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Forget spring, adventurers still enjoying Alaska winter

Craig Medred

Human iron-dog Billy Koitzsch was rolling along the frozen Yukon River this week a couple days after his planned 2,000-mile, fat-tired bicycle trip across the snow-covered Alaska wilderness devolved into a 19-hour, 47-mile snowshoe stomp down a river with no trail. He eventually towed his bike on a sled into the village of Tanana to take a break and recover.

Meanwhile, hardman Tim Hewitt was recovering back home in Pennsylvania after a nearly 25-day, 1,000-mile hike along the Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome that proved, if nothing else, that pulling a 100-pound sled across the Alaska wilderness might be a great way to win the television show "The Biggest Loser." An already svelte fellow, barrister Hewitt, who can now claim title to what may be one of the longest unsupported hikes ever, lost about a pound a day on his latest northern adventure.

And far to the north of Pennsylavnia, north even of Koitzsch's stop in Tanana, dog-driver Chuck Schaeffer was back at the family cabin on the northeast edge of Hotham Inlet in remote Northwest Alaska after a 16-day, 800-mile dogsled trip across the wild Alaska Interior to visit villages of rural Alaska to talk to young Alaska Natives about how he survived the journey from boy to man in an area of the state plagued by youth suicide and substance abuse.

All of this, and the serious season of winter adventure in Alaska is only really beginning as the days grow long and adrenaline junkies from around the globe converge on the corn-snow-covered peaks of the Chugach, Tordrillo and Alaska Range Mountains, where filmmaker Warren Miller likes to park his cameras. Also coming to life is the winter-slow, summer-busy community of Talkeetna, jumping off point for climbing Mount McKinley, North America's tallest mountain.

McKinley climbing season near

Denali National Park and Preserve mountaineering rangers in Talkeetna, about 110 miles north of Anchorage, report they are already in the midst of preseason training in avalanche and technical rescue, helicopter safety and wilderness medicine. They will be setting up base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier later this month in preparation for the 1,200 or so mountaineers expected to embrace a year-round winter wonderland on the south side of McKinley that alternates between sun-washed scenic splendor and storm-racked, life-threatening hell.

Most who inject themselves into that environment will be looking only to reach a personal milestone, but a few will invariably be looking to do something that has never been done before, a new route on McKinley maybe, or a first ascent of some of the yet unclimbed peaks left in the surrounding Alaska Range.

Even in the 21st century, there remain adventures undone.

New trail to break

No one had gone along the Iditarod Trail on foot unsupported until Hewitt did it this year. Everyone prior -- even the earliest adventurers tromping north -- had relied upon resupply somewhere along the way. Hewitt chose to do it differently because, well, it had never been done.

There is some strange subset of humans who relish achieving such firsts. That trait, as much as any other, might well have been what put our species in the dominant position we occupy in the global environment today. It is a trait exercised in both the intellectual and physical arenas, the latter being where Hewitt stands out.

He looks to have set more than one record on the way to Nome. The previous record distance for an unsupported hike appears to be 600 miles, about 60 percent of the distance Hewitt covered. He admits the journey was a struggle.

"I do not recommend going unsupported (to Nome) if you want to have fun," he confessed in an email. "Ate my last bite of frozen tuna 10 miles before Nome."

Iditarod Trail Invitational founder Bill Merchant, who organizes human-powered races along the national historic trail, took Hewitt to lunch at Gwennies restaurant in Anchorage when the hiker stopped in the city on his way back to Pennsylvania. Merchant described something that resembled one of the scenes from the movie "Ghostbusters," wherein an apparition is caught stuffing its mouth with both hands.

The waitress, Merchant said, seemed shoced to see a little man like Hewitt eat such prodigious volumes of food. But then, he had some recovery to do.

"I ended up losing 21 pounds enroute to Nome," said Hewitt. Hewitt claimed to have bulked up to 160 pounds before his Iditarod adventure in anticipation of this weight loss, but the skinny, 5-foot, 9-inch ultra runner looked to be considerably leaner than that.

Hauling 100-pound sled

To haul enough food and fuel, for melting water, to get to Nome unsupported, Hewitt had to start up the Iditarod Trail hauling a sled that weighed more than 100 pounds. He labored mightily to get it up and over the Alaska Range, and once past the Range, he many times ended up ferrying gear as he waded across open water that splashed through the normally frozen Iditarod Trail in a number of places this March.

Despite all of that, Hewitt, who has now hiked the Iditarod to Nome a record seven times, paced the five Invitational walkers who went the distance to Nome. Most Invitational entrants end their Iditarod journeys just over the Alaska Range from Anchorage in the small, Interior village of McGrath, about 350 miles up the trail from the start in Knik.

Only eight Invitational entrants went to Nome this year. Finishing in front of the hikers were a pair of Italian cyclists who followed design engineer Bob Ostrom from Anchorage to the finish line. Cyclist Ostrom last year just happened to win the University of Alaska Fairbank's "Arctic Innovation Competition" in partnership with Billy Koitzsch.

Yes, the same Billy Koitzsch who was in Tanana on Wednesday having already gone up the Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome on a fat-tired bicycle before starting back down the trail and then west along the Yukon River to Fairbanks.

He is following the route of the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmachine race, thus the nickname Billy "Iron Dog" Koitzsch. Unlike the snowmachine-equipped Iron Dogs who roar across the wilderness in pursuit of more than $200,000 in prize money, Koitzsch doesn't stand to make a dime, and the only one he is racing is himself. His journey has attracted nowhere near the attention of the real Iron Dog, either. But if he completes it, which now appears likely, he will be the first cyclist to pedal in the tracks of the world's longest, toughest snowmachine race.

$10,000 CamelBak innovation 

With the trail between Tanana and Fairbanks still hardpacked, Koitzsch was thinking he could reach the Interior city by the weekend. His winter adventure has given him plenty of time to test the award-winning innovation for which he and Ostrom collected $10,000 last year.

They invented a heating element that could be put into the tube of CamelBak, a piece of winter gear as familiar to Iron Dog snowmachine racers as to the lone Iron Dog pedaler.

The "HydroHeater thaws the tube in even the very coldest conditions, lessening the potentially life-threatening risk of dehydration," noted a UAF press release. "With the HydroHeater, users never have to worry about their hydration system freezing."

Since winning the Innovation prize, the HydroHeater has gone into production and is popping up on the backs of fat-tire cyclists, snowmachiners, mountaineers and winter runners in Alaska, the Lower 48 states and Europe.

In a state where people spend a lot more time talking about innovation than actually doing it, Koitzsch and Ostrom appear to have found an economic niche where they can make a little money when, of course, they're not just out having fun.

Or what passes for fun to some of the different kind of folk who inhabit the 49th state.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com