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The last hurrah?

photo (4)

Tim Hewitt melting snow for water along the Iditarod Trial in 2013/Craig Medred photo

Extreme cold eats at the spirit of the human animal. On the wild, winter trails across Alaska, a long run of temperatures past 30 degrees below zero can bear down on a man’s soul like the weight of the sky on Atlas.

After weeks of this – not to mention being stalked by a wolf, enduring the emotional agony of a promised-trail gone, discovering the many things that can go wrong with a fat bike in the coldest, remotest wilds of the north, and getting run over by a dogsled – a legend of  the Iditarod Trail says he might be done at last with the legendary route to the golden sands of the Bering Sea.

Were this a mere mortal saying “no more,” it would be one thing. But this is a trail-tested hard man talking of waving goodbye to the 1,000-mile route from the edge of civilization through the vast nothingness to Nome.

This is 62-year-old Tim Hewitt, the man with the fastest human feet ever to tread the trail, the man who has for more than 15 years made the Iditarod something of a winter obsession, the 15o-pound man who once dragged a sled almost as heavy as he was north to the Bering Sea and refused to sleep in checkpoints along the way just to prove the Iditarod trek could be done without support and without assistance.

And now, back in an office in the civilized world, the Pennsylvania barrister who once thought of the weeks on the Iditarod as his great escape, has a simple answer to the question of “how’s life?”

“It’s better than life out in the wilderness,” he says over the telephone.

“How bad was it?”

“It was horrible.” Pause.

“It wasn’t that bad. But it was colder, I think, colder than any race I’ve been on. On average it was 30 below or colder every night. It just gets trying.

“I’m probably not coming back. There’s nothing left to prove up there.”

Worst of worst

These are the words of a man who has seen more extreme cold and trackless, winter wilderness than most people can imagine.

Over the past 16 years, Hewitt has put in more than 10,000 miles and more than 181 days on the Iditarod Trail. That’s more than half a year. That’s the equivalent of running the grueling Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race about 20 times at today’s pace.

Through the Iditarod years, Hewitt has known better than anyone the highs and lows of the trail. Last year, he set the record time to Nome. His run of 19 days, 9 hours and 38 minutes was 15 hours and 11 minutes faster than the first team to finish in the inaugural dog race in 1973.

The record came after a disastrous 2015 in which Hewitt tried for the first time to ride the trail to Nome on a fat-tired bike. He didn’t make it in large part because there was no trail.

It ended at the old mining camp of Ophir just outside the tiny community of Takotna, population 52, just off the Kuskowkim River on the north side of the Alaska Range in the Interior. Hewitt was undeterred.

He knew where the trail was supposed to be. So he pressed on.

For almost 100 miles, he floundered north toward Ruby through snow sometimes crotch deep in temperatures that dropped to 30- to 45-degrees below zero. He was determined to make the old, mining boom town on the banks of the Yukon River. He was confident that if he did he would find a packed and traveled Iditarod Trail he could ride the rest of the way to Nome.

Out in the middle of what was once called Alaska’s “Inland Empire” and is today one of the most desolate, foreboding stretches of empty country to be found on the continent, he met rescued Belgian cyclist Frank Janssens being hauled back to Takotna on a snowmachine.

Janssens had twice pedaled bikes around the globe. He told Hewitt not to go on, to turn back. Hewitt will never forget Janssens’s words:

“Frank said, ‘You can’t make it. I was pushing in drifts up to my chest.’

“I should have listened,” Hewitt said.

But he didn’t. He took the miles of rough snowmobile track now heading north behind the retreating Janssens as a godsend and clung to his motto: “Just don’t yield.”

It had always gotten him through before.

Not this time

Maybe, if he’d just gotten a break in the weather, maybe if he hadn’t run out of food, maybe if just one more snowmachine had coming along going north or south on the little-used trail, maybe if the snow just hadn’t been so deep, maybe he would have joined the 160 people living in Ruby.

Maybe if, maybe if, maybe if.

There were too many maybe ifs. The reality was he pushed himself into the adventure from hell.

Near the abandoned mining camp of Poorman in the middle of the 170-mile, wilderness crossing, he found snowmachine tracks that spelled hope. He followed them in circles around the little used Poorman airstrip until they went up a hill and ended in crotch-deep snow.

