Iditarod adjusts to urban sprawl, warmer climate
Modern challenges are catching up with the world's most famous sled dog race. Citing rapid urban growth and a warming climate, officials...
ANCHORAGE — Modern challenges are catching up with the world's most famous sled dog race.
Citing rapid urban growth and a warming climate, officials with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race said Wednesday they were implementing permanent logistical changes that in recent years have become the norm for the March event.
The March 1 ceremonial start in Anchorage will run 11 miles, seven miles shorter than the traditional route. The actual competitive start of the 1,100-mile race the following day will move 30 miles north to Willow from the historical site in Wasilla, Iditarod headquarters and part of the state's fastest-growing region.
"A lot of development in the area makes it less desirable, and there have been less-than-winter conditions," said Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee. "It just doesn't make sense to us to make choices that are not in the best interest of both the two- and four-legged competitors."
The race began in 1973 to commemorate the 1925 delivery by sled dogs of lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome.
Because of lack of snow, the competitive launch — called the restart — has not taken place in Wasilla since 2002. The following year, conditions were so dismal along some stretches that race managers made the unprecedented decision to hold the restart in Fairbanks, more than 200 miles from Wasilla.
Since then, Willow, with its rural setting, has been the site where mushers and their dog teams begin the trek to Nome. Mushers take off from the frozen Willow River and soon vanish into the wilderness.
Wasilla, on the other hand, has seen tremendous development and growth over the years. Now houses and businesses line the Knik-Goose Bay Road parallel to the Wasilla race route leading to the checkpoint in the community of Knik which, under the route changes, also will be bypassed.
"No matter how many resources we have available, conditions will never be as race-ready as Willow," Hooley said. "No matter what the weather conditions would be, there's a lot of asphalt and other things that don't mix well with competitive racing. To be around that is stressful for the dogs."
In the early days of the Iditarod, there were no ceremonial starts at all. The first two years, in fact, saw the competitive race taking off from Anchorage, recalled 1978 winner Dick Mackey, the father of defending champion Lance Mackey.
Mushers were slower in those days, their loads heavier and their equipment inferior to today's sleek sleds, Mackey said. "In general, it's much easier just to disappear and not have to contend with the crowds," he said.
For that reason, Willow is a good choice for the restart even though Wasilla is "beautiful for fans," Mackey said.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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