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Arctic Man's rowdy days, wild nights

Mike Campbell

Deep snow in the Hoodoo Mountains near Paxson and a partly-sunny forecast has snowmachiners, skiers and snowboarders revved up about Alaska's biggest winter party, the 27th Tesoro Arctic Man, which may see as many as 14,000 spectators.

"The snowpack is probably the biggest we’ve seen in 15 years," Arctic Man founder and race director Howard Thies told Tim Ellis of KUAC radio in Fairbanks. "We’re averaging anywhere from 6 to 10 feet."

Practice was already under way mid-week for high-speed rite of spring in which snowmachiners, skiers or snowboarders race 5.75 miles through the backcountry canyons. Beginning atop a 5,800-foot peak, the skier or snowboarder descends some 1,700 feet and grabs the tow-rope of a snowmachine, which powers through a gully and to the top of another hill. There the skier or snowboarder sling-shots off the towline and makes a 1,200-foot descent to the finish line.

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The race is 1 p.m. Friday, with Saturday as a back up if weather forces a postponement. "At the rate we’re going," Thies told Ellis, "we'll have 60 competitors, the most we’ve had in 10 years."

A year ago, Olympic Alpine skier Marco Sullivan of Truckee, Calif., teamed with Iron Dog veteran racer Tyler Aklestad of Palmer to win in 4 minutes, 17.76 seconds.  Veteran Arctic Man duo Eric Heil and Len Story were second, about a second behind. Heil and Story have won a record five Arctic Man races and hold the record for the fastest clocked speed, 91.6 mph. Over the years, racers have approached the 4-minute barrier – similar to the 4-minute mile that runner Roger Bannister shattered in 1954 – but never broken through.

In the women’s ski division, Rebekah Coats of Salcha teamed with Kerre Smith of Government Camp, Ore., to win in 4:57.57. 

And in the men’s snowboard race, snowmachiner Tyson Johnson of Eagle River – another Iron Dog veteran – and snowboarder Jayson Hale of Sierraville, Calif., teamed to win handily in 5:07:298.

Thies said this year’s purse will be between $112,000 and $115,000, with the first place team in the men’s ski division earning $27,000.  Money like that attracts an adrenaline-fueled field that includes Olympians, Iron Dog champions and X Games stars.

Renown for its parties, Arctic Man can get rowdy. Last year a Fairbanks firefighter Larry Hodges suffered severe leg injuries when he was struck by a snowmachine in the pre-dawn darkness in the huge parking area at Mile 197.5 of the Richardson Highway. Alaska State Troopers are urging spectators and racers to make sure they sobered up from Saturday’s festivities before taking to the roads Sunday.  Patrols will be out.

The above video, shot last year by Hybrid Color Films, gives folks a glimpse of what goes down at Arctic Man besides just racing.

Our Alaska takes a look at the people, places, activities and wildlife that make Alaska great. There's the Alaska that many people know from reality television, and then there's Our Alaska. If you have a video that puts the spotlight on the positive, educational or unique aspects of Alaska and its people, send links or submissions to ben(at)alaskadispatch.com.