Dog days of winter force Iditarod venue change

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FAIRBANKS -- Even the most successful travel agents know there's one thing more unpredictable than their most eccentric clients: the weather.

Take Alaska, for example, where tourism officials count on wintry, snowy temperatures for its March events. This year, however, there wasn't enough snow to start the state's famous Iditarod dogsled race.

For the first time in the race's history, the "re-start" -- the second starting point of the race -- held in Wasilla, 50 miles north of Anchorage, was relocated to Fairbanks, 300 miles north of Anchorage, to take advantage of the colder climate.

A musher and his team tackle the Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska. The route has been altered this year, adding nearly 100 miles to what had been a 1,100-mile race. Anchorage, where the ceremonies for the race kick off each year, was so warm the Alaska Railroad agreed to haul in snow from outlying areas for the ceremonial start March 1.

Other winter events, including the Iditarod's Iron Dog snowmobile race, were scrap-ped due to the mild weather.

The change-up sent some tour operators hustling to make last-minute alterations to their itineraries, including making plans in Fairbanks for the March 3 re-start events.

The itineraries follow the Iditarod -- via helicopter in some portions -- all the way to its finish in Nome.

"The 'chase-the-race' packages have been running around trying to get things going around here," said Colin Lawrence, tourism manager at the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Some companies only had the ceremonial start, so they haven't had to change anything."

Lawrence said tour operators were able to square away lodging -- even though volunteers, Iditarod officials, media, tourists and more than 700 race workers had booked into Fairbanks hotels that weekend.

AlaskaTours.com, for example, switched its itinerary to include a brief visit to Wasilla to see the Iditarod's headquarters.

However, instead of lingering for the re-start, the tour continued to Talkeetna for a night, followed by a scenic van ride to Denali National Park's ranger station on the way to Fairbanks.

John Hall of Lake City, Minn.-based Anderson House Tours visited Alaska a few weeks ago. "I left Anchorage and it was 50 degrees; I flew to Houston and it was 49 degrees," he said.

Hall said it was "a strange year for tourism" in Alaska.

"I just don't have any sense or feel for what's going to happen in the next three months," he said.

On the day of the musher's banquet in Anchorage -- where mushers draw starting positions for the race and a must-attend event for tourists and mushers alike -- the high temperature was 38 degrees. At the re-start in Fairbanks, the temperature was about 28 degrees.

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