The dogs are ready, the gear is in place, and mushers are gathering for this weekend’s start of Alaska’s classic sled dog race, the Iditarod.
There’s just one thing missing: snow.
After one of the warmest Januaries in Alaska’s meteorological record books, parts of the epic thousand-mile sled dog route were bare ground and open water as recently as last week—not exactly the winter wonderland that’s more typical this time of the year in what is usually one of the coldest parts of North America.
In fact, by some estimates, the East Coast has had a much more brutal winter:
Alaska’s warmth has been staggering in recent weeks.
Nome, the terminus of the race, hit a record 51 degrees on Jan. 27—a whopping 40 degrees warmer than normal for the date and the highest January temperature there in more than 100 years. February hasn’t been much better. There were only 2 inches of fresh snow in Nome for the first three weeks of the month, and snowpack had dwindled to a measly 3 inches until just this week.
I checked with the National Weather Service, and sure enough, parts of Alaska are on track to make this among the warmest winters on record. (Meteorological winter runs from Dec. 1 to Feb. 28.)
As you can guess, warm temperatures and snow don’t really mix. And that’s thrown race organizers and mushers into a tizzy.
Earlier this month Iditarod organizers nixed an idea to move the start of the race 300 miles north to Fairbanks, where there’s been a bit more snow this winter. Mushers weren’t particularly happy with the decision, openly voicing concerns about safety—for dog and human. The Iditarod actually did move to Fairbanks in 2003, when a similar combination of warm temperatures and a lack of snow plagued the state. The 2003 reroute was the only time weather forced the race to start in Fairbanks in the race’s 41-year history, according to the Anchorage Daily News. This year organizers wanted to stick to the regular route and hatched a plan to deploy high-powered trail-grooming equipment to crunch miles and miles of ice into more suitable powder if the need arose.
Trail conditions have improved in recent days, with a fresh few inches marking the state’s largest snowfall in more than a month. However, another round of exceptionally warm weather this week and a sketchy forecast have caused a renewed bout of concern.*
The tricky training conditions haven’t stopped rookie musher Monica Zappa, who will be embarking on her first Iditarod this weekend. As it happens, Zappa is also a meteorologist. Our training briefly overlapped at the University of Oklahoma, nearly a decade ago.
Intrigued that she had qualified for one of the most famous sporting events in America, I reached Zappa by phone at her home in southern Alaska. While we were chatting, her crew was working to install plastic runners on her sled, in a last-ditch effort to strengthen it for what they expect will be a rough ride.
Our conversation below has been lightly edited.
So, what’s it like there right now?
Well, we finally got some snow this week. There’s about 3–4 inches on the ground over the ice right now. That’s not much. Our winter's been ridiculous. I’m from Wisconsin originally. We should have been training down there. But it's hard to plan for the weather, you know. A few weeks ago, there was even rain in Fairbanks, which is totally unheard of. Pretty much the whole state of Alaska has been in this really weird weather pattern.
How long have you lived in Alaska? What’s been different about training this year?
This is my fourth season here. Last year there was a big January thaw. It was kind of a bad year, but not nearly as bad as this year. Other mushers who’ve been here much longer than me say this is the worst snow year in maybe 30 years.
We've only been able to train where we live about a month, and even that was sparse. So, we’ve been dealing with this challenge for a while. In January it rained and rained. So we went north for a while to train on the Denali Highway. The dogs don't enjoy it nearly as much as running on sleds.
But everybody’s in the same boat. Other mushers have even had to fly their dogs to other places to train. I can't let the weather get in my way.
Sounds brutal. How has that affected morale?
We started training in September on a four-wheeler, doing 5-to-10-mile runs for the first month and a half. This year we were training on a four-wheeler until November, a month longer than normal. That’s not real mushing—it’s not fun at all.
The warm weather has been pretty devastating for our area. Most of our local economy in the winter has been based on people coming in to snow-machine and staying in the lodges. The conditions just haven’t been good enough this year. People are getting really depressed, quite honestly, about the weather.
How'd you decide to enter the Iditarod? I mean, it seems like kind of a big deal.
It was kind of an accident. I hadn't totally intended to do it. Basically, I entered one race at a time and just kept going. It’s sort of a natural progression for racers in Alaska to do Iditarod.
