The 2020 Iditarod Sled Dog Race started over the weekend. 57 mushers and roughly 800 sled dogs took off from frozen Willow Lake and are beginning the long trek toward the Alaska Range this morning.
According to mushers at the Ceremonial Start in downtown Anchorage, the state’s powerful winter this year is expected to make for a slower pace. Alaska has seen deep cold and heavy snowfall for most of the winter. At 79-years-old, Jim Lanier is the oldest musher in this year’s race, and is gearing up accordingly.
“I’m not even wearing a helmet this year because we’re mushing in fluff.”
Race organizers say their crews have been working to maintain a thin trail between waist-high snow that could make for slow going.
“For hundreds of miles it’s a trench. And I’m calling it ‘trench warfare.’”
The conditions that may make for slow going and could mean more wildlife like moose and bison blocking pathways. Musher Dennis Kananowicz says there’s only so much racers can do to prepare.
“Too late for that now. It’s gonna snow, it’s gonna snow, and that’s just the way its gonna be.”
Even on Sunday, at the race’s restart in Willow, weather was having an impact, with snow conditions contributing to snarled traffic and delays for fans. Storms over some of the race’s early checkpoints hampered flights out of Anchorage.
A few mushers including 2018 rookie of the year, Jessie Holmes, packed bales of straw in the back of their sleds in preparation for more snow. Newly appointed race judge Charley Bejna explains what that straw could indicate.
“I did see a couple mushers with straw and what I think they might do is, well I guess it depends how long it takes them to get to Yentna, maybe camp out a little bit after Yentna. I guess it depends if there’s an area where they can pull off. I don’t think anybody camps beforehand. But I did see a couple of mushers out there with straw.”
*Correction: Although the 1925 Serum Run that saved the town of Nome from a diphtheria outbreak shares a lot of the same trail with the Iditarod, the 1,000 mile race does not commemorate the event.*
This year, amid coronavirus concerns, Iditarod organizers say they are taking extra steps to keep mushers, volunteers, and residents from getting sick.
Some mushers like Nome’s Nils Hahn are packing their own hand sanitizer and avoiding as much contact with other people or teams as they can. For instance, Hahn has been bumping elbows with fans and friends instead of shaking their hands, so as to prevent the spread of germs and disease.
All 57 teams are on their way through deep snow into Rainy Pass then drop into the infamous Dalzell Gorge.
Alaska Public Media’s Zach Hughes contributed to this report.
Image at top: Iditarod musher comes down the race chute at the 2020 race restart in Willow. Photo from KNOM’s Davis Hovey, 2020.