SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race starts today. The 1,000-mile course has followed the Yukon River between Whitehorse in Canada and Fairbanks in Alaska for more than 30 years. But recently, some places along the river haven't frozen. And as Emily Schwing reports, that's raising concerns about the impact of climate change on Alaska's state sport.
EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: A little open water on the Yukon Quest trail is nothing new. But in recent years long, unfrozen stretches of the Yukon River have shaken even the toughest mushers.
HANK DEBRUIN: I was sleeping in my sled bag and I heard a roar, sounded like a freight train.
SCHWING: Last year, musher Hank DeBruin of Ontario stopped along the Yukon River to rest his dog team in the middle of the night when the ice started to break up.
DEBRUIN: So I threw all my stuff in the sled bag, pulled my dogs and my sled up the bank a bit and turned around. And there was wide-open water where the sled was sitting five minutes earlier.
SCHWING: Mushers have plenty of anecdotal evidence for warming temperatures and its impact on their sport. Cody Strathe of Fairbanks says warmer temperatures and lacking snow have changed how he trains his dog team.
CODY STRATHE: Normally dogs like to run at colder temperatures, usually like below zero. So we try to run more at night so they have those nice cold temperatures, which they tend to like more with their big fur coats.
SCHWING: Strathe and other mushers cut up frozen chunks of meat and tripe - snacks for dog teams during the race - eventually all that meat is packed into drop bags and sent out to checkpoints along the trail.
STRATHE: Because if it's, you know, really warm out, our meat can thaw and spoil, and then that is bad for the dogs. They can get sick or have nothing to eat. And so we have to package our food in ways that it will stay cold longer.
SCHWING: Strathe insulates his bags with bubble wrap to help keep them frozen. Other mushers add blocks of ice or even snow. Mushers are also packing gear for a wider variety of trail conditions. In recent years, they've tossed in rubber boots and chest waders in anticipation of open water. They've also packed raincoats for themselves and their dogs. National Weather Service Climatologist Rick Thoman says there will come a day when climate change delivers an even more serious blow.
RICK THOMAN: At some point in the future, we will reach a point where this starts to affect the ability to have these races. Whether this is in five years or 50 years or a hundred years is an open question.
SCHWING: That's a big question for Alaska's state sport and the economy surrounding it. Unseasonable winter weather hasn't only affected the Yukon Quest Sled Dog race. Paige Drobny will drive a dog team in the 1,000-mile Iditarod in March. She's been a musher for eight years, and she's not sure how long her racing career will last.
PAIGE DROBNY: With the weather that we're having, if we don't get winters here soon, I think that there's going to be no choice but for the sport to die out if we don't - if we don't start getting some snow in the state.
SCHWING: Drobny says she and her husband spend upwards of $70,000 a year to raise and maintain their dogs. The potential loss of mushing, both as a sport and because of its tourism draw, could have a big economic impact in Alaska. This year, Yukon Quest officials considered moving the start line of the race because of open water and thin ice on rivers near Whitehorse. A last-minute drop in temperatures and a snowstorm gave race personnel a reprieve. Mushers are hoping for a smooth run, but their sleds are still packed with extra gear just in case. For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Fairbanks.
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