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Iditarod Invitational veteran leaves gadgets behind for long, cold walk toward Nome

Craig Medred
Lawyer Tim Hewitt of Pennsylvania has walked the Iditarod Trail to Nome faster that the second sled-dog champion in the 1,000-mile race. Craig Medred photo

Nobody would pick Tim Hewitt out of a line up as an ultimate Alaska hard man. He is small, wiry, graying, and damn near 60 years old. Not only that, the guy doesn't even live in Alaska. His real life is as a Pennsylvania attorney. Rather, Hewitt is a visitor to the north, a throwback to those Alaskans and visitors of old who made their money in gold during the summer months and "wintered out," as they used to say, in Seattle or San Francisco or somewhere more hospitable.

Only Hewitt doesn't winter out. Hewitt summers out and comes here in winter to hike the Iditarod Trail, the whole 1,000 miles of it from the old Cook Inlet port of Knik north through the frozen heart of the 49th state to the still-thriving gold-mining community of Nome on the Bering Sea. He's already done this six times, more than any person alive. He's back for the seventh try this year.

The desolate, lonely, little-traveled Iditarod in winter offers what Hewitt considers the ultimate "vacation." Forget the howling winds of the Alaska Range or Bering Sea coast that can knock a man off his feet. Ignore the brutal, 50-degree-below-zero cold of the Interior that killed the protagonist in author Jack London's classic short story "To Build a Fire.'' Just keep moving and you'll be fine. That's Hewitt's mantra.

Throwback with no ego 

The man doesn't belong in this century. He would fit better in the Alaska of 1913 than that of 2013. He doesn't seem to understand that the serious Iditarod competitions of the modern day are dominated by the gas-powered, fire-breathing snowmobiles of the Iron Dog that can hit 100 mph, and Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race canines that are now more hound than husky, pulling carbon-fiber dogsleds driven by professional mushers with celebrity-size egos.

Hewitt seems to have no ego, though he should. Last year he accomplished a feat unimaginable in the world of human-powered endurance competitions. He led the Iditarod Trail Invitational race for about 200 miles to the crest of the Alaska Range. The Invitational is an event open to anyone and any machine powered by human muscles. Like Hewitt, it is a throwback to days when people competed in sport for the sheer joy of competition, not for the money, nor even for the glory.

The Invitational offers no cash prize, and there is little fame attached to success outside the small world of extreme endurance athletes. Who knows, for instance, that Hewitt set a foot-racing record for the Iditarod on the fifth of his six trips up the trail?

He made it to Nome in 20 days, 7 hours and 17 minutes in 2011. That is a little more than seven hours faster than the time it took the dog team of the late Carl Huntington, the only musher in history to win both the Iditarod and Fur Rendezvous World Championship sprint race, to reach the finish line during his victorious Iditarod of 1974. But Hewitt's 2011 record is really nothing compared to what he accomplished last year when he temporarily wrested ownership of the Invitational out of the hands of the fat-tired cyclists who always win it.

Granted, the circumstances were unique. Mother Nature dumped an ungodly amount of fresh snow on the trail in 2012, but it wasn't like that hadn't happened before. There was so much snow in 2009 that even snowmachines that pack the trail ahead of racers bogged down, got stuck and couldn't go on. Invitational organizer Bill Merchant spent days digging his machine out. The situation got so bad there was even talk of a rescue, but the lead cyclists managed to push through proving once again that even on the Iditarod Trail, the modern technology of the wheel, circa 8,000 B.C., beats the ancient technology of the sled, circa 100,000 to 200,000 B.C. 

At least usually. Then came the storm of 2012 to prove the exception to the rule that cyclists will always lead the race over the Alaska Range. Instead, it was the aging wonder from Latrobe, Penn., who topped the pass first and started down into the Interior country like he was a happier version of the legendary Mad Trapper of Rat River trying to outrun the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

That Hewitt who claims to stand 5-feet, 9-inches tall and weigh 150 pounds (wringing wet in full Arctic gear, maybe) was at the front of the race was no fluke. The competitor closest behind was Geoff Roes of Juneau, Alaska, the then-35-year-old course record for the Western States 100 Endurance Run. The Western States 100 is the Super Bowl of ultra-distance running. () It pops up in the book "The World's Toughest Endurance Challenges" along with the Iditarod dog race and the Vendee Globe -- an around-the-world, single-handled sailboat race.

Easy to get lost

The Invitational doesn't warrant a footnote in the book, which may be because it's sort of off the map, literally. It is not as off the map as the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, a cross-country race with no designated course, but the Invitational is out there. It theoretically follows the Iditarod Trail, but as Hewitt has more than once noted, "the Iditarod is an imaginary trail." Winter to winter, the trail moves around. In many places, it goes where the first snowmachine of the year sets it until a blizzard obliterates it. Then it goes where the next snowmachine sets it. The trail is often only sporadically marked for the Invitational. Even without a storm, it can be easy to get lost.

