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By MARK THIESSEN
ANCHORAGE — Low-snow conditions in the Alaska Range have forced officials with the world’s most famous sled dog race to move its official start from the Anchorage area to Fairbanks.
It’s the second time in three years, and the third time in the last 14, that there hasn’t been enough snow south of the Alaska Range to start the race from the Anchorage area. Last year, the ceremonial start in Anchorage was almost moved because of a lack of snow.
Of particular concern this year are conditions in the always-dangerous Dalzell Gorge, which have been exacerbated by a lack of snow. Several mushers crashed their sleds and one injured competitor had to be rescued by helicopter in 2014 near the gorge, about 150 miles west of the start.
The low snow conditions this year have left the trail covered with exposed alders, said the race’s chief operating officer, Chas St. George.
“We’re just not feeling that it’s safe enough to run a competitive dog race over this year,” race director Mark Nordman told reporters.
Volunteers and race staff members attempted to groom the trail, but St. George said alders and brush were too much to overcome. In a normal year, snow would cover that growth.
“We’re going through some major changes with the environment,” Nordman said. “We have more willows and brush than we have in years.”
The nearly 1,000-mile race will have its ceremonial start March 4, in downtown Anchorage, which has seen plenty of snow this winter. The official start normally comes the next day in Willow, located about 50 miles north of Anchorage.
However, since mushers will now have to drive their dogs the 360 miles from Anchorage to Fairbanks, the race’s official start has been pushed back to March 6.
Officials have worried about the effects of climate change for years, and this isn’t the only logistical change in its 44-year history.
The race used to have its official start in Wasilla, but a lack of snow and urban growth forced the start of the race 30 miles farther north, to Willow.
The amount of snow in Willow hasn’t been a problem these past few years, St. George said. It’s what happens “between there and the Alaska Range” that dictates where the race’s official start will be.
“I think we’ve been worried about the affects for a number of years,” he said.
The race end will end about nine days later in the old Gold Rush town of Nome. During that span, mushers and their dog teams will have traveled over mountain ranges, through untamed wilderness and battled unforgiving winds whipping off the Bering Sea as they mush down the sea ice to Nome.