The Heat Is Online

Warm Weather Forces Change in Iditarod Race

Mush, but little snow, as Iditarod dogs get going, March 2, 2003

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, (Reuters) -- Parka-clad mushers, barking dogs and crowds of spectators gathered in downtown Anchorage on Saturday to launch the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an event so altered by this year's weird weather that one official has dubbed it the "Idita-detour."

An unusually mild winter has erased snow and thawed rivers in much of the state and forced organizers to move the race course hundreds of miles north. For the first time in the Iditarod's 30-year history, timed competition for the Anchorage-to-Nome race will begin in Fairbanks, a 350-mile drive from Anchorage.

In Anchorage, city maintenance crews worked through the night to scoop up sparse and lingering snow from melting stockpiles for use in Saturday's customary ceremonial run.

Though dirty and thin, there was enough snow to cover 10 miles of roads and trails in the middle of Alaska's largest city. Mushers said they were impressed with the improvised Anchorage trail, considering that green grass and bare ground lies exposed over much of the city.

After Saturday's ceremonial run -- cut to half the normal distance because of sparse snow -- the 64 competitors and their dogs are headed to Fairbanks, where the restart is set for Monday.

The changes add about 100 miles to the normal 1,100-mile route. But they eliminate the steep ascents and descents of the Alaska Range, a section in the southern part of the trail that many consider the most scenic and the most challenging.

It is unclear how the route change will impact competition, mushers said.

"The best way I can put it is, if we follow the orange stakes, we'll make it to Nome," said Charlie Boulding, a top contender from Manley, Alaska.

Others vying for the title include five-time champion Rick Swenson, four-time winner Martin Buser, three-time winner Jeff King and rising stars Ramy Brooks and John Baker.

The Iditarod winner will take home a prize of more than $68,500, plus a new truck, out of a total $600,000 race purse.