Conditions along the Iditarod race trail have been the subject of controversy as 12 mushers have left the trail only 200 miles into the race.
While conditions have contributed to a much faster race, many mushers are concerned about their own safety, the well-being of their dogs and the integrity of their sleds.
“We had been told that the gorge had as good of conditions as last year, but that must have changed significantly from the time that the reports were made,” said 31-year Iditarod veteran DeeDee Jonrowe. “I, in 31 years of going down the gorge, have never seen the gorge as bare as it was.”
Jonrowe sustained injuries to her head, knee and shoulder when she was repeatedly thrown from her sled. Though the injuries weren’t critical, they were significant enough to force her to make a critical decision to bow out of the race.
“It never feels good to put a whole year’s work on the line, a lifetime’s work on the line, and not succeed in your goal,” Jonrowe said. “That’s kind of where I am standing this year, but I also have the wisdom to know my capabilities, and I hit the wall.”
Those rough conditions forced race veteran Hugh Neff, of Tok, to take an unexpected pit stop outside of McGrath for some necessary repairs to his damaged sled runners. Neff explained the combination of high speeds and dirt and rock conditions took a toll on the runners, shredding the slick plastic to pieces. The result slowed his sled significantly, forcing his dogs to run harder to compensate. The conditions in the Farewell Burn were unlike anything Neff has ever seen on the Iditarod Trail, he said, and worse than those he's experienced in previous runs the Yukon Quest.
“The Quest typically has a more difficult trail, but not this year,” Neff said. “The Iditarod has a trail that not only have I never seen, but I know that I’ll never see again, because we shouldn’t have even been out there. It was pretty brutal.”
Neff managed to replace his damaged sled and get back on the trail, but during his 24-hour rest in McGrath, he heard many of the same complaints from fellow racers.
The mushers’ latest concerns haven’t been lost on race organizers, and race officials acknowledge those same concerns were voiced by many well in advance of the start of the race. "Conditions were certainly worse than they have been in the past," said Iditarod Trail Committee Executive Director Stan Hooley. Hooley says the trail was prepped, but conditions deteriorated in the days that followed. Race organizers have speculated a rougher trail might have been the result of increased animal traffic and warmer weather that came through after the trail was groomed.
“You look at statistics, and certainly that is a rougher ride and there were some significant injuries to mushers (Tuesday),” Hooley said.
Hooley recalled the last time the race started in Fairbanks and noted that year there were 20 scratches. “It’s the second highest number of scratches in this race,” he said.
“I think getting every dog team to Nome is not realistic, regardless of the (starting) location,” Hooley said.
The large number of early scratches in the race has also led many race fans to question the decision of the ITC. Six veteran Iditarod mushers had scratched or were forced to withdraw before reaching Nikolai, less than 48-hours into the race.
“I can’t speak for the Board in terms for whether they’d vote differently, but I think there’s a number of us that certainly would have liked to have avoided what happened (Tuesday),” Hooley said. He says the final decision to re-start the race in Willow was unanimous, despite mushers concerns.
That vote is also being questioned by Jake Berkowitz, who wonders what issues the Board considered when it came to its ultimate decision. Berkowitz was forced to scratch outside of Rohn after sustaining a leg injury.
“I do feel like the musher’s voice was not heard,” Berkowitz said. “I feel like if the majority of mushers wanted to start in Fairbanks, we probably should have started in Fairbanks based on the safety and health of ourselves and our dogs.” Berkowitz said, "This is the first time running dogs where I was scared for my life... and that's a sentiment that's been shared by a lot of dog mushers out there."
Race conditions are expected to improve throughout the interior, but Hooley says the Committee continues to have concerns along the coast where there is little to no snow on the ground.
While mushers and sleds are not faring well in many parts of the race, veterinarians say they are not seeing an increased number of injuries to dogs. Despite the challenges, mushers say they sign up for the Iditarod knowing there is plenty that can go wrong and will, and the race must go on.
“I’ve been told you signed up to go from Anchorage to Nome, so there you go, sweetie,” Jonrowe said. “I think that second-guessing who could have won in 2014 if the trail had more snow, that’s not the way the competition goes.”
Neff echoes a similar sentiment, stressing mushers have the choice to participate and accountability must be taken. He still has his sights on a win in Nome.
“We made the choice to be a part of it, but the severity was more than we could have imagined,” Neff said. “We all love Alaska and we love the beauty, but Alaska has another side to her, and you have to be willing to deal with those conditions as well, and we’re seeing it right now.”