Warm sunshine and green grass are not what people in the far northern U.S. state of Alaska are used to in winter, especially during the annual running of the Iditarod trail-sled dog race across 2,000 kilometers of what is, normally, frozen wilderness. But despite the unusually warm conditions, the race began Saturday with 64 dog teams and drivers, who are known as mushers.
It is the 31st running of the Iditarod, the world's longest sled-dog race. But this year, the rules have changed because of the warm conditions. For the ceremonial start in Anchorage, city maintenance crews and local volunteers hauled in tons of snow from melting stockpiles to create about 20 kilometers of trail for the mushers to follow out of town toward the finish line in Nome. Basking in the sunshine, wearing only a T-shirt, longtime race spectator Dave Travor said he has never seen anything like this. "It is very unusual. Usually we are freezing our rears off out here. Today, we rode our bicycles over here from our house," he said. "You certainly can not ski over, that is for sure. It is very very warm, and rainy; we have a fair amount of rain. So it is a miracle there is any snow they could find."
Race organizers decided last month to move the route of the race far to the north. After the ceremonial start here, the mushers and their teams will drive, fly or mush, about 700 kilometers to Fairbanks, for a restart of the race on Monday.
Trail groomer Vern Robinson is a bit amused by the whole scene. "This is about the weirdest year we have had," he said. "They say that next week it is going to get real cold and snow ... just in time to cancel most of the races."
Regardless of trail conditions, $600,000 will be split among the top finishers who make it to Nome. Among the competitors this year are four-time champions Martin Buser and Rick Swenson.