July 31, 2014

Trail Report—-What about that article in the New York Times?

Joe Runyan’s 2013 Iditarod Blog

Three  Weeks to Race Day

Trail Report—-What about that article in the New York Times?—by Joe Runyan

The New York Times featured an article February 5, 2013 with the attention getting title “Warm Weather Forces Changes Ahead of Iditarod Race (Mary Pilon).”  Brought to my attention by an East Coast fan, and pondering the implications, I thought, whoa, Joe, you better get a handle on this development.  

A line heavy with literary importance leaps from the Iditarod Race Rules—“The race will be held as scheduled regardless of weather conditions.”   It’s my favorite sentence of the rules, one of the philosophical stances that appeals to self-reliant adventurers.  Too, it makes you think about mushers that could be three weeks away from diving into melted lakes with a team of huskies, and ricocheting off boulders as the trail summits the Alaska Range.

Of course, Rule 5 back steps a little and does acknowledge that the trail can be modified by the Race Marshal in the interests of common sense, but the caveat is still there.  Nobody at the race organization is guaranteeing the trail, and the onus for preparation, the burden of responsibility, is on the shoulders of the mushers.  If it’s wet and warm, like it was in 1984 when Dean Osmar and team waded through overflow on lakes and streams mushing north to the Yukon, mushers should think about rain suits and rubber boots, and lead dogs trained to swim through overflow without hesitation.   2003 was even more dramatic when Robert Sorlie, the eventual winner, arrived from Norway to discover that the start of the race had been moved 400 miles from Wasilla north to Fairbanks, Alaska.  Warm weather south of the Alaska Range made it impractical to travel on the trail.  Waiting for a weather change until the last moment, Race Marshal Mark Nordman and the Iditarod Trail Committee finally bit the bullet and moved the entire start just days before the start. 

Covering the race in 2003, I interviewed mushers who reported travelling on new ice on the Yukon River.   Here’s what happened.  An extended warm spell in 2003 set up an odd hydrologic event before the start of the race.  Although the Yukon ice was already frozen three to four feet, water spilled from tributaries and out an over the river shore ice, producing a flood two feet deep on the old ice.  The weather turned cold a few days before race start, and the two foot deep overflow froze over with a three or four inch cap of ice.  That was enough to support trail breakers on snowmachines and mushers and dog teams—generally speaking.    However, imagine if you were a musher who had never lived on the Yukon and had not seen the river evolve through this weather cycle?  In the middle of the night, mushing on the Yukon three miles wide, flat as a Wal-Mart parking lot, headlight bobbing as the musher nodded between a five second dream and a drowsy view of a trotting dog team, the new ice gives way and PANIC—you and team are wading in two feet of water.  Somewhere in the primitive part of your brain you remember that the Yukon is a slow moving giant, eighteen to forty feet deep in the main channel.  In the background I can hear the gospel song, “Wade in the Water,” and that might mean trouble.  Fortunately, as all the mushers discovered, they were supported by the old ice four foot thick.

Reading on in the NYT article, reports of a catastrophic lack of snow earlier this year reminded me of a notorious shadow on the north side of the Alaska Range.   Shielded by the mountains, a section of trail from Rohn checkpoint past Little Egypt Mountain and onto the Nikolai Burn has confounded mushers almost annually.   Even in a big snow year, this section of trail usually gets a low volume of powder snow,  leaving mushers and teams negotiating bare ground, boulders frozen in place, exposed root wads and tussocks, and unforgiving glare ice hard as concrete.   When I was running the Iditarod in 1986 a pilot told me he often saw a cloud of dust before he could see the dog team and musher on the Nikolai Burn, an observation I doubted until I saw it myself.

Fortunately, before my imagination and forty years of trail misery anecdotes produced the ultimate nightmare, Race Marshal Mark Nordman returned my phone call.  “Trail’s great, lots of snow, all the way to Nome.  In fact, we might have more than average on the south side of the Alaska Range (check out the Iditarod trail map and note Skwetna, Finger Lake, and Rainy Pass checkpoints).   The only place that could be short is by Rohn checkpoint, and that’s always a place with little snow.”

Nordman, a former hockey goalie, one of those barrel chested guys with biceps bigger than my thighs, is one of those personalities with a deep resonant voice that has been calming excited mushers for twenty years.  If Nordman says the trail is good, you are going to be alright.

Still, I want to give the NYT article its due, so I called up Dean Osmar, the 1984 Iditarod champ, living and training his sled dogs on the Kenai Peninsula.   Dean has been an important element of my trail reports for years because he can remember things like telephone numbers and Iditarod esoterica with uncanny accuracy.  He has a photographic memory, a handy personality trait that is extraordinarily useful when commenting on the Iditarod, a confused blur of ten days for most people.

The Kenai was one of the areas cited as being abysmally warm and snowless.  “Well it’s true,” Dean concurred,” we had poor training conditions early in the winter, but we are leaving now on good trails right from the house in Clam Gulch (look out the window and see the ocean.)  Training conditions are great, and Paul Gebhardt (a top contender in this year’s race and Dean’s neighbor) is taking his dogs on long 60 and 70 mile training runs. ”  

So, is anybody excited about the trail this year?   Are we going to see dramatic near misses with careening sleds on tree trunks in the Happy Valley Steps or slip and fall icecapades in the Dalzell Gorge?  Incredibly, I dialed John Baker’s cell phone number and somebody on the other end, sounding like John Baker answered.  It was about 8PM, and dark in Kotzebue, so I figured he would be in the house.

John Baker, the 2011 Iditarod Champ, lives and trains in Kotzebue, a large village above the Arctic Circle and north of the Iditarod finish in Nome.   John likes to be prepared and information is important to him.  His race sled, I have noticed is immaculately packed and organized, and I always figured he was one of those kids who packed his toothbrush voluntarily without his Mother asking him. 

“John, is that you?” I ask. 

“I am out on the ice on Kobuk Lake with the dogs.  The wind is blowing a little.  It’s beautiful tonight and I am watching Snickers (his famous lead dog, often seen side by side with Velvet) to make sure her gait is smooth (she might have bruised her front elbow in training).  So far, she looks completely recovered.”

The weather in Kotzebue can be brutal, one of the reasons Baker’s team is highly regarded for its ability to knife through coastal storms.  A “little wind” means he is probably in a ground storm of swirling snow—normal stuff for his thick coated huskies— that would cause most mushers to leave their smart phone unanswered.

Remarking that I was impressed with the LED headlamp I used in my last Iditarod in 2008, I asked him what he was using out on the ice of Kobuk Lake.  My headlamp lit up the trail with 200 lumens, a dramatic improvement from the old bulb style I used in the ‘80’s.   He casually mentioned he had a better one.  When I looked it up on the internet, the unit was listed at a maximum of 3600 lumens, about 18x’s brighter than my headlamp.

I figure I have a few minutes before his hand starts getting cold.  “What about the trail?  Heard anything?”

“No, should I be worried?”  He sounds amused, like I am ready to deliver the punch line to a joke. I know what he is thinking.   Of course, he is planning for contingencies, but he isn’t planning on changing the weather. 

For race video and the invaluable gps tracker, check out the Iditarod Insider