Alaska ships in snow for Iditarod start, mimicking state’s original dogsled relay

Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King and IditaRider June Simpson (seated) navigate the slushy and quickly melting snow trucked-in and laid down on 4th avenue at the 2015 ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race in downtown Anchorage, Alaska March 7, 2015 © Mark Meyer
A dearth of snow is wreaking havoc on the Iditarod, the iconic Alaskan dogsled race, for the third year in a row. The lack of wintry weather requires the state to ship in snow for the ceremonial start in Anchorage.

On Thursday, a regularly-scheduled Alaska Railroad freight train will deliver seven cars loaded with snow from Fairbanks to Anchorage ahead of Saturday’s start, a spokesman told the Alaska Dispatch News.

In an ironic twist of fate, the dogsled race that commemorates the 1925 serum run ‒ known as the Great Race of Mercy ‒ to save the city of Nome from a diphtheria epidemic must now rely on snow shipped from elsewhere in the state to run the 2016 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Like in 1925 ‒ when a train kicked off the relay by bringing the 20 lbs. (9.1 kg) of diphtheria antitoxin from Seward to Nenana, where it was handed off to the dog sledders to deliver the precious package to the icebound Nome ‒ a train will once again play a crucial role in the race.

"The railroad is saving our behinds and bringing 300 cubic yards of snow," Jeff Barney, Fur Rendezvous executive director, told the paper. The company is transporting the precious precipitation free of charge, he added.

"They're doing this out of the goodness of their hearts," Barney said. "It's huge for us."

The annual race is run from Anchorage to Nome in early March, and usually takes between nine and 15 days to cover the approximately 1,100-mile (1,770-km) course. The ceremonial start, in Alaska’s largest city, is normally 11 miles (17.7 km), but warm weather and a lack of snow may preclude that from happening.

“It’s no secret that warm temperatures for days on end have further eroded what little snow cover existed on the trail system here in Anchorage,” Stan Hooley, Iditarod CEO, said in a statement. “We are exploring our options at this time as we very well may need to shorten our Day 1 Ceremonial Start.”

Without the special delivery from Fairbanks, Anchorage, quite literally, would be snow-less.

A trace of snow had lingered since mid-January, but warmer-than-average temperatures wiped away the last vestiges of winter, Joe Wegman, weather service meteorologist, told the Alaska Dispatch News. By now, he said, “we’ve melted all of our snow, officially.”

After the ceremonial start, the race heads to its traditional “restart point” in Willow. In 2015, for only the second time in the Iditarod’s 43-year history, the Anchorage suburb was unable to serve as the official start because of a lack of snow. Instead, Fairbanks once again came to the rescue. The other time the race was moved from Willow was in 2003.

A downtown 4th Avenue is partially covered with trucked-in snow for 2015 ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race in Anchorage, Alaska March 7, 2015 © Mark Meyer

The start location was just a portent of things to come last year. The lack of traditional running surface ‒ snow and ice ‒ across much of the normally frozen track forced even the most experienced mushers (dogsled drivers) out of the race.

“It’s the roughest I’ve ever seen,” Jeff King, a 22-time race finisher, told the Los Angeles Times. Musher Aliy Zirkle said, “No snow. Zip. Zero. None.”

In 2014, when mild weather depleted the snowpack, a construction company with experience building ice roads volunteered to fix the trail through the Rainy Pass of the Alaska Range with specialized equipment.

“You know, no one would look at the trail as it exists today out of Willow to Skwentna and say, ‘gee, let’s run the Iditarod on this. It’s not good right now,'” Hooley told Alaska Public Media at the time. “But we’ve got the ability to use heavy equipment to groom and literally build a highway, and that, I think everybody feels pretty good about.”

Anchorage did not see a day below freezing during the entire span of 2014.