Is this the end of the legendary Iditarod dog sled race?
After record high winter temperatures reduced parts of the course to a bone-jarring, sled-wrecking obstacle course, is the great mushing race on its way out?
A little before midnight on a moonlit night, the solitary beam of a dog musher’s head lamp danced across the dark snow and ice of the Bering Sea coast and landed on a barking, trotting, tail-wagging mass of canine excitement: a team of 11 Alaskan huskies straining towards the finish of the legendary Iditarod dog sled race.
The nearly 1,000-mile endurance race across the wilderness officially concluded with the dogs sprawled out on a snow ramp in the centre of Nome, an old gold rush town just below the Arctic Circle. Musher Marie Helwig, who finished in 71st place, posed with the red lantern given to last-place finishers as a salute to their perseverance.
It’s been 43 years since a kennel owner named Joe Redington seized on the idea of reviving the winter sport of dog sledding by paying homage to one of the most heroic tales from Alaska’s pre-statehood days — an epic journey by dog sled that brought a life-saving serum to the remote town of Nome, where children were dying from a diptheria epidemic.
The running of the Iditarod has turned dog sledding into Alaska’s most popular winter sport. But after this winter’s record high temperatures — and a decade of perilously declining sea ice and permafrost across the Arctic, the question is now unavoidable: has the great dog sledding race had its day?
The Iditarod is still about grit. Helwig, a first-time competitor, nearly dropped out of the competition after her house was destroyed in one of the climate-inflected wildfires that burned across Alaska last summer. On the trail, she made a painful choice to leave one of her dogs behind — after the animal ran off. (Fellow mushers later found him.) And two of the original Redington’s grandsons were forced to scratch.
But this year’s Iditarod was less about snow and subzero temperatures than sickness and speed. Dogs slipped and slid their way across barren tundra and iced-up trails at breakneck pace. Mushers worried about keeping their teams healthy on afternoons so warm and sunny that dogs vomited from overheating.
“There was just no snow. We were running on ice and dirt,” Helwig said. That made the course fast — but also more dangerous. “You can’t really control a sled when there is no snow,” Helwig said.
Eight finishers completed the course in eight days — faster than any of the winners in some recent years. Even Helwig’s 71st-place time of 13 days would have put her in the top 10 in the 1980 and 1990s.
A number of this year’s racers spoke about moving the Iditarod to January or February — when there is a greater chance of snow. Some no longer counted on training their dogs in Anchorage, because it was too warm, but were decamping for Fairbanks or even lower 48 states such as Idaho.
On several of the two dozen checkpoints on the trail, finishers of this year’s Iditarod reported high temperatures and low snow, slim ribbons of hard-packed sled trails against vast swaths of exposed tundra.
Climate change stole the winter from the Arctic this year: pushing temperatures up above zero at the North Pole, opening up treacherous black water on the Yukon river, and turning up the speed on the northbound trek to Nome.
“As far as this winter goes, my hunch is that there is essentially zero probability of that happening without climate change,” John Walsh, chief scientist at the International Arctic Research Centre in Fairbanks, said. “If your question is, ‘What are the odds of getting this warm a winter without climate change,’ I would wager that it would be zero.”
Warming is occurring twice as fast in the Arctic as anywhere else. On the Bering Sea, the ice cover is in rapid retreat. In the interior, thawing permafrost is draining lakes and raising the risks of wildfire on bone dry forests. Anchorage, the traditional starting point for the Iditarod, has to make contingences for a lack of snow.
What are the odds of getting this warm a winter without climate change? I would wager that it would be zero
— John Walsh.
Sled dog races and ski events were rerouted for the last three years. The local ski resort is considering investing in a snow-making machine to keep the season going. After the start of the Iditarod was moved last year for lack of snow, organisers this year arranged to ship in 11 rail cars of the white stuff.
The low snow conditions persisted in the early stages of the race — and so did the unusually warm temperatures.
“For me, the race was tough from the beginning because it was so warm and I have some really big dogs that are furry. They were not handling it so well. It was too hot for them,” said Helwig. “They were sluggish. A few of them threw up because they were dipping for snow so much — they ingested so much air and water.”
