Thursday, March 5, 2009

Deep Snow Challenges Iditarod Trail Groomers

Iditarod trail missing under deep snow

WEATHER: Parts of the route buried with more in the forecast.

As Anchorage began gearing up for Saturday's ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a hunt was under way to the north to find the track that will guide mushers 1,000 miles to Nome in the days ahead.

Deep snows across the south slope of the Alaska Range and on into the Interior have buried the trail in many places.

Not only is there a lot of snow along the trail, Nordman said, more is forecast.

Steve Perrin, owner of the Rainy Pass Lodge at Puntilla, said on Monday that Merchant's new, 120-horsepower Yamaha Viking Professional -- a snowmobile designed to go through deep snow -- ended up so bogged down that two of Perrin's sons had to help Merchant dig it out.

Early trailbreakers who did ended up with snowmachines sunk in open water along the South Fork Kuskokwim River in a place called Hell's Gate. Eventually, however, that group reached Rohn and was teaming up with others already there to pack a trail back through the Dalzell Gorge to Rainy Pass.

The going is never easy. The Iditarod through the Dalzell exists only as short openings cut through the brush on whichever side of the Gorge offers a patch of ground, as opposed to a cliff. To connect the segments, the trailbreakers build bridges out of whatever materials they can find -- ice blocks, brush buried under piles of hand-shoveled snow or, where available, trees.

"They didn't get very far (Tuesday),'' Kathi Merchant said. "They had only put in a couple bridges.''

"I wonder if our race will stall out for the first time?''

The serum run mushers, however, didn't have to deal with heavy snow. Nordman said it is at near-record levels across much of the Interior.

Still, he was optimistic that come Iditarod race day, there will be a trail. He had snowmobile crews at work across the Interior and all were reporting progress.

All of which might mean nothing, added Diana Moroney, a former Iditarod musher who now volunteers as a pilot for the all-volunteer Iditarod Air Force.

The Iditarod Trail, she noted, can be fine today and gone tomorrow.

There was, for instance, a well-packed trail through parts of Rainy Pass after the Iron Dog race in February, but Moroney flew through there earlier this week and saw hardly a hint of trail visible beneath all the new snow.

Any trail put in over the course of the days ahead, she said, could just as easily disappear if the winds pick up and start moving snow around.

And then, there's always the possibility the Mount Redoubt volcano could explode. It remains on watch status.

Moroney was in the 1992 Iditarod when Mount Spurr exploded and showered mushers with three to four inches of ash.

It was a reminder that Mother Nature still dictates in Alaska -- even if 21st century technology has evolved to the point where, as former Iditarod Trail manager Jack Niggemyer put it, almost anyone can now get on a snowmachine "and drive to the North Pole without even having to change a belt.''

Given, of course, that there's some sort of trail to follow.

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