Alaska inventors meet challenges of wilderness in winter

bbragg@adn.comDecember 10, 2013 

Laura Wright's light-bulb moment came on a frigid day on the Yukon River, her back and shoulders aching from the effort of hauling a sled behind her as she skijored.

Inspiration struck Rick Stafford when he was snowmachining in Eureka and heard about two guys who had been medevacked after their machines ran out of gas and they had to spend the night outdoors, unable to walk to shelter in the deep snow.

As for Greg Matyas, just about anything can bring out his inner Edison. He seems always to be thinking of ways to build a better mousetrap, or at least a better mountain bike.

"I'm a tinkerer, I guess, in the worst possible way. I never leave well enough alone," Matyas said. "I kinda have a theory that northern-climate folks are more resourceful out of necessity. From the folks who are driving the Al-Can to wherever they live up here, you have to make things work."

Among Alaska's natural resources are the inventors and innovators whose experiences in the outdoors lead to ideas big and small.

The kayak was invented in the far north centuries ago by Natives seeking to hunt more easily in coastal waters. And long before Foster Grant sunglasses were invented, Eskimos protected themselves from the glare of snow and sun by strapping on hollowed-out pieces of wood with thin slits for the eyes.

These days, people like Wright, Stafford and Matyas dream up ideas that make playing and traveling in the winter safer, more comfortable, more efficient and more fun. Wright, a skijorer, found a way to haul gear in front of her instead of behind her, so the dogs are pulling the weight. Stafford invented inflatable snowshoes and Matyas pioneered the use of giant hubs that allow for bigger, wider tires on the Fatback bike he designed.

They are not alone. Each year the UAF School of Management sponsors the Arctic Innovation Contest, which this year drew 327 entries, many of them items for use in the outdoors. Second place in this year's contest was awarded to Brian McKinnon, whose energy-efficient Alumaski personal watercraft carries more than 1,000 pounds and goes as fast as 70 mph. Last year, Stafford and his inflatable snowshoes won the $10,000 grand prize.

"There are probably more demands for resourcefulness up here," Stafford said, "because of the situation a person can find himself in."

WALKING ON AIR

Now that Stafford has invented the AirLite SnowShoe, the idea seems so obvious. Stow a pair in a pack till you need them, pump them up, and you're off.

Stafford's shoes weigh about 17 ounces apiece. They sell for $168 online; for $220 online or at Marita Sea & Ski, you get a kit that comes with shoes, inflation device (either a bike pump or a carbon-dioxide cartridge), crampons, patch kit and a drawstring bag to keep everything in.

Stafford, 57, got the idea in the winter of 2002-03, when he heard about two snowmachiners who needed to be medevacked after running out of gas and spending a night outdoors.

"They were less than a mile from Eureka Lodge," Stafford said. "They coulda walked out, but since they didn't have snowshoes and couldn't walk in waist-deep snow, they ended up going to the hospital.

"I decided maybe there's something I can do to fix this problem. Most snowmachiners slalom through the trees or highmark, so they can't really strap snowshoes to the machine."

At first, inspired by collapsible shovels, he thought about collapsible snowshoes.

"Then I thought, why not inflatable?" he said. "I like to camp with an air mattress."

The idea came easily. The execution, not so much.

Stafford needed a nearly indestructible material that would keep its integrity in subzero temperatures. He found it by accident one summer while floating a river on a cataraft, which has two inflatable tubes connected to a metal frame. Stafford didn't know he was supposed to deflate the tubes when he took the cataraft out of the cold river and put it in his truck, so he got a surprise when the air inside the tubes warmed up and expanded.

"It exploded like a bomb," he said, "and ripped the outer protective tube from one end to the other."

Left intact was an air bladder.

"I was so impressed with this inner material that I threw it in the deep freeze," Stafford said. "A couple weeks later while it was still in the freezer I started pulling on it and poking it, and it was still as strong as the day I put it in there."

He tracked down representatives of the cataraft company, who told him how to reach Deerfield Urethane, the maker of the air bladder (now owned by Bayer). Stafford began working on prototypes and found a manufacturer who knows how to work with the urethane product. Two winters ago, nearly a decade after he came up with the idea, the inflatable snowshoes were ready for sale.

Stafford has since quit his oilfield job on the North Slope so he can put his energy into his snowshoe business in Anchorage. He has sold about 300 pairs and two branches of the military are taking a look at them, so he is hopeful his market will grow.

His customers include pilots, snowmachiners, fat-tire bikers, hunters and campers. He has customers in the Lower 48 who use them in mud and swamps, and he has posted a video online showing how the shoes function on the mud flats.

Stafford had only tested the snowshoe's capacity to 260 pounds, so when a woman in Fairbanks wanted to order a pair for her 280-pound husband, Stafford sent a demo pair first to see if they'd hold up.

"Three weeks later I cashed her check," he said.

