As the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race nears, it's a good time to take a look at the trail conditions likely to be found by the mushers as they race toward Nome.
When I was in Anchorage at this time last week there was a good cover of snow on the ground throughout the South central region, and temperatures were cool enough to maintain the snow. I don't think there has been much new snow, so the trails forming the first couple of legs of the race will probably be hard-packed, perhaps a bit icy, and quite fast. The forecast for Willow, AK indicates that temperatures will be relatively warm (in the range of 20 degrees F above zero) during the day and cooler, albeit still above zero, at night.
Well packed trails and moderate temperatures favor the faster teams, but not significantly. As team speed increases so does the risk of injury as dogs are more prone to slips, muscle strains or sprained joints when running on fast, hard trails.
As the teams transition into the Alaska Range, the key factor affecting the trail is the WIND. LOTS of wind, and there has been a lot of wind in the higher elevations the past few days. Along with wind comes blowing and drifting snow. Soft powderly snow creates more drag under the sled making the vehicle feel much heavier and harder to pull.
Currently the weather is quite moderate under clear skies through much of the Interior. I imagine the I'rod trailbreakers appreciate this, as it makes for more comfortable working conditions. It's certainly much nicer than the blizzard conditions that impacted the Iron Dog snowmachine race last week. Assuming the trail hasn't been churned up too much by snowmachine traffic, moderate temperatures help the powdery snow of the interior settle more evenly and with fewer sharp-edge ice crystals. This is much easier on dog's paws and makes for a faster trail, yet one that has plenty of 'cushion' under foot.
Moderate temperatures also mean less overflow on the rivers and streams. Dry feet are happy feet for both dogs and humans, so no one will complain if they don't have to wade through a lot of water. Moderately cold temperatures mean that mushers won't have to worry quite so much about running their teams during the middle of the day. The risk of heat stress is much lower, as is the risk of severe frostbite.
As the teams near the coast, wind again becomes the big factor. Teams running on the Yukon River and along the Bering coast almost always battle the wind, it's just a matter of how much wind.
The current weather forecast calls for continuing clear skies and moderate (for March) temperatures over most of Alaska. There is a large ridge over the Bering Sea that seems to blocking any bad weather from developing or blowing in, and that is expected to continue through the next week. As the teams are approaching the coast that ridge is expected to either move or start deteriorating, which could allow for some nasty weather to come in from the Siberian side. Thus it's possible we could see a repeat of the Yukon Quest, in which trail conditions were nearly perfect during the first half of the race, and tossed the whole Northern realm topsy-turvy during the second half.
The Iditarod start banquet was this evening, and I haven't yet heard the starting order for the big race. If, as I suspect, the trail is hard packed and solid at the start, the start order won't make much difference until the teams hit the Alaska Range. Front-runners may then struggle in deep, soft snow while middle-of-the-pack teams enjoy much improved conditions. Those in the back of the pack may need to negotiate a trail that has been churned up by the others, which can require some fancy sled handling.
At the moment it's looking like the Iditarod trail is going to be in very good to excellent condition, which can favor those mushers who prefer to make very fast runs between checkpoints and giving long rest breaks at the checkpoints. On the other hand, those guys who like to cruise along at slower speeds, taking longer runs punctuated by shorter rest periods won't be out of the running by any stretch. Those very-fast teams tend to slow down considerably during the second half of the race.
This year, in spite of my reluctance to do so, I've invested in the Iditarod's "Ultimate Insider" package, and I've tested the features on my computer here at work, so I know I'll have as much access to information as anyone. I'll try to be diligent about posting my thoughts on this blog as the race begins and progresses.
Regardless of weather and trail conditions, we can always be assured that the Iditarod will offer plenty of entertainment and insights. While we wish all of our favorite mushers the best of luck, we all know that luck alone isn't enough to perform well in the Last Great Race and fickle Fate favors the most prepared.