Others found the warm temperatures a relief. Mushers ordinarily expect bitter -20F (-29C) cold in the interior of Alaska — but that did not materialise this year.
“I don’t think it ever got colder than five below. It was super comfortable for us,” said Trent Herbst, a fourth-grade teacher from Ketchum, Idaho, running his eighth Iditarod.
The days and nights were so warm he dispensed with a face mask or sleeping bag, curling up in the straw with the dogs. It was even warm enough to harness the dogs with bare hands.
But Herbst also admitted being rattled by the absence of snow or ice. On some stretches of trail, there was no snow at all — just lots of gravel and tree stumps for distances of more than 20 miles, according to some competitors.
At Rainy Pass, the creek was strangely ice-free, a torrent of fast-moving water. Deep in the interior, it was so dry competitors were afraid their cook stoves would start a wildfire on the exposed tundra. From Galena to Nulato, dog teams were forced to change course away from the the Yukon river avoiding dark cracks which had opened in the ice. Up the Bering Sea coast, the last stretch of the race, the terrain was scoured clear of snow by strong winds.
“There was absolutely no fresh snow anywhere on the trail. It was hard-packed snow and ice,” Herbst said. He spent a considerable amount of energy just trying to slow the team down.
Some sections of the route were as slippery as a skating rink. Others, especially the 70-mile traverse of an area destroyed by wildfire the mushers know as The Burn, were a bone-jarring, sled-wrecking obstacle course, Iditarod competitors said.
Too much snow slows the race. The Iditarod rules require mushers to pack snowshoes to stomp out a trail for their dogs, if needed. Too much ice and the dogs slide all over the track: their paws can’t get a grip.
New snow isn’t optimal either, according to Linwood Fiedler, who ran his 23rd Iditarod this year. “Fresh snow takes a while to set up. It’s all fluffy. It’s like putting your brake into whipped cream,” he said. “But after a while it will settle. With dog teams and snow machines running over it, it will set up and be firm.”
Old snow, especially if it’s well travelled, means top speed — provided of course that mushers can hold on to their dogs and their sleds. “If you can imagine being pulled by 16 huskies all wanting to run and you are doing it on dirt and snow and ice — you are lucky you don’t bounce off trees,” Fielder said.
If you are Alaskan, you are used to change — and yeah, even climate change. People will change with it
— Trent Herbst.
His team fell several times on the most brutal section of the course, The Burn. That area typically does not get much snow, leaving a barren, scoured course. “We’ve got plenty of black and blue marks to prove it,” Fiedler said. “It was a hard, fast trail. It was hard to go slow.”
It was as hard on the dogs as the humans. Alaskan huskies were bred for performance in the north — smaller than Siberian huskies with a faster trot, thick coats to keep them warm, and fur between the toes to protect their feet from abrasive snow.
Several racers said they adjusted their strategy — making sure to finish their runs by 11am or 12pm, allowing the dogs to nap in the warmest part of the day. Helwig ran her dogs at night, as much as she could. In some places even the dogs’ feed was at risk. At almost every checkpoint, the food drops of frozen dog meat thawed and refroze by the time some competitors checked in. Helwig said she was forced to throw out food because it had spoiled in the sun.
Competing in the Iditarod — and finishing the race — takes a peculiar combination of dog-loving softy and mental discipline. For racers, it was unthinkable that warmer temperatures could ever put the Iditarod out of business.
“You could go into the doom-and-gloom route and say we’re all done,” Herbst said. But he argued that would not be the Alaska way. The lower 48 might see Alaska only as a cold and lonely place — but they failed to see the whole picture.
“For me Alaska, really is the last frontier. It’s about people being resilient,” Herbst said. “If you are Alaskan, you are used to change — and yeah, even climate change. People will change with it.”
This week we’re focusing on climate change and its effects. Worldwide, heat records have been broken for 13 months in a row, an unprecedented streak of warmth that has stunned climate scientists and heightened concerns over the future livability of parts of the planet. Look out for a selection of our best writing on the matter — and follow Guardian US.
Originally published at www.theguardian.com on March 24, 2016.