This year I’m mushing to support Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay. I make my living in Alaska as a commercial fisherwoman. Bristol Bay is one of the last pristine estuaries in the world and is home to the world’s largest salmon spawn. Now, there’s a huge pebble copper mine planned, which could ruin the ecosystem here. The culture of the people that live there, the fishing culture, would be strongly affected, if not totally annihilated. A few months ago, the EPA put out its assessment that it's going to hurt the salmon stream there. If I waited another year, I wouldn’t have had this overlap with our effort to stop the mine, so it's good timing.
How has this unusual weather affected your dogs?
They haven't had the race training we had hoped for. It's like anything: The more practice, the better. Our team is young, with not a lot of race experience.
Typically, each winter we’ll do four or five races. This year we’ve only been able to do two. One of those races was warm, above freezing for a lot of the race. The dogs can overheat pretty easily if it's above freezing, so we had to take it slow. In that race, we had rain as well, which is not ideal for many reasons. If the dogs get wet, hypothermia is a possibility.
Our dogs were kind of sick last week, so I'm going to be taking a slower pace from here on out.
Iditarod is going to be really kind of an eye-opener, I think, for a lot of our dogs. I mean, it's a thousand miles. We’ve only done two races this winter, and 200 miles is our longest. I'm not entirely sure how the whole team will react to it. The dogs will have to learn quickly how to rest at the checkpoints, and not at home where they’re more comfortable. It might be a challenge to keep their attitudes up.
Are the other mushers concerned about the lack of snow?
For sure. It’s one of the biggest issues on all the mushers’ minds right now. I’ve heard that in spots there are horrific trail conditions with open water, glare ice, and brown ground for miles. I mean, Iditarod is really difficult and technical in a good year. Now, they’re talking about not being able to do ice bridges over river crossings. That's a huge concern this year, probably way more than most years. But race organizers have said they are going to make the trail safe, and that's all we have to go by right now. I’m just going to take my time and make sure every dog makes it safely. We’re really not going to know what it's like before we get out there.
(Author’s note: Since our initial conversation, a fresh snowstorm seems to have improved snowpack along the race route. Via Facebook message, Zappa said she’s feeling “slightly” better about trail conditions.)
How do you think this race will evolve in the future, with less and less snow?
We're going to have to adapt. Even now, I don't know if they'll be able to make a safe trail or not. We’ve had a lot of race cancellations this season. I hope we don't lose more races. As a musher, that's what you live for. It’s everything you put your life into, to go out there and see how your preparation stacks up. Without races, the sport wouldn't be anything.
My idea is that we should shift to floating location of races. In the future we may just have to go to the place that has the best trails. You know, have five or six locations, and then the week before the race, they make the call on which location is the best.
It's hard to say what might happen. Polar climates are affected most by climate change. It's looking that way this year, anyway. Traveling more is going to be the norm.
What do the other mushers think of your idea of floating race locations?
Unfortunately, there's just so many logistics that go into a race. It’s daunting. In 2003 they moved the Iditarod start to Fairbanks. This year they didn't want to do that, which I kind of found to be silly. The races are resistant to change. And, a lot of villages depend on these races coming through each year.
There's actually a lot of resistance to the idea that climate change is going to affect future races. For example, last year, there was this big January thaw. And, we had an even bigger one this year. A lot of mushers said, “Well, that happens every year." Which, I don't think it is, but I've only been up here four years.
There needs to be more emphasis on adaptability and more open-mindedness in the mushing community. We need a culture shift.
So, what’s running through your head as you’re nearing the starting line this weekend?
Being adaptable to any situation I'm faced with. Once I get out on the trail, it’s just me and my 16 dogs.
There's so much uncertainty: weather, trail conditions. The rules of the Iditarod say “no outside help.” If your sled breaks, you'll have a tough time if you’re not adaptable.
So, I’m just trying to be ready for whatever nature throws at me, I guess. I’m just going to take it one day at a time.
* * *
Zappa has an incredible Instagram feed. Once the race gets started on Sunday, you can track Team Zappa by her on-sled GPS, via the Iditarod website. The Iditarod rules state that no two-way communication is allowed between mushers and the outside world during the race. But one of Zappa’s sponsors will be taking over her Twitter feed to keep us posted on her progress, and Zappa is bringing a camera so she can update her Instagram feed once she reaches Nome in about two weeks.
A ceremonial start to the race is this Saturday in Anchorage. The actual race gets underway the following day in Willow—snow or no snow.
*Correction, Feb. 27, 2014: This article originally included a quote from a New York Times piece describing warm weather conditions that were affecting numerous races this year. The New York Times article was from February 2013; the quote has been deleted.
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