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The Year of Warm Mush

March 01, 2003

A week before today's start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, officials redrew the 1,100-mile route from Anchorage to Nome in search of what is usually everywhere this time of year in Alaska: snow. Past races have pitted mushers and their dogs against blizzards and bitter cold. It took the balmiest February on record to redraw the Iditarod for the first time in its 31-year history.

This is a big deal in a state where bragging categories include the most snowfall in a season, most monthly snowfall, most snowfall in 24 hours and highest recorded snowpack. Southern Californians may boast of playing golf in February, but our neighbors to the north pity us for our lack of seasons. Alaska has four: early winter, midwinter, late winter and getting ready for winter.

This week's storm made the Southland shiver, but the normal high in Santa Monica this time of year is 70 degrees, to which someone from Fairbanks would feel compelled to add "above" -- as opposed to below -- zero.

So what's behind the weird weather? Rather than pinning the blame for the Final Frontier's missing winter on global warming, meteorologists have trotted out the traditional suspects: El Nino. A ridge of high pressure. The jet stream. Alaska's winter essentially got funneled up and around, then dropped on Washington, D.C., the Eastern Seaboard and, as of this week, Arkansas. The ideal Iditarod route this year might have been over the Ozarks, not the snowless Alaska Range.

But tradition decrees that, come the first Saturday in March, the Iditarod begins on downtown Anchorage's 4th Avenue, even though city workers had to reverse their usual routine and haul snow in to cover the city's rain-slicked streets. After today's ceremonial start, dogs, sleds and mushers will be trucked 300 miles north to Fairbanks to begin the actual race Monday.

Meanwhile, back in Anchorage, where the lack of snow forced the earlier cancellation of a big snowmobile race and a ski competition, ever-adaptive Alaskans are learning that if they can't pity us, they can join us. They are pulling on rain slickers and mud boots and hitting the golf course. After all, it's 40 above.

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