DOG TIRED

Laura Wright likes to go on skijoring trips that last a couple of weeks, so she travels with a sled to carry her gear.

She used to haul as much as 80 pounds of gear behind her on a sled. Now, thanks to her ingenuity and her mechanically inclined boyfriend, the Talkeetna woman travels with the sled between her and her dogs, so it's the dogs who are pulling the weight, not her.

Wright's epiphany came during a solo trip when she realized she was bone-tired and barely making progress.

"I was traveling down the Yukon River at minus-30 with wax-less skis going 2 mph," she said. "I thought, 'I'm going too slow. I don't think the dogs are working. And my back and shoulders are hurting.'

"I thought, 'I don't think these dogs are doing anything. In fact, I am so sure of it I'm just going to let them go and just ski and see if I'm any faster.' I did it and I'm pretty sure I wasn't any faster.

"That's when I said the sled has go to go in front of me."

She cruised the Internet looking for pulk sleds with a brake, which she considered key for her plan to work, and she could not find one. So she turned to boyfriend Ralph Kolbeck, who turned her idea into reality.

Wright got a Paris sled and runners like those used on a dog sled, and Kolbeck attached the runners to the bottom of the plastic sled. Then he fabricated handlebars from an old walker that Wright found at Talkeetna's Free Box Community Store, and he welded a steel-brake system and attached it to the handlebar assembly.

A line attaches the dogs to the sled and another attaches the dogs to Wright. When Wright wants to stop, she skis up to the sled, straddles it and pushes the brake bar. She also has a secondary line running from her to the sled; when pulled, it acts as an emergency hand brake in case she can't or doesn't want to ski up to the sled.

"The line is almost always slack," she said. "They aren't pulling the sled and me, they're just pulling the sled."

Wright, 52, gives lots of credit to Kolbeck for making her idea work. She may be the visionary, but he's the handy one.

"He is a lot of the brains," she said. "I think of myself more as a modifier than an inventor. Ralph is more of the inventor (and) tinkerer."

They've talked about making a business out of it, "but we would sell, like, four sleds a winter," Wright said.

And so in Talkeetna, Wright is known more for her mittens than her sleds. She makes and sells The Wright Mittens out of recycled wool sweaters and lines them with fleece.

"I originally made the mittens because I wanted warmer mittens than I was finding," said Wright, who came from New Jersey to Alaska 17 years ago. "In no way do I want to beat back the wilderness and show who's boss, but I definitely want to be comfortable and safe and warm in the wilderness, so very slowly I have figured out how to do that.

"I also don't want to have to buy a lot of expensive gear. There's a lot of gadgets out there in the winter camping world and I am pretty low-tech, and I like that. I want to be low-tech and simple, and I want to recycle and reuse things as much as I can."

A BIGGER BIKE

An elite-level cyclist back in the 1980s and 1990s, Greg Matyas brings a racer's mentality to work.

He's the owner of Speedway Cycles, which is the home of the Fatback -- the all-terrain bike designed by Matyas that introduced giant rear hubs to the growing world of fat-tire biking.

Alaska is where fat-tire bikes were born, and it is the place where fat-tire bikes are modified and improved. Matyas is by no means the only Alaskan designing versions of the bike, but his Fatback has made a big impression here and in the Lower 48.

Outside Magazine listed it as one of 2012's 11 best cycling products: "At just 27 pounds with huge standover and superfast steering, this bike rides more like an XC mountain bike than a monster truck. With a spare set of lightweight wheels, it easily pulls double duty as an XC racer, making this thus far the most versatile mountain bike around."

Matyas became interested in fat-tire bikes -- which make travel possible on all kinds of terrain and in all kinds of conditions, especially snow -- when they were still in their infancy. He almost immediately began to think of ways to improve them.

"The quest was for lighter and faster," he said. "Coming from a racing background, I was always looking for a way to improve performance, and I had my eye on the geometry.

He started tinkering with a design that would turn offset-built wheels into symmetrical ones. The key was giant hubs, which allow equal flange space. The first Fatbacks had 165-millimeter-wide rear hubs, which then grew to 170 millimeters, and then to 190.

"What that allows is the use of even bigger and wider tires," Matyas said.

Fatback frames are manufactured in Portland and sent to either Speedway Cycles or a Fatback warehouse in Bend, Ore., where the rest of the bike is built.

They start at $2,500, Matyas said, and can run much higher, depending on styles and features. He said he has sold "thousands," and though many have been sold in Alaska, "lots of other towns with similar climates and access to great trails are discovering the fun of winter riding," he said.

There's a summer market out there too, he said. Last summer he went on a multi-day beach ride to the Tsui River between Yakutat and Cordova.

The first Fatback was manufactured in 2007, and Matyas is constantly modifying the bike. The new Corvus carbon model was named one of the top five bikes of any style at this year's Interbike industry trade show in Las Vegas.

"I think there's always room for improvement," he said. "That's the fun -- seeing if you can actually improve on things."

 

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

 

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