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Travel Channel, 'Alaska State Troopers' film Arctic Man madness

Laurel Andrews
A snowmachine sails through the air at Arctic Man in Interior Alaska. Courtesy Arctic Man | Photo by Mitch Lyman

In April, thousands of Alaskans will descend upon remote Summit Lake in Interior Alaska for the Tesoro Arctic Man Classic, a week-long snowmachine racing event -- and one of Alaska’s largest tailgating parties -- to let loose in the middle of nowhere. And this year, the Travel Channel plans to join them to see what all the fuss is about.

Up to 15,000 people will set up camp off the Richardson Highway, nestled near the HooDoo Mountains, making Arctic Man the “fourth-largest city in Alaska overnight,” founder Howard Thies says. This is the 28th year of the event, and the Travel Channel will be there to film everything from the food to the craziest parties at the race. Right now, Travel Channel is looking for “superfans” of the event its producers can contact about the show.

Theiss is excited about the national attention, and the scope of the Travel Channel’s ambitions for broadcasting the event is even greater than he first realized. Having already made arrangements for their stay, he spoke with them again Wednesday, and they informed him they’d now be doing at least two shows.

This isn’t the first time Arctic Man has been in the national spotlight. Last year, "Alaska State Troopers" on the National Geographic Channel filmed a segment on the race, and the show didn't exactly portray Arctic Man in a positive light.

“It’s one of Alaska’s most extreme sporting events,” the Alaska State Troopers trailer begins, “and its biggest week-long party.”

"High speeds and even higher alcohol content create a perfect storm for the 16 troopers assigned to the festivities," it continues. 

A trooper voiceover chimes in, “I have never seen so many highly intoxicated people in my whole life in one spot, and they’re out to do something,” while ominous music builds in the background. 

Thies expressed some frustration over their depiction of the race. “You can go talk about all the idiots all you want,” but that’s not the whole picture, he says. “We’re trying to make this a family event.”

"Alaska State Troopers" will be back for more filming this year. "That's fine," Thies says, adding that he thought they did an OK job overall with the show.

But is Thies concerned the Travel Channel will follow a similar track? Not really. Arctic Man has “a pretty good relationship with them so far,” he says. The Travel Channel will showcase the entire event, including the tailgate party, vendors, and, of course, the race itself, he added.

So how does the race work? Skiers start on a summit 5,800 feet high, and race down 1,700 feet into a narrow canyon, where their snowmachine partners are waiting. The snowmachines then tow their partners some two miles up a canyon, at speeds up to 86 mph, according to the Arctic Man website. Once they hit a plateau at the top, skiers unhitch from the snowmachines and race another two miles, skiing 1,200 feet down the hill to the finishline. The entire race is lightning-quick; the record time is 4 minutes, 1 second on the 5-mile course. Men’s and women’s teams compete separately. This year Theiss estimates a $58,000 purse for the men’s competition, split between the first 12 competitors. The purse for women isn't set yet because no women's teams have signed up. That's not unusual -- Alaskans always wait until the last minute to sign up for the event, Theiss added.

Like many great traditions, Arctic Man started as a bet. In 1985, Thies and a couple of friends bet on who could complete the unique race the fastest. Thies's team won.

They started the official race the next year as a fundraiser for Fairbanks Alpine Ski club. Ten competitors raced that year. The event has been growing ever since, with as many as 69 teams competing for the prize money.

Theiss is excited to see how far the contest has come. “There’s nothing like it in the world,” he says.

The Travel Channel will most likely air its shows sometime later this year, Thies says, while the "Alaska State Troopers'" segment will probably air in January.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com