An Australian cyclist who took a wrong turn onto an errant snowmachine trail in 2009 pushed his bike through new snow for 40 hours before falling through a creek, ending up waist deep in water and deciding he'd better make camp. After resting, he tried to reverse his course and follow his tracks back toward where he'd begun, but discovered the wind had hidden them beneath blowing snow. He was eventually rescued by a local pilot who tracked him down.

Hewitt has never gotten seriously lost, but he's found others lost, most notably John Baker from Kotzebue, the 2011 winner of the Iditarod sled dog race. A year earlier, Hewitt and a sleep-deprived Baker met along the trail just south of a checkpoint named Cripple, about halfway along the trail to Nome. Cripple is really nothing but a spot on the map midway between the communities of Takotna, just off the Kuskokwim River, and Ruby, on the Yukon River in the Interior.

Once a thriving gold-mining region known as the Inland Empire, this vast area is now home to no one. The state of Alaska counts 49 people in Takotna.  A couple hundred miles north along the trail in Ruby, there are officially 173 residents.

The Iditarod dog race flies tents, wood stoves, veterinarians, race volunteers, dog food and other supplies into a frozen lake halfway between these two communities because the dogs can't run more than about 100 miles without resupply, and calls the checkpoint Cripple in an honor of an old gold-mining camp not far away.

For the first 75 miles or so from Ophir, a ghost-town outside of Takotna, to Cripple, the trail twists and weaves through spindly, stunted black spruce that give the place an eerie feel. For a traveler, it is comforting to drop down into one of the few creek bottoms where there are some big cottonwood trees or patches of white spruce. It's country to make a man nervous.

Chance meeting with Iditarod musher

Here Hewitt met Baker in the dark. They musher was worried he'd somehow passed the Cripple checkpoint -- not an unrealistic fear. There would be few better ways for a musher at the front to lose an Iditarod than to go past Cripple, run out of dog food and end up stalled. Hewitt tried to convince Baker that Cripple was ahead. The ice-encased man from Pennsylvania had no luck.

It's easy to understand why. After hours on the trail at 50 degrees below zero, eyelashes, moustaches, hat and hood all coated in frost, Hewitt looks like a wild man. And the Pennsylvania barrister did not invest a lot of time arguing his case. Hewitt told Baker where he thought they were, and quickly added he had to get moving to stay warm.

Since the Iditasport, a predecessor to the Invitational, began encouraging bikers, hikers and cross-country skiers to go to Nome in 1990 more than two decades ago, there have been a total of 57 finishes, six by Hewitt. Take him out of the mix, and only 51 people have finished one of these races to Nome. More mushers than that complete the Iditarod dog race most years. Nearly three times as many people made the summit of Mount Everest in one weekend in 2012.

Everest is supposed to be one of the world's supreme endurance challenges, but most climbers get help from sherpas. There is little help along the Iditarod. More ghosts than people inhabit good parts of the country these days. Long gone are the roadhouses that offered shelter every 30 miles or so in gold rush days. Now, a traveler is pretty much on his or her own for 50 to 200 miles at a time, aided only by the resupply organized at checkpoints by race organizers.

Increasing the challenge

Hewitt, somewhat predictably to those who know him, has decided that even that makes the journey too easy. This year, he says, he plans to go the distance without resupply. He will tow all he needs north with him in a sled. He figures on a load weighing more than half his body weight at the start. It will be filled largely with meat sticks from a sponsor. OSTRIM -- a Pennsylvania company that manufacturers "Paleo trail mix, beef-ostrich sticks and more -- is backing Hewitt.

"In February, I plan to be the first person to race on foot to Nome without support,'' he says on the company’s web page. "I will … not accept any assistance and will not pick up supplies or even go indoors. It will probably add about 80 to 100 pounds to my sled at the start. If successful I would like to go unsupported across Antarctica the following year. My plan would be to go from the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole . . . No one has done that on foot before. And no one has done that unsupported before."

Hewitt will be 58 when the Invitational starts Sunday.  By December of next year he'll be on the cusp of that age when a lot of people consider retirement. Hewitt isn't one of those people. In some ways he a reminder of a famous Alaska little big man now gone, a fellow by the name of Joe Redington Sr., who helped get the Iditarod dog race on the trail in 1973 because he thought it would be a grand adventure. Six years later, at the age of 62, Redington took a dog team to the 20,320-foot summit of Mount McKinley, North America's tallest mountain.

Almost until the day he died, Redington was putting one foot in front of the other, moving down the trail and seldom looking back. Hewitt is much the same. That seems odd in this day and age when so many spend so much time sitting in front of a television or a computer screen, but there are still those who simply yearn to be on the trail.

 

"Thank God! there is always the Land of Beyond,'' Robert Service, the bard of the north, observed 100 years ago. 

For us who are true to the trail;

A vision to seek, a beckoning peak,

A fairness that never will fail;

A proud in our soul that mocks at a goal,

A manhood that irks at a bond,

And try how we will, unattainable still,

Behold it, our Land of Beyond!

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com