Iditarod begins; mushers embark on a new route across Alaska |

Iditarod begins; mushers embark on a new route across Alaska

Michelle Phillips and her team charge down Anchorage's 4th Avenue during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP Photo/Alaska Dispatch News, Loren Holmes)
AP | Alaska Dispatch News

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Iditarod mushers began their 1,000-mile trek across Alaska along a new route Monday after poor trail conditions forced organizers to move the race’s start farther north and over the Alaska Range.

Canadian rookie Rob Cooke, who hails from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, was the first musher to leave in Fairbanks in the staggered start.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race usually kicks off 225 miles south in Willow, but officials decided to move it because of a lack of snow in the Alaska Range.

The Iditarod spans two mountain ranges, dangerous wilderness and the wind-whipped Bering Sea coast. This is only the second time Fairbanks has hosted the official start; similar low-snow conditions also moved it there in 2003.

The same weather pattern that repeatedly dumped snow on the East Coast has left Alaska fairly warm and snowless this winter. Even a snowstorm projected to dump up to 9 inches of snow Friday in Anchorage turned into an all-night rain instead.

The lack of snow has made for treacherous conditions south of the Alaska Range, especially in the area of the Dalzell Gorge, considered the roughest patch for mushers and dogs. This is where many mushers were bloodied and bruised in crashes last year.

Officials said this year’s conditions are worse.

The new route will reduce the number of checkpoints in the early part of the race. But it adds stops at villages that have never been part of the Iditarod — like tiny Huslia, an Athabascan village of about 300 residents.

Even though the Alaska Range has been eliminated, the race will now be run on about 600 miles of river ice, and that can cause a whole new set of obstacles to overcome.

“There’s kind of a little bit of holding our breath to see just what the route will actually be like given the persisting warm temperatures,” said Mitch Seavey, a two-time champion and the oldest musher to win the race at age 53 two years ago.

This year’s Iditarod includes 78 mushers, including 20 rookies and six former champions.

Unlike the festive ceremonial start, which is designed to let fans interact with mushers, the competitive start in Fairbanks is all business for competitors.

Racers leave the starting chute in two-minute intervals. Their goal is to be first musher to drive their dog team to the finish line in the coastal town of Nome.

The winner will pocket $70,000, which is $19,600 more than what defending champion Dallas Seavey, Mitch’s son and another two-time winner, received last year because of an increased purse.

Musher Aliy Zirkle, who has finished in second place the past three years, said she’s just pleased the Iditarod is happening at all this year.

“I’m pretty happy they are going to pull it off,” she said last week. “There’s been a lot of races that have been canceled.”

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