Bob Jones is back on his Iditarod snowmobile

Chris Cowbrough
Staff Writer

Home sweet Nome

Frigid weather greeted the start of the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Monday.

The so-called Last Great Race, moved from its usual starting point just north of Anchorage to Fairbanks, got going under sunny, frigid skies. Temperatures were about 30 below zero.

Shadowing the Iditarod mushers in the 968-mile race is Bob Jones of Kettle Falls. Jones and his buddy, Josh Rindal, are back on the trail again. Jones the photographer and raconteur, knows the Iditarod trails well—this is his 16th trip along the Iditarod trail.

The Iditarod mushers (71 mushers this year) entered the start chute in front of Pike’s Waterfront Lodge outside of Fairbanks before dropping onto the Chena River. The trail meanders down the Tanana River to the first checkpoint in Nenana. As is the custom, teams will leave the starting chute one by one, at two-minute intervals.

Tough conditions

Iditarod trail bosses say the route between Fairbanks and Old Minto should be on solid footing and plenty of snow. From there, conditions could deteriorate.

Despite the generally deep snow that fell on Anchorage this winter, Iditarod race officials said last month that stretches of the trail early in the route—near the Rainy Pass checkpoint in the Alaska Range—remained impassable because of too little snow and open water.

The official start was moved from Willow, Alaska to Fairbanks for the third time in race history. Iditarod mushers last raced out of Fairbanks in 2015, the year that Jones missed.

Jones, who lives for traversing the Iditarod trail and talking to villagers that he has known for years in many cases, isn’t happy about the move from the traditional start at Willow to Fairbanks.

But it is what it is.

“Global warming is not a joke,” Jones says with a laugh. “Global Warming works a lot faster north near the poles. There just isn’t much snow around Rainy Pass…and the brush has taken over the country. It’s 12-feet tall in places.”

Jones and Rindal planned to start trailing the race on March 7.

Frozen rivers

No one is happy about the route from Fairbanks to Nome. Compared to the route from Willow to Nome, the trail west from frigid Fairbanks is flatter and entails more running on frozen rivers.

At least the mushers hope the rivers are frozen.

The route through Alaska’s interior is also prone to brutal cold and gusty winds. The route calls for mushers and their teams to follow the Tanana River from Fairbanks to Nenana on Monday’s first day to Manley Hot Springs before hitting the Yukon and following that fabled river to the villages of Tanana, Ruby and Galena.

Mushers will then head overland 82 miles north to Huslia. The teams will loop back down from Huslia to Koyukuk and return to the Yukon River and the village of Nulato (on the traditional Iditarod northern route).

Mushers will continue on the traditional Iditarod route from there to Kaltag, Unalakleet and up the Norton Sound coast for the long push through the Seward Peninsula to Nome.

For those who need a frame of reference, the Iditarod route and its nearly 1,000 miles is akin to driving from Portland to Los Angeles.

Brutal stretch

If this year’s race runs any parallels to the last one that started in Fairbanks, the first musher should be across the burled arch in Nome sometime early March 15. In 2015, Dallas Seavey won the race in eight days, 18 hours and 13 minutes.

Jones wasn’t looking forward to running from Fairbanks west—at least not the first 300 to 350 miles.

“The first 350 miles are a nightmare,” Jones said last week from a diner in the Yukon Territory. “That’s a tough stretch over the Alaska range.”

And yes, Jones plans on regaling the reading public with his usual diary.

Brace yourselves, boys and girls. Those installments will start next week.

Jones, 77, can’t think of a place he’d rather be than on the Iditarod Trail. But he knows that at his advancing age, younger is better. Somebody—his buddy from Spokane—is younger on the trail—much younger.

For these two, riding a snowmobile along the Iditarod Trail isn’t about getting there fastest to Nome. Chances are, Jones and Rindal will get to Nome in time for the annual banquet.

But this will be a leisurely jaunt. What’s the hurry?