Snow, cold and Huskies are three hallmarks of the Iditarod. The Alaskan Husky-- and for a few, the Siberian, too-- never fails to grace the trail on race day, however, there is no such guarantee for snow and cold.

Year in and year out, teams train and race under the mercy of Mother Nature’s fickle hand. Marred by inconsistent snow and cold, trails south of the Alaska Range have been largely impassible over the past few years. Where there should be snow, frozen tundra and dirt pocketed with cannonball like tussocks threatened to wreak havoc on sleds and mushers alike. Ribbons of iced over rivers and frozen lakes polka-dotting the landscape were replaced with frigid bodies of water portending a frigid watery death.

After years removed from being able to race the southern route due to a lack of snow and cold, we’ll be making a long overdue return visit to historic names like Grayling, Ophir and the ghost town of Iditarod. Now, there may be a few complaints about all the new snow blanketing the trail. The trail reports reference a soft trail that has not set up on the racetrack those speedsters like Martin Buser may prefer.

According to the short-range forecast, it looks like a steady stream of snow will continue to obscure the trail and slow down teams. Ideally, the trail would be packed as firm as your front lawn-- just enough give to cushion each paw strike on the snow, but firm enough to prevent the sled runners from digging in and allowing a solid grip for our four-wheel drive companions to push off with maximum power and efficiency.

Racing on hard packed trails would be like you or me running down the middle of the road to the grocery store barefoot. It doesn’t sound too enjoyable. Yes, we could do it, but our knees would be screaming at us the next day. Injuries to the dogs are largely inflammation, focused on the wrists and healed with massage, compression and a night's rest.

New soft snow sounds much more appealing-- like running in the clouds. But, if you’ve ever run in soft, dry beach sand, you know better. In deeper, soft snow like we are experiencing this year, you will see more impact on shoulders. It’s obvious the dogs pull harder on the sled as the resistance increases in the deeper snow, but there is a hidden factor buried in the snow.

If you’ve ever walked downstairs in the dark, you may have experienced what the dogs experience with every footfall in the soft snow. You generally know where the steps are and approximately how close you are to that last step. Unfortunately, we don’t always get it right and will try to take off walking away from the stairs when there is really another step remaining. The ground falls out from below us and our body rapidly descends an extra eight inches before coming to a crashing unbalanced halt.

The other alternative is running to jump into the deep end of a pool and finding out belatedly it is actually the wading pool. Imagine this scenario over and over along the 1000 miles of the Iditarod. The dogs trust there will be firm ground under that soft snow at a regular depth, but sometimes that doesn’t happen and their shoulders take the brunt of the impact.

Unfortunately, shoulders aren’t as forgiving and take much more finesse and rest. So much so that once a dog sustains a shoulder injury, they are relegated to the bench and a flight home.

Aily Zirkle just departed Nikolai minus one teammate due to shoulder stiffness. It’s always hard to leave one of your team and family behind with our vet crew. I’m sure Aily is bummed to leave him behind after he put in so many miles of training in this year, but for her and all mushers, his well being is much more important.

Fortunately for mushers, the weather and trail are constantly changing. If you don’t like it-- wait an hour. I can guarantee there are more than a few who would rather contend with this weather and snow as opposed to the thermometer-bursting temperatures of 2015.

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