No one in America today knows better than Tim Hewitt the meaning of the legendary Archdeacon Hudson Stuck’s more than 100-year-old observation that “the greatest gift” one man can bestow on another in the winter wilderness of Alaska is “a trail.”
Hewitt is the 65-year-old Pennsylvania barrister who set off from Fairbanks at the start of the month with a preposterous plan to hike northwest across the unroaded 49th state for 860 miles to Kotzebue before turning south for Nome.
By the end there on the edge of the Bering Sea, he planned to have covered a distance of 1,290 miles –a distance a wee bit longer than the drive from New York City to Miami but with only 16 small communities along the way at which to obtain vital supplies of food and cooking fuel.
For mere mortals, the trek would have been insane, but Hewitt is no mere mortal. A 10-time finisher in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, Hewitt is the only one ever to hike and snowshoe the 1,000-mile Iditarod from Knik to Nome in under 20 days.
He set that record in 2016 at age 61. It still stands and could stand for a long time.
As for Hewitt’s racing years, they’re sliding deeper into that big crevasse called time, but the tough man himself still dreams big. It was his big dream this year to follow in the tracks of the Iron Dogs.
The Iron Dog, the world’s longest and coldest snowmobile race, for the first time launched from the Golden North City on a new and longer race route crosses the Arctic Circle to reach Kotzebue, loop Hotham Inlet on the northern edge of Kotzebue Sound, then turn south to cut cross the Seward Peninsula before turning west for Nome for a rest day before racing back across the Alaska Range to Big Lake.
Hewitt figured that if he started early on the route planned for that race he could reach the Norton Bay community of Koyuk about the time the Iron Dog race leaders arrived, and then follow them across the little-traveled route from that village on the south side of the Seward Peninsula to the village of Buckland on the north side, and then on to Selawik, Kiana, Noorvik and finally Kotzebue.
For lack of a trail, it was not to be.
Battling deep snow and bitter cold, Hewitt struggled 320 miles west from Fairbanks to the village of Ruby on the Yukon River, was caught there by the trail riders at the front of the Iron Dog pack, did the math on the racers behind and calculated they would be so long gone by the time he got to Koyuk that any hope of finding their trail would be little but hope.
He decided then throw in the towel on what had turned out to be a brutal adventure.
“It was the coldest I’ve ever been,” Hewitt said Thursday when reached by telephone back in the comfortable confines of the Lower 48.
This is saying something coming from a man who froze fingers and nose at 50-degrees-below zero in a nightmare outing on the Iditarod Trail between the ghost town of Ophir and Ruby in 2015. It was the first time he’d tried to ride a fat-tire bike – the fast way to travel under human power on the Iditarod Trail – to Nome.
Hewitt was not fast. He hit the 170-mile stretch of trail across the desolate and godforsaken Inland Empire just as the snows started falling and falling and falling. Halfway across, he met a snowmachine that had been sent out from the tiny village of Takotna to pick up Belgian cyclist Frank Janssens and haul him back.
Janssens, a veteran of two circumnavigations of the globe on a bike, suggested Hewitt follow the snowmachine back to Takotna as well.
“Frank said, ‘You can’t make it. I was pushing in drifts up to my chest,” Hewitt later recalled. “I should have listened.”
Instead Hewitt pushed on, wishing often that he was on foot pulling a sled full of gear instead of pushing a damn bike. He ran out of food. He was so slow that hiker Beat Jegerlehner, a Google software engineer from California and another veteran of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, caught him.
A big guy on snowshoes towing a sled load of gear, Jergerlehner looked to be the perfect trail breaker. Hewitt fell in behind but now handicapped by the bike couldn’t keep up. Jegerlehner disappeared down the trail.
Eventually, Hewitt’s wife, Loreen and another hiker, veteran San Fransisco ultra-runner Steve Ansell, caught up. Tim joined them and slogged on at a snail’s pace into ever-worsening weather.
Invitational trail boss Bill Merchant, who’d been monitoring Tim’s progress by satellite for days as he meandered around trying to find trail buried beneath snow, saw how the slow the group was moving and finally sent a snowmachine out from Ruby 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 take a ride, a rare concession for Tim.
And this was worse than that?
Never a trail
“It was cold,” Tim said. “It was just so cold.”
Part of that was the temperature. Interior Alaska returned to the days of old in 2020. Forget the global warming panic. It’s been 30-, 40- and 50-degrees-below-zero for much of January and February.
And then there was the wind that ripped at any exposed body part, found any crack in clothing, and worst of all, kept blowing snow around to bury what little trail existed along the Yukon for 120 miles from Tanana to Ruby.
“It just kept blowing in,” said Tim, who’d started the trip with hopes of finding at least some hard-packed snowmachine trail he could hike. A well-packed snowmachine trail can set up like a white sidewalk in the cold.
Tim never found any sidewalk. Instead of easy hiking, he found tough snowshoeing.
“I took them off one time, and I went about 10 feet,” he said. “But I became proficient at getting them on and off. I got so I could (take the shoes off) and get into my sleeping bag without taking my gloves off.”