“The snow just kept getting deeper and deeper,” he said, but by then it was the least of his problems. He was exhausted, frustrated and down to his last meal. The nearest human outpost was 70 miles to the north – less than two days away on good trail.

On this trail? A week maybe. Hewitt spent the night at Poorman shivering in his sleeping bag in a hole dug in the snow.

In the morning, the hard man made a tough choice. He would retreat. He began the slog back to a cabin at a nowhere place called Innoko where he’d stashed some food. Once resupplied he could trudge back to Takotna, ride the bike on the well-packed trail from there to McGrath and book an airplane ride home.

Only it wasn’t to be. An encounter with Beat “Be-At” Jegerlehner, a Google software engineer from California and another veteran of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, the human-powered Iditarod, led Hewitt to change his mind again.

A big man on snowshoes towing a sled load of gear, Jergerlehner looked to be the perfect trail breaker. Hewitt fell in behind pushing his bike. Jergerlehner only led Hewitt deeper into hell.

“Beat left me behind pretty quick,” Hewitt said. “I grunted and cursed and spit.”

Then the wind began to howl. Drifting snow obliterated the trail Jergerlehner broke open. Hewitt was wallowing again, but this time he kept pushing the bike north. His wife, Loreen, and fellow hiker, Steve Ansell, a San Francisco ultra-runner who’d been traveling with her, eventually caught up.

As a group, they slogged on even as the weather worsened. Eventually, Invitational trail boss Bill Merchant, who’d been monitoring progress by satellite and saw Tim’s strange meanderings back and forth on the trail and the trio’s slow pace, sent a snowmachine out to check on them.

Ruby’s Allen Titus found the Hewitts and Ansell in tough shape. Loreen had a seriously frostbitten thumb. Tim was cold, demoralized, frostbit and asleep in a sleeping bag buried in snow. Titus thought the man might be dead. He wasn’t, but he was ready to yield.

Titus gave the Hewitt’s a ride into Ruby to bring their 2015 Invitational to an inglorious end.

Even worse?

And now comes the race of 2017 with the never-ending cold, the wind and the blowing snow that Hewitt judges even worse. It was a bitter affair almost from the start in late February at Knik Lake north of Anchorage. Nearly half the 82 fat bikers, runners and two skiers who left the start ended up quitting, many in the first 150 miles.

“I don’t now why so many people bailed out,” Tim said,  but he knows exactly why.

They were intimidated. Tim met some of them coming back to The Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake on the south side of the Alaska Range when he struck out for Ptarmigan Pass. It was windy and cold with snow blowing sideways at times.

Forty-three degrees below zero, Jim Ishman, a Colorado cyclist who pushed through, would later report seeing on his thermometer. That sort of temperature combined with high winds can easily freeze fingers and faces and potentially threaten one’s life.

Forty-five below with even a 15 mph wind quickly pushes the windchill temperature down to lows where exposed skin can freeze solid in five minutes. At 45 below, a 40 mph gust of wind drops the windchillto a mind-numbing 91 degrees below zero. 

There were good reasons to be intimidated even if, in Tim’s words, “Ptarmigan Pass wasn’t that bad.”

Rainy Pass, the normal route of the Iditarod, was a different matter, he added. Looking across the high valley at the pass from near the top of the Happy River drainage, he said, it looked like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Mordor,” a dark and evil land of fantasy.

“I was glad we weren’t going through there this year,” Tim said. “Ptarmigan? I thought it was beautiful.”

He stopped along the trail to boil water for hot chocolate, and then took a break to watching a dancing aurora that stretched from horizon to horizon.

“It was pretty cool,” Tim said.

The bike was another matter. By this time, his click shifters for changing gears were freezing up, and he couldn’t gear down for hills. He would fiddle with the shifters constantly for much of the race, and become a big advocate for the trouble-free twist shifters most experienced cyclists were running.

It was the same for the hydraulic brakes on his bike. Great performers in warm weather, they were problems in the cold. The front brake eventually failed altogether, leaving Tim with no real stopping power.

“With only the rear brake,” he observed, “it just turns the back of the bike into a rudder.

“I crashed a lot. How many times? Oh, I don’t know. 200? But my biking skills did improve throughout the race. The problem was I was stuck in 11th gear for a lot of the time.”

