By Jenny Neyman
Two weeks. Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race organizers are hoping that’s enough time to rescue their chances of holding a 2015 race. Specifically, they’re hoping for snow. And lots of it.
“There’s no snow in any of the areas we need to be. Up in the high country there’s some, but it would be just a sheet of ice. There’s no snow to grip for these mushers,” said Tami Murray, T200 race director.
After a month of anxiously keeping an eye on the forecast while watching what little snow has fallen this winter melt away, the T200 board met Saturday, flew over the race route and announced Monday its decision to postpone the race from Feb. 7 to Feb. 21.
In previous years of postponement the race had been pushed back a week, but the weekend of Feb. 14 is when mushers will be preparing their food drops for the Iditarod. Plus, the extra week gives Mother Nature extra time to chill out and produce some precipitation. Since, at least in the near term, the forecast is not promising for snow.
The forecast is calling for above-freezing temperatures and rain the rest of this week, with a chance of cooling and that rain turning into snow, but not getting cool enough to be out of the danger melt zone.
Still, Murray is cautiously optimistic.
Things are looking more promising in the northern Caribou Hills, she said. The waterways and swampy areas along the trail look to be freezing up, she said.
“Ours are looking pretty good. When we flew over we could see several spots that we could cross that were frozen. So as long as we don’t have a huge warmup there and we get snow, we’ll be good,” she said.
But the southern side of the Caribou Hills is warmer with even less residual snow/ice cover. For the past two races the course has sent mushers down past Homer, with a turnaround checkpoint at McNeil Canyon Elementary School our East End Road. If the T200 can go ahead Feb. 21, that part of the race might be scratched.
“Worst case — well, not worst case, but second-to-worst case — is that we don’t go to Homer, we keep it all on this side of the hills. We would have to put a trail in that would be adequate, that’s a huge checkpoint for us at McNeil Canyon School, but if there’s no snow we can’t get there so we’ll try to make an alternate route on this side. It’s really nice and it’s a great trail, but we can definitely do it without going to Homer,” Murray said.
Registered mushers have all been apprised of the situation. The race has drawn a full field of competitors this year, including Paul Gebhardt, Ray Redington Jr., Mitch Seavey and Cim Smyth.
The race, an Iditarod qualifier, has only been canceled due to weather twice since its inception in 1984 — in 2003 and 2013.
Along with the weather, Murray is concerned that postponement might affect her 50 or so race volunteers, some of whom spend the entire weekend away from family, work and other obligations to help with the race.
“It’s nice to have those return people. It makes things run so much easier,” Murray said.
With this much advanced notice, she hopes volunteers, mushers and spectators can plan ahead for Feb. 21. Most importantly, she hopes the weather gets in gear, as well.
“This early a postponement is really, for us, for planning, and also for the mushers to plan other things, as well,” she said. “And there was no way we were going to cancel it before postponing. So why not postpone now and give ourselves a little bit more of a chance?”