Anchorage, Alaska (CNN) - Despite near record snowfall, the 40th running of the Iditarod sled dog race kicked off in Anchorage on Saturday. However, only hours after the ceremonial start of the race, Iditarod officials announced the trail's course was being altered due to worsening weather conditions.
Sixty-six mushers entered this year's race, a true test of human and canine endurance. The contest requires each musher and dog sled team to traverse almost 1,000 miles across Alaska's notorious winter terrain – between Anchorage and Nome on the Bering Sea coast.
This year, Anchorage has already doubled its usual snowfall with approximately 120 inches – 10 feet of snow – and is approaching the near 133-inch record set in 1954. The deep snow could be a major factor in the Iditarod, as weather conditions affect the dogs' physical performance and increase the threat of dangerous moose encounters on the trail. Several Iditarod mushers have already reported run-ins with winter-weary moose during training runs through interior Alaska.
Hours after Saturday morning's ceremonial start, race director Mark Nordman announced trail breakers had become more concerned over a previously planned reroute in a critical part of the 2012 trail. Citing high wind and new snow totals, Nordman broke last-minute news of the change to mushers and fans.
"As trail conditions are constantly affected by changes in weather," the Iditarod Trail Committee "will consistently evaluate available options with the goal of providing the best possible trail," said Nordman – meaning the dangerous, highly feared and ironically named "Happy Steps" would officially be back in the 2012 race route.
Veteran musher and 2012 Yukon Quest champion Hugh Neff of Tok, Alaska, is no stranger to harsh trail conditions: He lost one of his own race dogs to overflow ice and suffered severe frostbite during previous competitions. "You really have to respect Mother Nature, and Lord knows, she’s been beating up on me over the years. So, we just have got to take care of the dogs and keep an even keel," Neff said.
Four-time Iditarod champions Lance Mackey and Martin Buser are both chasing after a fifth Iditarod win this year, and each remains optimistic in the face of challenging weather forecasts. "Expect the worst. Hope for the best. The outcome remains to be seen," said Mackey, who recognizes there will inevitably be challenges. "You've got to deal with it as it’s presented to you. Of course we have concerns."
Martin Buser, who was born in Switzerland but now resides in Big Lake, Alaska, is looking forward to sizing up this year's Iditarod field in the coming days along the trail. "This is going to be a very special race. We have a lot of competitive teams in the race and a lot of dark horses," said Buser, who proudly predicts he will be the first musher to arrive at the burled arch on Nome's famous Front Street.
The reigning Iditarod champion, Kotzebue musher John Baker, set a new Iditarod record last year – arriving in Nome in only 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes and 2 seconds. Baker's 2011 record-setting pace took place in far more ideal trail conditions, mushers point out, and they say it's not likely Baker's impressive accomplishment will be beaten in 2012.
Those kinds of predictions, however, fail to dampen the spirit of the always confident Neff. "I’m not worried about trying to do well. I expect to do well," said Neff. "Some folks down south think we hide when the weather gets bad up north. But when the weather gets rough, that’s when a lot of us animals really like to come out and play and show others what we are really about inside, and so I look forward to the challenge," he added with a wry smile.
Neff is not alone in that challenge. Sixty-five others will be confidently competing against him as teams depart the race "chute" on Willow Lake on Sunday afternoon. Once the official Iditarod race clock begins, only one thing is certain. It's a long, treacherous and punishing ride to Nome – with or without Mother Nature's cruel winter fury.