By Joseph Robertia
If it’s not one extreme, it’s the other — clear skies and hard, slippery sheets of ice encasing the landscape, or warming periods bringing rain, thawing lakes and rivers, and creating puddles that return to ice when the mercury swings back below zero. What this winter hasn’t brought is snow. At least, not much for skiers, snowmachiers, dog mushers and other snow-sport enthusiasts to enjoy.
The current weather pattern is now calling into question whether the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race will occur, or be canceled for an unprecedented second year in a row.
“Getting these questions a lot now,” said Tami Murray, executive director of the T200.
The race, an Iditarod qualifier, is scheduled to begin Feb. 7 this year, and has only been canceled due to weather twice since its inception in 1984 — in 2003 and 2013.
Despite a lull in signups a few years ago, interest in the race has since bounced back. This year, a full field of 50 mushers signed up on the first day of registration, and there is an active waiting list.
“The field overall is pretty strong,” Murray said, adding that there are several past T200 winners and Iditarod champions registered this year.
But even the most skilled mushers need enough snowcover on the trail for it to be safe for their 14-dog teams. The T200 is known by the moniker, “The toughest 200 miles in Alaska,” for a reason. The race features numerous steep ascents and descents that can be treacherous without ample snow. High-country areas in the Caribou Hills that are usually smooth with feet of snow by now have only a thin crust of white, leaving the miniature forests of bushes exposed, which can poke and whip at the dogs. Also, some of the several large creeks that are crossed during the race are currently still open and flowing.
Murray said that enough snow could solve some of these problems, even if trail crews have to shovel snow to fill in creeks or create ice bridges over the smaller water crossings. But this is not an option for the largest of the waterways.
“We can move snow around but can’t freeze Deep Creek,” she said.
The Gin Gin 200 race took place last weekend on the Denali Highway, but the Knik 200 has been postponed due to poor trail conditions. Murray said that she is keeping an eye on what other races do. The hope is for the T200 to happen as planned, but if the race must be postponed Murray is hoping it can be rescheduled on a date that doesn’t conflict with other races.
“(It’s) too early to make any changes so we are moving forward like the race will happen as planned. I’m hoping the race happens. Postponement at this point would be ideal except for the possible other race conflicts. My biggest worry is if the Copper Basin 300 and the Northern Lights need to be postponed, we might run out of February weekends, or have to double up on a weekend. Knik has already moved to January 31, Copper Basin 300 would more than likely move to February 14, and Northern Lights to February 21 if they had to make a choice. The T200 would not get any closer than two weeks to the Iditarod,” she said.
Murray said that volunteers have spent months getting all other aspects of the race ready.
“All prerace details are good to go — land permitting, insurance, sponsorships, banners, posters, etc. Logistics are on hold, but with the same crew those things come together pretty easily. Literally, we’re just standing by waiting on Mother Nature to help us,” she said.
The decision likely won’t be made sooner than the week before the race is scheduled to start, and the race will only be canceled when all other options have run out.
“We won’t cancel the race until all postponement options are recognized. If we had to cancel, the mushers would be refunded their entire entry fee minus a few dollars processing fee. Sponsor money would once again roll over to the next year. I can’t imagine a larger purse than $50,000, but that is a board decision,” she said.