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Sprawl, climate force change in Iditarod race

The modern challenges of a growing population are catching up with the world's most famous sled dog race.
Zack Steer drives his team at the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Willow, Alaska, on March 4, 2007. Organizers say Willow, not Wasilla farther south, will host the starting line from now on.Al Grillo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The modern challenges of a growing population are catching up with the world's most famous sled dog race.

Citing a warming climate and sprawling development, officials with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race said Wednesday they were implementing permanent logistical changes that in recent years have become the norm for the March event.

The March 1 ceremonial start in Anchorage will go 11 miles, seven shorter than the traditional route. The actual competitive start of the 1,100-mile race the following day will move 30 miles north to Willow from the traditional site in Wasilla, Iditarod headquarters and part of the fastest growing region of the state.

"A lot of development in the area makes it less desirable, and there have been less-than-winter conditions," said Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee. "It just doesn't make sense to us to make choices that are not in the best interest of both the two- and four-legged competitors."

Long gone are the early days of the race begun in 1973 to commemorate the 1925 delivery by sled dogs of lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome.

Move from Wasilla to Willow
Because of lack of snow, the competitive launch — called the restart — has not taken place in Wasilla since 2002. The following year, conditions were so dismal along some stretches of the race trail north of Willow that race managers made the unprecedented decision to hold the restart in Fairbanks, more than 200 miles from Wasilla.

Since then, Willow has been the site where mushers and their dog teams begin the trek to Nome.

For the ceremonial start, snow is trucked along the route that begins in downtown Anchorage. That's not a solution for the actual competition, officials said.

"The reality is the teams racing," Hooley said. "That, in and of itself, means there's a completely different level of acceptable conditions on the trails."

Willow also has become the preferred site for its rural setting, officials said. Mushers take off from the frozen Willow River and soon vanish into the wilderness.

Wasilla, on the other hand, has seen tremendous development and growth over the years. Now houses and businesses line the Knik-Goose Bay Road parallel to the Wasilla race route leading to the checkpoint in the community of Knik, home of the late Joe Redington Sr., father of the Iditarod. Under the route changes, Knik also will be bypassed.

"No matter how many resources we have available, conditions will never be as race-ready as Willow," Hooley said. "No matter what the weather conditions would be, there's a lot of asphalt and other things that don't mix well with competitive racing. To be around that is stressful for the dogs."

Anchorage used to be race start
In the early days of the Iditarod, there were no ceremonial starts at all. The first two years, in fact, the competitive race took off from Anchorage, recalled 1978 winner Dick Mackey, the father of defending champion Lance Mackey.

Mushers were slower in those days, their loads heavier and their equipment inferior to today's sleek sleds, Mackey said in a phone interview from his winter home in Quartzsite, Ariz. Wasilla was a long way from development, too, he said.

"In general it's much easier just to disappear and not have to contend with the crowds," he said.

For that reason, Willow is a good choice for the restart even though Wasilla is "beautiful for fans," Mackey said.

Losing traditional Iditarod spots like Wasilla and Knik is sad, said the younger Mackey, who won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race three weeks before winning last year's Iditarod. But for the most part, the Fairbanks musher was pleased with the new official restart site, even though it means fans from south-central Alaska will have to travel farther.

"It's easier for the mushers, no doubt about it," he said. "And it's a good excuse for people to get out and see Alaska."