This story originally appeared on High Country News and is part of the Climate office collaboration.
Mike Williams Jr. can’t remember when he started mushing, but once he was strong enough to handle sled dogs, it became his passion. At first, he hung out after school, taking his dad’s dogs on 3- and 4-mile trails near his home in Akiak, Alaska. He first raced the Iditarod in 2010 and has competed seven times since.
The Iditarod is Alaska’s most famous sporting event. Sled dogs and their mushers travel the approximately one thousand mile trail from Anchorage to Nome each March to commemorate the Serum Run of 1925, when a relay of 20 dog sled teams delivered lifesaving medicine to Nome to stop a diphtheria epidemic. The road is passable only in winter, when the rivers and lakes have frozen. But the trail has become trickier over the past two decades as the area has warmed, making trail conditions less reliable. The 51st annual Iditarod race begins March 4, but this year there are fewer teams than usual. In the past there were sometimes as many as 85 teams, but now there are only 33 – the lowest attendance in the history of the race.
There is several reasons for this fall, but climate change does not help. “Our ecosystem is under fire right now in the state of Alaska,” said Chas St. George, director of operations for the Iditarod Trail Committee, the nonprofit organization that organizes what some call “The Last Great Race”. St. George began his role in 2016, and he says the race has had to adapt to unpredictable weather conditions, which create new obstacles and potential safety hazards for mushers and their dogs. Rivers, streams, and lakes on road crossings no longer freeze as reliably as before, and vegetation grows in new places, clogging the trail. Unusually warm storms can bring rain instead of snow, washing away crucial sea ice from Norton Sound that mushers must traverse near the end of the race. Permafrost is melting, destabilizing what was once solidly frozen ground, while summer forest fires have become more frequent, meaning charred trees can fall onto the trail.
Williams, Akiak’s musher, says that in the years since he started competing he’s noticed the changes in the landscape and their impact on the track. He remembers a warm winter in 2014 when the trail was icy in some places and reduced to bare ground in others. It’s been such a bumpy ride that mushers were left with sprained ankles, bruises and broken sleds.
“It was a very difficult year for training and racing, and running the Iditarod in these conditions for almost the entire race was very difficult,” he said. “And it was very humbling. I would say a lot of us were lucky to get through this course injury-free, because some people did.