Hot Off the Wire- Iditarod Restart to Stay in Willow


We have been waiting for this decision with bated breath so to speak. There are many reasons to stay and some to go, but now we know. Iron Dog racers have just completed the section of the race between Willow and McGrath. The Farewell Burn will be the most treacherous, but the rest of the trail isn’t in too bad of shape. Let’s hope for a bit of snow before the Race Start in two weeks.


The 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will start, in earnest, in Willow as originally planned. Race officials were considering a move north to Fairbanks.

Following the March 1 ceremonial start in Anchorage, the 70 mushers currently signed up to run the 1,000-mile race to Nome will set off from Willow on March 2, Iditarod officials announced Monday. The Iditarod Trail Committee’s nine-member board of directors met for about two hours Monday at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla to make the decision, race director Stan Hooley said.

“I think the board was very, and rightfully so, interested in as much detail as we could come up with in terms of the scope of work and the plan of attack to improve what today is a pretty poor trail and transform it into something that, come race day, will look quite different,” Hooley said. “It’s a lot of different types of work, but all focused on making a safe trail.”

A lack of snow and a January warm-up left trails icy or bare and many people wondering about increased danger to dogs and mushers. Race officials began considering a move in early February. Only once in the Iditarod’s 41 previous runnings, in 2003, has the race started there.

The change would have bypassed the Alaska Range and put mushers on a trail following several unfamiliar checkpoints — including Nenana, Manley and Tanana — before following the traditional route from Ruby.

But early Monday afternoon, Iditarod officials said the board had decided to keep the restart in Willow. The decision was unanimous, Hooley said, but the discussion preceding it took longer than expected.

The final call hinged on a belief that heavy equipment can grind up about 65 miles of ice into snow down the trail from Willow, in the Susitna and Yentna rivers area. And that work depended on whether the river ice was thick enough to support the equipment, Hooley said.

Over the weekend, samples showed the ice was thick enough, and grooming is set for a few days prior to the race, he said.

“You really don’t want to do it too far in advance,” Hooley said. “There’s no reason for it to get a couple weeks of traffic before it needs to be used for the race.”

Of course, over such a long distance, there are other concerning sections, like the Dalzell Gorge and Happy River steps, but nothing the usual crews of trail workers cannot handle, Hooley said. They’ll have to build ice bridges over open water, smooth out ruts and clear brush in some areas, he said.

“If you went up there today and looked at it, you would say, ‘You can’t run dog teams through here.’ We’re confident with the work that’s planned that those areas can be repaired in a way everybody will be happy with,” Hooley said.

Without the powerful groomers working closer to the race’s restart point, Hooley said, “it’s clear to me we’d be headed to Fairbanks.”

“I don’t think any of us would have had any problem with going to Fairbanks. Because that community turned itself inside and out to make for a very successful restart in 2003,” Hooley said. “We appreciate that mind set, that attitude, that spirit very much.”

Asked if Iditarod officials feared criticism during the race for keeping the restart in Willow, Hooley said no.

“I think everyone understands that there is risk to the Iditarod regardless of where you are. There would be risk running the race from Fairbanks. There’s risk running the traditional route. I think most people will realize that and understand it.”

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