When Jay Cable from Fairbanks, who would go on to become the first of the Invitational cyclists to reach Nome, went past, Tim recalled, “I asked him, ‘Are you having trouble biking?’ He said, ‘no.’

“I was stopping, straddling the bike and panting to catch my breath.”

Tim eventually resigned himself to adjusting the bike’s shifter so he could use the four lowest gears and be happy with that.

“It was a learning experience,” he said. “It was a little frustrating. I had a lot of knee problems from trying to push a big gear. And my ass really hurt. Eventually, I learned I had to be more patient and go to a lower gear.

“Then my (tire) pump broke,” and he lost his Patagonia Nano Puff insulated jacket and his windshell. But those were little things, physical things.

As is often the case, the real issue was with the bigger things, the psychological things.

Alaska’s old,  long-deserted “Inland Empire” wasn’t done messing with the visitor from Outside.

Head games

It was with a bit of trepidation that Tim approached the long crossing from Takotna to Ruby. Part of it stemmed from the legacy of what had happened the last time he set out across this desolate section of trail with a bike. Part of it lived in the reality of the Iditarod dog race deciding to move its restart north to Fairbanks to follow the rivers of the Interior to Ruby.

With the Iditarod went the Iditarod traffic. There would be no parade of officials ahead of the first team in the race, no convoy of Idit-a-followers behind, and no official trail sweeps to pack the trail tight. Tim worried there might again be no trail.

But on the way out of Takotna, he ran into Billy Koitzsch, an old Iditarod trailmate now heading a low-budget Invitational alternative  that had taken the name of the first human-powered Iditarod bike and run race, the Iditasport.

The Iditasport had racers on the trail ahead. Koitzsch was on a snowmachine back hauling gear from Iditasport checkpoints.

“He seemed genuinely happy to see me,” Tim said. “He gave me a big hug. He said he broke trail to within eight miles of Ruby.”

Or at least that’s what Tim thought Koitzsch said. He’s thinking now there must have been some sort of miscommunication.

“I have a hard time thinking, he’d lie to me,” Tim said. “There’s some sort of moral code there.”

Whatever happened, what Tim was about to discover was that the trail that was supposed to go to within eight miles of Ruby ended at the Innoko River crossing, about halfway along the 170 mile trail to Ruby.

Tim’s dream that he would this time find an easy ride to Ruby died beneath a foot of snow right there.

“I was so disgusted,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that just shatters people.”

Still, it could have been worse. Ahead on the trail were Cable and Kevin Breitenbach, another fat bike rider from Fairbanks. They would lead the push for 60 to 70 miles.

“They’d broke a track,” Tim said. “It wasn’t rideable at all.”

He started following it through country he remembered as “absolutely the worst part of 2015, but I thought: ‘I can do this. I can punch through this.'”

He put on a pair of small, ultralight snowshoes he’d brought along just in case this happened again. He took the pedal of one side of his bike so it wouldn’t bash him in the leg and started pushing.

It took him three days to make Ruby.

Along the way, he lost one of the snowshoes. It came off his foot without his noticing. When he figured out it was gone, he had no idea of how far back it might be so he didn’t even go look.

He eventually put the pedal back on his bike, thinking he might be able to ride some of the downhills. That was a fantasy, and then he somehow lost the pedal. That was a loss he couldn’t ignore. The pedal forced him to go back and search.

Finding it only a couple of hundred meters behind was, he said, “really lucky. Just finding it was lucky. Finding it undamaged was extra lucky.”

Unwanted company at one point joined him along the trail. He was followed by a wolf for over an hour.

“He was walking alongside me and howling at me,” Tim said. “We were moving at the same speed. Those encounters are weird, and they are hair-raising. I figured one wolf wouldn’t mess with me, but how often is there just one wolf?

“I was worried they might be figuring out that I’m the old guy that I am.”

He started thinking about how he could get his one snowshoe off fast if he needed a weapon in the event of an attack. Such attacks are rare, but several year ago a pack of wolves killed a young woman in Southwest Alaska.

Tim breathed a sigh of relief when this wolf left.

“You want to hear the pack move on,” he said. “The whole thing could have been a lot worse really. I didn’t complain. Well, I did complain at Carlson, but I had a little bit of broken trail to follow.

