen, prompting the Yukon Quest International Council to set a Jan. 15 deadline, said Layne St. John, the executive director for the race's Fairbanks staff. This date was picked to give mushers a substantial warning before having to have their supplies ready for the food drop deadline of Jan. 21.
But St. John is confident there will be a race.
"Three weeks ago I wouldn't have said that, but now that I've looked at forecasted weather conditions, there's going to be three races," St. John said.
The three races are the 120-mile Junior Quest that starts in Fairbanks Feb. 1 and the 1,000- and 250-mile versions of the Quest that start Feb. 9 in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
Tony Davis, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Fairbanks, said temperatures will gradually start to dip as colder air begins moving in within the next week. There is a chance for some snow flurries but no big snowstorm in the foreseeable future.
The worry revolves around the large stretches of open water on rivers that dog teams will have to traverse. Rivers - most notably the Yukon, Fortymile, Birch Creek, Takhini and Chena - account for several hundred miles of trail.
Ice is about a foot thick on the Yukon River where it meets the Klondike River at Dawson City. But the majority of the river running is done in Alaska.
Other options have been used over the years to deal with less than ideal trail conditions for the race that has been dubbed the "Toughest Sled Dog Race in the World." There could be shorter detours around problem areas. In one year, teams started with 10 dogs rather than 14 and were allowed to add the rest of their team at a later checkpoint.
"It's been known the day of the race all of the sudden the bottom drops out of the thermometer, the snow starts coming down and the wind picks up," St. John said.
About 30 entrants have signed up for the race. Applications had to be postmarked by midnight Sunday.