WASILLA, Alaska (AP) — Another low snow year in Alaska has organizers worried about where to start the world's most famous sled dog race.
The Iditarod always begins with a ceremonial, fan-friendly slow jaunt along the streets and trails of Anchorage a day before the start of the competitive portion of the nearly 1,000-mile race. The ceremonial start is scheduled for March 5.
A lack of snow last year north of Anchorage forced the start of the race to be moved to Fairbanks from its traditional starting point in Willow, about 75 miles north of Anchorage.
The conditions in Willow are much improved this year, but the problem is in Anchorage, where the snowfall in the city for the past two years has equaled only about two-thirds of a normal year.
"Our real challenge right now is trying to figure out whether we've got adequate snow to make Anchorage and the ceremonial start happen," Iditarod Chief Executive Officer Stan Hooley said Wednesday.
"We're pretty confident in where we're going to officially start the race. In terms of that all-important ceremonial start, we've got some work to do," he added.
This will be the 44th edition of the race to Nome, and the ceremonial start has always been held in Anchorage.
That won't change, but Hooley says he's not quite sure how it might look just yet. He said in 1994, there wasn't enough snow covering the 11-mile route from downtown Anchorage and it was shortened.
During the ceremonial start, fans across the world participate in an auction and the highest bidders — called Iditariders — get to ride with mushers on the Anchorage course. In the past few years, the auction has brought in more than $200,000 for the race.
"It's an important part of our overall fundraiser mix," Hooley said, noting it pays other dividends.
"Those (Iditariders) are our very best goodwill ambassadors, because when they go back to their own little corners of the world, they do it with smiles on their faces and talk a lot about that experience."
Hooley is not ready yet to shorten the ceremonial start and is hoping Mother Nature will help with some late February snow.
But Luis Ingram, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage, said there is no significant snow in the seven-day forecast and confidence isn't high for any snowfall after that.
Anchorage set a record for low snow totals last year at 25.1 inches. The total so far this year is 25.8 inches. A normal annual snowfall total in Anchorage is 74.5 inches.
Hooley said there is plenty of snow outside Willow, and he's pretty sure that is where the race will have its official start on March 6. The board of directors is expected to decide the official start location — either Willow or Fairbanks — on Friday.
There's also plenty of snow in traditionally difficult areas such as Rainy Pass, the Dalzell Gorge and the Farewell Burn, where mushers have been injured in recent races by crashing sleds on rocky trails.
Snow in those areas is the best it's been in 15 or 20 years, Hooley said.
Meanwhile, preparations continue for this year's race, which has drawn the third-largest field ever with 86 mushers.
In a trailer outside Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla, vet tech coordinator Tabitha Jones is making sure all the dogs that might be in the race are getting their blood checked and hearts monitored.
Each musher can start the race with 16 dogs, but if they haven't decided on their team yet they could bring in 24 dogs for those examinations. All the dogs also get an identifying chip inserted under their skin.
If every musher brought in 24 dogs, there would be more than 2,000 hounds taking part in the program.
"It's the pre-race screening program that all the dogs in the Iditarod or the potential dogs that could be on a team have to go through in order to run," Jones said.