One thing that makes the Iditarod Trail Invitational both alluring and allusive is the unpredictability of the conditions from year to year, day to day, hour to hour. Traveling this trail can be like navigating through an ecological fun house, more, a haunted subdivision full of surprises and pitfalls at every turn.
The 2014 race is certainly threatening to live up to that reputation. As Bill Merchant, race organizer and long time Iditasport veteran warns, ‘it’s shaping up to be one of those years.’
‘One of those years’ essentially means Alaska is going through a major mood swing. Most years, there is a sort of anticipation and acceptance of unpredictability. Racers suspect and thus prepare through training and gear choices for a wide range of weather and environmental obstacles. I don’t think it is coincidental that I have often misspelt trail as trial in my communication leading up to the race start. But this year is certainly ‘one of those years’.
While much of North America has been trapped in a polar vortex, Alaska, CEO and founder of the deep freeze has been basking in historically warm weather and minimal snowfall. This unusual, record breaking weather may seem like a blessing in disguise but in fact creates a whole new chapter of precautions and preparations within a great tome of challenges.
First and foremost, the usual snowfall early in the winter season is like a mattress set on a rough and lumpy frame. In some cases it essentially lays the trail where there otherwise is no way to pass filling gaps in ice bridges and packing down rough terrain that bashes sleds and pummels bikes.
Secondly, there are the cold temperatures. The freezing weather does just that. Consistently cold temperatures freeze and firm up the snowy mattress laying a hard packed trail conducive to riding bikes. The frozen rivers, swamps, lakes and oceans lay dormant beneath the trail or even become the trail. With temperatures swinging like a mad pendulum, in many cases above the freezing mark, the traditionally fast, icy surfaces are stirred and woken from hibernation. Racers in the Iron Dog, Iditarod Sled Dog and Iditarod Invitational Adventure race all must prepare to ford rivers, navigate around overflow and unfrozen lakes and circumnavigate the ocean crossing at Norton Sound. This means more factors, more gear, more weight, more navigation and more distance. Hip waders are required for crossing water and treads on tires are necessary to ride on extremely slippery glare ice. In the case of the Iditarod Sled Dog race starting a week after the ITI adventure race, organizers are considering a revised course, officially running from Fairbanks to Nome. This means less traffic along the traditional route we will be racing on bikes and foot. So, ‘one of those years’.
But with all of the possible new and unpredictable challenges brings new and exciting opportunities. Whatever hard and stoic facade Alaska may assume it can never conceal the wonder and natural beauty it bares. With a few weeks still until the start and the additional 3-4 weeks of the race itself, who knows how things could unravel. All of the elements could come together creating perfect racing conditions. Conversely, all of the elements could come together creating perfect conditions for only a day or two before Alaska rears its ugly head, throwing months of pent up precipitation at the exposed trail.
Ultimately, when it comes to unpredictability, the Iditarod Trial is reliable in that year after year it always seems to be ‘one of those years.’ That’s what makes the Iditarod Trail Invitational one of those races.
Follow trail conditions and updates at the Iditarod Trail Invitational Facebook Page.