The man seemingly unable to resist the call of that great “White Silence” of which the author Jack London long ago wrote was alone on the trail into the tiny community of Manley Hot Springs Tuesday evening on his way to Kotzebue and eventually Nome.
Three days earlier, 65-year-old Tim Hewitt walked out of Fairbanks in 40-degree-below-zero temperatures pulling a sled-load of food and survival gear with friend Kevin Breitenbach observing that “I tried to get a good pic of him this evening but my camera died from the cold. Turns out Tim is not terribly sentimental about starting such an ambitious journey.”
Ambitious journeys have sort of come to define the lawyer from Latrobe, Penn. At age 61 in 2016, he covered 1,000 miles along the frozen Iditarod Trail at an average pace of about 50 miles per day to set a record of fewer than 20 days for the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) foot-race.
By the time Hewitt reached Nome, his nose was scarred from frostbite. His feet were the shape and color of baking-size, red potatoes. His toenails were all gone, and his toes were pocked by blisters just starting to heal.
As for his body, it was pretty well worn out. During a brief stop in Alaska’s largest city on his way home, he hunched and hobbled his way across an Anchorage restaurant to get to the men’s room.
Most senior athletes might by then have been thinking of gentler pursuits.
Hewitt had already gone the length of the Iditarod eight times on foot in winter and attempted it once on a fat bike only to be pulled off the trail after days of floundering to find a trail buried in deep snow while being brutalized by 50-degree-below zero temperatures and winds that might well have killed a lesser man.
That was a journey deep into that northland of which London so long ago wrote:
“Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity…(and) the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot’s life, nothing more.
“Strange thoughts arise unsummoned, and the mystery of all things strives for utterance.”
Being a man fundamentally geared to finish a job once begun, Hewitt answered his mystery of all things in 2017 by getting back on a fat bike and finishing what he’d started in 2015. He hinted after that he might then be done with this obsession for the cold and the desolation of the winter wilds in Alaska.
The only runner ever to leave the fat-bike cyclists behind and lead the entire Invitational field of muscle-powered athletes over the Alaska Range, the ITI record holder for the foot race, a man who once traveled fully unsupported from Knik to Nome pulling a sled full of food and fuel that almost matched his 150-pound weight just to prove to himself that he could do it, Hewitt really didn’t have to do anything more to cement his place in history as an Iditarod tough man.
“It’s better than life out in the wilderness.”
“How bad was it?” he was asked.
“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.”
And now he’s back. Why?
Because it’s there. Because he can’t stay away. And because this time he’s found a new challenge, the unique, 1,300-mile route of the 2020 IronDog snowmachine race north from Fairbanks to the village of Koyuk on the Bering Sea Coast and then north to the Northwest regional hub of Kotzebue before looping back for a halfway stop in Nome.
“A toll it takes for sure, but it keeps drawing us back,” his wife Loreen, herself a veteran of multiple ITIs, messaged from back in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.
Tim admitted before he left that he wasn’t looking forward to again immersing himself in extreme cold, but he marched out into it anyway.
Forty- to 50-degree-below-zero temperatures are pure hell for someone on the trail. It gets mentally old just dealing with how many layers of clothes to wear to keep the cold at bay without sweating because there is nothing more dangerous than sweat, the cooling fluid of the human engine.
Sweat seeps into clothes and compromises their insulating value. Sweat accelerates the loss of body heat anywhere moist skin is exposed to the dry, cold air. Sweat pushes the body toward dehydration which increases the risk of frostbite.
And being adequately dressed for hiking miles downhill is invariably overdressed for hiking miles uphill.
After the near-death of a Yukon Arctic Ultra competitor in extreme cold in 2018 and the post-race amputations of the cold-injured body parts of two competitors, the race in the Canadian territory just across the border from Alaska actually wrote a “sweat rule” to deal with those who don’t recognize the danger.
“Athletes who arrive at Checkpoint 1 sweating more than they should and/or totally exhausted will have to stay/rest at the checkpoint for four hours,” the rule says. “The decision is taken by the Race Director or crew. All other checkpoints also have the right to stop athletes who arrive and show signs of poor management of their clothing layers.”
Hewitt is well familiar with the moisture-control problem, but it still was no doubt coming as good news to him that the weather was moderating as he approached Manley. The National Weather Service reported a temperature of 5 degrees there on Tuesday evening with light snow falling.
Though Tim is averaging about 40 miles per day, Loreen said, “It’s a slow trail so far and a very cold start. I heard from him when he was lost, but other than tell him to turn around or find the river, I wasn’t much help.”
Both are hoping for better trail after the Iron Dog racers come roaring north on the Tanana River and then on down the Yukon River to Ruby to the west where the Iditarod Trail joins the state’s largest waterway. The Iron Dog starts Feb. 16 in Fairbanks.