‘A pretty special race’: Iditarod prepping to run the race its founder dreamed of

Published: Feb. 26, 2021 at 12:24 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - While the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the route and protocols of the 2021 Iditarod, race officials say that in addition to paying homage to the 1925 serum run-- a relay of dog teams carrying diphtheria serum to Nome-- the running of the 49th Iditarod will also fulfill the original dream of the man most know as the Father of the Iditarod.

“Joe Redington Sr.’s original dream was to run the race to Iditarod,” race marshal Mark Nordman told reporters in a pre-race press conference Friday. “But with no fan base, no real -- some of you know Joe -- no real money base, they decided, ‘Let’s go all the way to Nome with this thing.”

This year, of course, the 47 mushers of the Iditarod will not be making the trek all the way to Nome. Nordman said the decision to cut the race to an out-and-back through the Alaska Range was one made in concert with all the communities that would normally have been along the trail. Mushers will race through the range, with layouts and protocols changed at many of the checkpoints, where checkpoints will be set up in outdoor tents, bunkhouses, and in some cases, airplane hangars.

The Iditarod trail in 2021 will take the "Gold Trail Loop" (Courtesy of the Iditarod)
The Iditarod trail in 2021 will take the "Gold Trail Loop" (Courtesy of the Iditarod)(Courtesy of the Iditarod)

At McGrath, mushers will be tested for COVID-19. They are required to take their 24-hour layover at any official checkpoint between or at Skwentna and Iditarod. The race cut the village of Takotna, usually a popular 24-hour layover spot, out of the official stops this year. The reason for that, Nordman said, is that the community’s health clinic burned down this past summer, and the usual checkpoint building is now serving as the clinic. “I think if we had gone to Nome, we might have been able to use the community there but the fact that we’re coming and going, it’s too long a time to tie up their community, so we’re bypassing Takotna this year,” Nordman said.

Takotna is a popular 24-hour layover spot for frontrunners in the Iditarod. The checkpoint is known for its pies and round-the-clock hearty meals.

Mushers must take an eight-hour layover at any official checkpoint between Rohn on the trail north and on the trail south. And Skwentna, usually a Day-1 stop only, is now the “White Mountain” before the finish, where mushers must take an eight-hour layover before making their way to the finish, which this year will be at the starting point at Deshka Landing in Willow.

With changes to the checkpoints, and some checkpoints being turned to tent stops, Nordman says he thinks race fans will observe a lot more camping out on the trail.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of people this year, because of the change -- the creature comforts aren’t there -- I think you’ll see a lot of people camping out,” Nordman said. “If you’re in a tent with four or five different mushers, why not just sleep with your dogs?”

From McGrath, mushers will head to Ophir and down the race’s southern route to the checkpoint of Iditarod. After leaving Iditarod, mushers will make a loop around Flat, an abandoned mining town that was once the largest mining camp in the Iditarod mining district. The town will not be a checkpoint or have amenities for mushers, organizers say.

The race will leave a team of trail breakers near the Alaska Range to address any deteriorating trail conditions. The Dalzell Gorge, a narrow, steep downhill section where mushers and their sleds often take a beating, is notorious for degrading as more mushers go over it.

Nordman said there is plenty of snow on the trail this year, and trail breakers will set out on the trail next Wednesday. With the new-to-Iditarod route, Nordman says he thinks despite any impact on official race records, every Iditarod is different. “I think they’re just going to remember going over the Alaska Range twice,” Nordman said. “It’s a pretty special race. I hear from mushers every day. They’re excited to get on the trail.”

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