With the 30th anniversary Iron Dog snowmachine race just a few weeks away, Alaska was still yet to be buried in snow. Winter 2012 had delivered little snow throughout the state, especially in Southcentral Alaska, where the state’s premier snowmachine race gets under way. And Winter 2013 was delivering more of the same.
Still, said Iron Dog’s executive director Kevin Kastner, the race will go on. It was canceled in 2003 due to lack of snow, but that won’t happen this year, Kastner promised.
“Certainly we are watching it daily,” he said in early January, as temperatures hovered in the 20s and nary a snow cloud lined the sky. “But it’s a little premature to get too wound up. One thing is for sure, no matter what the conditions, we will make it work. There will be a race. We will find a patch of snow and that’s where the course will go because that’s the spirit of this race.”
This year’s Iron Dog promises to be a contest to watch. With 40 Pro-level teams and nine Trail-level teams racing, it’s going to get crowded. And the competition is stiff, too.
“It’s really a tough call on who’s going to win it,” Kastner said. “It always is. But the guys that have been doing it for a long time, they are the ones who are a threat. Iron Dog is something that requires experience to be successful.”
One such success story is Eagle River’s Chris Olds, who won the 2010 and 2011 Iron Dog with racing partner Tyler Huntington. Last year, he came close to defending that winning title, racing with new partner Mike Morgan, yet in the end finished fourth, behind Ski-Doo racers Marc McKenna and Dusty VanMeter.
Olds said he is geared up and ready to go again this year. Despite the scant snowfall around town and on heavily used trails, it only takes a little while to get out into good snow further into the backcountry, he said. He and Morgan have been doing most of their training out of Big Lake.
“It’s pretty marginal right now,” he said in early January, “But out around Finger Lake, the further out we go, the better the conditions are.”
Olds said he is pinning his hopes on another victory this year, going into the race with realistic expectations. The record number of competitors will make the race more challenging.
“We definitely have a lot of competition,” he said. Still, he is a trail veteran, and now with a year under his belt with Morgan, the two have figured out how best to ride together.
“He knows my weaknesses and strengths and I know his,” he said. “We help each other out.”
The key to a successful race, Olds stressed, is being prepared for anything.
“You have to know you’re going to have a problem and be ready to deal with it,” said the lifelong Polaris rider, who can fix his machine in his sleep and knows that time is of the essence if mechanical issues arise. “You go into it knowing that and react because things can snowball if you don’t.”
Kastner said he thinks this year’s race is a sign that Iron Dog is alive and well, thriving and on the cusp of reaching an even larger audience. As the Pro-class racing continues to grow, he hopes that eventually the Trail-class can one day be developed into a larger draw.
“There’s a whole lot of room for growth for that level,” he said. “It’s a bucket list kind of thing.”
Trail-class racers leave Big Lake Feb. 15, two days before the main race begins. This race allows them to experience the intensity of the course before leaping into the Pro Class. Their journey ends in Nome, a course roughly half as long as that of the pros, who end their race in Fairbanks.
Pro-class racers leave Big Lake Feb. 17, covering 2,031 miles in less than a week. Those first couple of days, Olds said, are the toughest.
“Heading to Nome is very demanding, physically and mentally,” he said. “The first day is the toughest, and the second day is the next toughest. But then you get into a routine and it becomes more of a mental race than a physical one.”
On race day, Big Lake is alive with excitement.
“There’s so much activity,” Kastner said. “The lake just comes to life with so much happening, almost too much to take in for many people.”
Spectators can enjoy, among other highlights, a National Guard flyover, chase planes buzzing off after the racers, throngs of people, cars, snowmachines and more, he said.
“It’s pretty insane,” Kastner said. “In a good way, and a lot of fun.”
Racers encounter varying extremes in terrain, including rugged woodland trails, fast-paced river runs, deep mountain passes, over tundra and tussocks, tracts of dirt and even open water – all while riding at speeds approaching 100 mph. Through it all, weather, both good and bad, will influence the racers’ progress. Fortunately long, sleepless rides are broken up by checkpoint stops, fueling stations and required layovers.
The first team to Nome will win the Donlin Gold – Gold Rush Challenge with a payout of $10,000. At the Fairbanks finish, winners will walk away with a well-deserved $50,000 in prize money.
Rural racers from Bethel, Kiana, Kotzebue, Noorvik, Tanana as well as Alaska’s urban areas are signed up. Minnesota, Maine and even Arizona are sending their best riders. Teams from outside the United States hail from the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Quebec.