It’s fair to characterize David Shuman as an adrenaline junkie. After all, he came to Alaska with the U.S. Air Force as a member of the elite pararescue corps, or “PJs.” Those are the folks who jump out of airplanes and parachute into the water with their scuba gear to save you. Usually in bad weather.
When he retired several years ago, he signed up as a backcountry ski guide with Chugach Powder Guides. The guy just can’t sit still … even when most of us are asleep.
It was on one of those sleepless nights, while looking at wild adventures on the internet, that he stumbled on the Rickshaw Run.
The Rickshaw Run starts in Kochi, near the southern tip of India. The race ends in Jaisalmer in northwest India. The most direct route measures about 1,600 miles. But there’s nothing direct about this route.
“They actually call it an un-route,” said Shuman. That’s because organizers don’t provide any directions or support. The entry fee of 1,995 GBP (about $2,600) includes the use of a three-wheeled rickshaw.
“It’s a two-stroke, seven horsepower in-city taxi. It’s just a tin can — and they’re known to break down,” said Shuman.
The Rickshaw Run is organized by a group in London called “The Adventurists.” Their motto: “Don’t let life be boring.”
So Shuman signed up on the spot. Then he sent a text message (at 4:30 a.m.) to his friend Mark Austin, who runs the Musk Ox Farm out in Palmer.
Within 10 minutes, Austin answered, “I’ve been waiting 50 years for this.”
While plotting how to accomplish the project, the pair enlisted another traveler, Melanie Duchin. “I need a little crazy in my life,” said Duchin, a yoga instructor at Anchorage Yoga.
Although this trio of adventurers has traveled extensively, none had been to India. Austin has sailed a boat across the Pacific from Seward to Brisbane, Australia. Duchin worked for Greenpeace for more than 20 years, camping out on pack ice in the Arctic and organizing a four-month boat tour in Greenland.
“There are three things the race organizers guarantee,” said Shuman. “You’ll get sick, you’ll get lost and you’ll break down.”
The Rickshaw Run starts in August, which gives Shuman, Austin and Duchin time to plan their trip and to set up their selected nonprofit charity to benefit from the race. There are 80 Rickshaw Run teams and participants can designate up to half of the funds they raise to the charity of their choice, with the remaining going to Cool Earth, the “official” charity of The Adventurists.
Duchin did the research, picking SATHI, which is dedicated to reuniting children with their families in India. “This is a Bangalore, India-based charity that finds kids who end up on railway platforms,” said Duchin, similar to the situation in the movie “Lion,” where a young boy loses his way in India.
“We’re paying for everything on the race,” Duchin added. “Every dollar that we raise through our efforts goes to charity.”
The Adventurists are lighthearted on their website, describing the Rickshaw Run as a great adventure. But they mince no words when it comes to the specifics of the journey: “This is not a glorified holiday, it's an unsupported adventure and so by its very nature extremely risky. You really are on your own and you really are putting both your health and life at risk. This is what makes them adventures.”
That said, the organizers offer participants a good idea of what to expect, along with rough estimates of what food, lodging and fuel will cost. There also are suggestions on what kind of travel insurance to get for the journey. ”You need insurance and it needs to be good. This is not a very clever place to try to save money. When you book your insurance you need to explain exactly what you are doing and where.”
Any trip to India includes a regimen of inoculations. Shuman is a paramedic, so he’ll bring along a suite of basic drugs, including anti-malarial treatment, antibiotics, plus lots of baby wipes and rubber gloves.
Austin, while he’s not a motorhead by nature, says he’s “a mechanical guy,” confident he can goose the rickshaw along the 1,600-mile journey, should it give out.
“Whenever you sail, you end up jury-rigging the engine at some point. I’m a problem solver with lots of tenacity,” he said. “I’ve pushed big rocks up big hills.”
When I called Austin at the Musk Ox Farm, he was tending to several pregnant animals who were about to give birth. Then, the busy tourist season starts on May 12. “This is not a good time to do this,” he confessed. “But I’m doing it anyway.”
It’s the great staff at the farm, he said, that makes it possible to take a big adventure like this. “I used to have more adventures,” said Austin, recalling his trans-Pacific sailing expedition. “But I’ve been living a predictable life — and this seems like a chance to rattle some dust from the rafters,” he said.
This incredible journey will doubtless have lots of dust and plenty of rattling, yielding some Alaska-sized stories for when they return home.
“If we all get along and we don’t die,” said Duchin, “we’ll sign up for the Rickshaw Run over the Himalayas in 2020.”