“I was happy to get to Ruby. Ruby was something of a destination for the whole first half.”

One of the first things he did when he got there was to call Kathi Merchant, Bill’s wife, back in Chickaloon and ask her for Bill’s location. She said Bill was still in Ophir waiting to sweep the trail behind the last Invitational competitors.

Tim told her to call Bill on his satellite phone and tell him to break the trail for the stragglers.

“It was horrible trail,” Tim said. “Bill did break it.”

The going got a little easier for those behind, but Tim’s hopes of making Nome in under two weeks was gone, eve though the riding would get easier after Ruby. There is fairly regular travel between the Yukon River villages of Kaltag, Nulato, Koyukuk, Galena and Ruby, and between Kaltag and Unalakleet over the portage from the river to the Bering Sea, and between Unalakleet and the string of coastal villages north and west to Nome.

Trail too good

On those trails, Tim found himself rolling into a different world – the world of mechanical advantage. The discovery of the wheel has clearly ended his days of traveling the Iditarod on foot.

“I don’t think I could ever go back to pulling a sled,” he said. “I don’t think I could. I really don’t think I could. I’d be too impatient. It’s too slow.”

On good trail, the speed of the bike is intoxicating even when the biking isn’t good. Tim learned this the hard way coming down out of the Blueberry Hills on the way from Unalakleet to the village of Shaktoolik. He had trouble controlling the bike with only the rear brake. It would get going too fast and fishtail, and he would crash.

All of which was fun and funny, he said, until he crashed and put a stick in his eye.

On the trail into Unalkakleet, he had earlier learned how hard it is to get off the trail on a bike. A hiker can just wallow out of the way of approaching traffic. A cyclist has to dismount first in order to move aside, and that isn’t always easy.

When Tim tried to get off the trail fast because of an approaching dog team between Kaltag and Unalakleet, he put one foot down off the side of the trail, and it just kept going down, down, down in the snow. The results were predictable. He went over. The bike followed.

He was trying to wrestle out from underneath when the dog team arrived.

“The dogs had no trouble getting around me,”  he said, “but the sled couldn’t. He (the musher) said, ‘I’m going to run over you,'” and that’s what he did.

“The runners went over the bike,” Tim said. “He just missed the derailleur by a couple of inches. That was lucky, too.”

From Ruby on, he admits, there was a lot of luck that went his way. He got into the notoriously windy village of Shaktoolik with a storm brewing, but an Iditarod dog race checker invited him into the checkpoint to grab a nap.

When he woke to head out across frozen Norton Bay on the long, exposed 50-mile crossing to the village of Koyuk, it was dead calm, a rare event.

“Every thing worked out pretty much perfectly for me with the (coastal) weather,” he said.

Tim eventually rolled into Nome in 18 days, 3 hours and 44 minutes. It was his fastest Iditarod. He was almost exactly a day behind Cable, about 8 hours behind second-place finisher RJ Sauer from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and way behind his own dream of a 12- or 13-day race.

Tough trail early slowed everyone. Cable made Nome in 12 days, 8 hours in the unusually warm, climate-change weather of last year, only to finish fourth. Race leader Phil Hoftstetter from Nome took but 11 days, 5 hours. 

“Without all the problems,” Tim said, “I think I could have been five days faster” despite his self-confessed inefficiencies on the bike.

“I learned a lot,” he said. “By the end, I could ride a straight line” on bad trail – not an easy thing to do. On good trail, he believes, he might be able to pedal to Nome in 12 or 13 days.

The old Tim Hewitt would have been certain to return to see if that belief proved true, but there was a different sound to his voice this year than in year’s past. Even after the debacle of 2015, with his fingers swollen with frostbite, he was a man clearly wanting to go another round. The Iditarod passion was still burning.

The passion didn’t seem anywhere to be found on Monday.

“I’m thinking about it,” Tim said, “but there’s really not much left up there for me.”

The man whose Alaska adventures provided the material for the well-received book “8,000 Miles Across Alaska: A Runner’s Journeys on the Iditarod Trail,” sounded a lot like a man looking to start new chapters in a new book set in a warmer, more hospitable locale.

(For those interested in a visual tour of the trail, Cable put together a photo essay for BikePacker.com. It can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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