Written by Marty Moffat
Like everything in life, changes bring pluses and minuses and having the 2015 Iditarod rerouted due to uncharacteristic weather is no exception. While some villages like Nikolia, McGrath and Takotna are missing their annual ‘March madness’, other interior outposts such as Nenana and Tanana are reveling in the carnival type atmosphere that the big race brings to their communities. With so many names in Alaska ending with ‘na’ we should note that ‘na’ means river in Athabaskan, the language of south central and interior Native Americans.
With almost 80 teams and the supporting cast of airplanes and snowmachines (snowmobiles for you lower 48 folks), this years Iditarod passing through these towns is no doubt the biggest event in years. It’s no doubt an economic boost as well. Farther West, the trail will loop North up into the Koyukuk river drainage which, in some respects, is the epicenter of dog mushing here in Alaska where names like Attla and Huntington originated. Many of the mushers themselves have expressed the meaningful significance of Huslia being one of the checkpoints 478 miles into the race for this is the hometown of George Attla who is without question one of the most famous dog mushers of all time. Sadly he died last month at 81 years of age.
It seems that most of the mushers are loving the rerouted race course along with the ‘reroute villages’ as they are experiencing near perfect conditions of cool temperatures, fresh snow and a fast, flat trail. Normally at this point in the race they would be headed up and over the rugged Alaska range with the troublesome and often terrifying descent. In fact Libby Riddles (1985 Champ) mentioned that the rookies are missing out on having the full experience of being drug down the Dazell Gorge at break-neck speeds! And as soon as they navigated that obstacle they would then face the notorious and usually snowless Farewell Burn. So the veterans know exactly what they are missing and are in relaxed and jovial moods. It will be interesting to observe how the fast and flat trail will affect the competition as some teams are geared more towards speed and others for endurance and power. Many of the mushers have “cabooses” behind their main sleds to haul up to many as six dogs. With an easier trail, the remaining 10-14 dogs can maintain the pace while they wait for their turn to be circulated back into the cozy trailers to take a snooze. The mushers will be employing a variety of strategies and its going to fun to see how it plays out.
Among the first 6 mushers to reach Manley Hot Springs (161 miles) at the time of writing, not one dog has been dropped from any of those teams. Martin Buser, a four time champion from Big Lake, usually has a team that excels at pure speed. However, after surging to the front in each of the last two races and then finishing sixth last year and a frustrating 17th in 2013 he appears to be most concerned about being up front at Nome.
This years race is serving a lot of new wrinkles for mushers and fans alike. Stay tuned for regular updates.