On Friday Dec. 18, the Iditarod Trail Committee announced that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 49th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race will follow a different course, one that won’t lead dog teams up to the Bering Sea and ultimately to Nome. Instead, the Iditarod will be run from the usual start at Willow Lake, through the Alaska Range to the ghost town of Iditarod, and back. The course, dubbed the Iditarod Gold Trail Loop, follows the southern route to Iditarod and then turns around and leads the teams back to Willow, for a mileage of approximately 860 miles. The ITC board made the decision “after much deliberation” and according to board member and Nome Mayor John Handeland, the decision to alter the course was extremely anguishing. But in the end the decision was based on the realities of quarantine requirements in each village to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“It is indeed unfortunate, but it’s a decision that nobody made lightly,” said Handeland in an interview. “When you start weighing more factors than [arriving at] the Burled Arch in Nome, and take into consideration everything that’s involved, it became a monumental and undoable project.”
Handeland said that Iditarod staff, board and experts worked to develop a comprehensive COVID-19 prevention plan since September. He said that Rob Urbach, the ITC’s CEO opined “we believe our Covid Protection Plan makes the Iditarod trail one of the safest places to be.”
“But, running of the Iditarod is a partnership that includes numerous communities as we traverse 25+ checkpoints, and considering their concerns needed to be incorporated as well,” Handeland noted. “There were mixed emotions, and a one-and-a half hour meeting turned in to nearly three hours. But ultimately it was the group consensus that for the overall health and safety of residents in checkpoint communities, a reroute posed the least risk to all parties involved.”
Communities along the trail have strict quarantine requirements and not the resources or space to put up strangers to quarantine safely. To erect checkpoints outside of the communities would’ve required immense resources. It would’ve been problematic to create enough space for race volunteers, vets, mushers and race followers without access to running water. And then one has to figure in the mandatory 24-, 12- and 8-hour layovers without the luxury to rely on village infrastructure to house and feed the influx of people. “Bypassing” villages creates significant logistical challenges in setting up a checkpoint outside a checkpoint, said Handeland. In “bypassing” and being unable to interact freely with the communities due to COVID precautions, like social distancing and separation, it would likely take significantly longer to finish the race. Key volunteers taking two weeks’ vacation, when contacted, said they would have to reconsider their involvement as they were not going to be able to extend it another week or possibly two.
Handeland said the race marshal and his staff were charged with presenting to the board what would be needed to complete the race as usual with Nome as a destination and if that would be unrealistic, to give an alternative. Fairbanks as destination was mulled, but then the idea had its own hassles and was dismissed. “Even this loop course presents challenges,” said Handeland. “It’s like going two ways on a one-way street.”
But by routing the trail as a “there and back again” route, the checkpoints that will be set up will be used twice.
The dog teams will have to master notoriously challenging sections of the trail such as the steep terrain of the Alaska Range, the dreaded Happy River Steps and the Dalzell Gorge twice.
Checkpoints will be Yentna, Skwentna, Finger Lake, Rainy Pass, Rohn, Nikolai, McGrath, Takotna, Ophir and Iditarod.
Despite the emotional reaction of those who will miss a March without dog teams trotting down Front Street, who will suffer the lack of tourism dollars infused in the Nome economy and the joy of the many ancillary events that take place during Iditarod time, Handeland explained that betting on the vaccine or the decline of COVID-19 case numbers is unrealistic. He said there are those who feel the decision was premature and that ITC should’ve just waited until the beginning of March to see if the COVID threat was tamped down by that time. “But, Iditarod doesn’t just happen in a day,” he explained. “Planning for the next race begins almost immediately after the prior year’s finish. Mushers need to know how to prepare; Iditarod must stage checkpoint supplies, straw and dog food; volunteer veterinarians and pilots need to be assigned to insure scheduling that provides continuum of animal care.”
Although none of the 57 signed up mushers have reconsidered their participation, travel from Scandinavia, Europe and Canada has become a major obstacle for overseas dog teams to come to Alaska. The 2020 Champion Thomas Waerner, for example, has withdrawn from next year’s race. On Facebook, Waerner announced that he had to make the difficult decision to not start in the Iditarod 2021. “It is a lot of work to get to the starting line in a normal year, and in this covid times it is not possible to get dogs and myself to Alaska,” Waerner wrote. He said his lead dogs K2 and Bark are 6-years-old and “hopefully they will be ready for Yukon Quest and Iditarod in 2022.”