That was a good thing because at 40- or 50-degrees below zero in the wind, exposed flesh can freeze in a matter of seconds.
“You can’t take your gloves off once it gets that cold,” Tim said. “I kept saying, ‘It’s got to get better, but it wasn’t going to get better.
“It snowed every day I think, not a lot every day, but a few days it snowed a lot.”
Wearing small, lightweight, racing snowshoes, he’d sink a foot and a half deep into the snowpack with every step and then have to pull his foot and some snow up to make the next step. Bigger snowshoes would have been better, he admitted, but then he hadn’t planned on wallowing in deep snow for hundreds of miles.
The real Alaska
“Everything broke because it was so cold,” Tim added.
When one of his collapsible trekking poles failed, he tried to tape it together. The tape failed.
“Duct tape wouldn’t stick,” he said. “Electrical tape wouldn’t stick.”
He tried some adhesive patches he’d brought along to paste on his cheeks to protect them from cold. They wouldn’t stick.
A buckle on one of his snowshoe bindings broke in the cold. He tried to use a special cold-weather zip tie to fix it.
“Zip ties don’t work at those temperatures either,” said. He ended up jury-rigging the binding with a carabiner. As a result, he couldn’t adjust the heel strap. But he discovered that there was enough room in front of the binding he could wiggle his foot into it, then pull the foot back against a preset heel binding, and tighten the front-binding to hold his foot in place.
That actually turned out to be a more efficient way to get into the shoes every day, and he figured he had to get into the shoes every day. He thought about just camping out until a snowmachine hopefully came by to set a trail to follow, but given that he was carrying a satellite tracking device being watched by some family and friends he worried that if he did that “everyone will think I’m dead.”
And he was fine, or as close to fine as one can be while suffering.
“I wasn’t really miserable out there,” he said. “Well, I was miserable some of the time. It was frustrating because of the pace.
“It was such a slow go. I couldn’t get out of the wind.”
And then there was the constant hunting with feet and trekking poles to find old trail of some kind beneath all the snow to avoid wallowing even deeper.
“Am I on the trail?” Tim said. “Am I not on the trail?”
On the wide, windswept Yukon, he’d see a hint of ridging beneath the snow, go for it thinking it was the trail and get knocked off balance by the combination of wind and terrain.
“Then you fall over,” he said. He learned to try shape his trekking poles into a cross as he was falling to make it easier to have them in position to help him get back up.
“There was just a lot of snow out there,” he said.
At one point he met a trapper on a snowmachine who made a long sweeping turn around him so as not to bog down. The man invited Tim to camp and offered the use of his oversize snowshoes to make it easier to follow the new track of the sled.
Tim turned down the offer.
“He gave me one of those looks,” Tim said. “I knew at the moment I was going to regret this.’’
Finally, there were the wolves.
“For the first time, I was afraid of the wolves,” Tim admitted. “There were so many of them. Their tracks were as fresh as mine. There were so many wolf tracks. It looked like more than a full dog team.
Wolf attacks are extremely rare, far rarer than owls attacks. But in 2010 a pack in Western Alaska attacked and killed a teacher out for a run near the village of Chignik Lake.
State officials later killed several wolves in the area and reported “genetic analysis of samples taken from the victim’s clothing and from wolves killed in the lethal removal action positively identified one wolf and implicated others in the attack.”
In Tim’s case, as it turned out, he might simply have been passing close to where a pack had recently made a kill.
Sam Clark at the Yukon River Lodge about 15 miles upriver from Ruby later told Tim that “they had taken a moose down right in that area.
Compared to a moose, Tim added, “I can’t be that tasty at all, but the sheer number of them was concerning to me.”
What the wolves thought of the lone man struggling down the frozen Yukon is unknown.
“My plan was flawed,” Tim admitted. “I figured that out. I just figured (Iron Dog) would mark the trail. (But) Iron Dog doesn’t mark the trail like Iditarod does.”
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race markers are topped with reflective material and usually spaced so the next one is within the beam of a good headlamp. Tim said about the only Iron Dog markers he saw were those placed to mark trail dangers, and they weren’t reflective.
A better-marked trial would have helped him, but a better trail would have helped even more.
“It was much the same kind of crap (every day),” Tim said. “You just couldn’t make it anywhere. I was still making progress” at Ruby, but it was clear the Iron Dog was going to leave him far behind.
“The trail would have gotten better out of Ruby,” Tim said, having traveled that stretch of trail many times. “But I figured I was already four days behind where I wanted to be. (And) I’d had enough of dealing with my feet trying to figure out what where the trail was.’’
He thought about flying ahead to Koyuk and picking the march up there, but then rejected that idea. He’s now thinking maybe he needs a different plan to get to Kotzebue, maybe one for later in the year when its warmer, the days are longer and more people are on the move.
“I’m still thinking about it,” he said. As for now, he’s nursing a little frostbite and recovering.
“My feet are up, and I have cup of coffee on my desk,” he said. These are little luxuries in the modern Western world, tiny actually. But after what Tim has just been through, “I appreciate them,” he said.
Appreciates them probably more than most of us.