Enduring the Alaskan "Iron Dog"By Billy Norman
Note: click on any image to see a larger picture!
It was getting dark and we found ourselves in what was rapidly becoming a full fledged blizzard. We had just pulled out of the Rainy Pass Lodge at Pontulla Lake, heading into Ptarmigan Pass. Jim Knapp and I were competing in the Iron Dog snowmobile race from Big Lake to Nome, the longest, and perhaps the toughest, snowmobile race in the world. The race is 1,200 miles long and is a two man, two machine team endurance contest against the cold, snow, wind, ice, mountains, open rivers, tundra, the Bering Sea, and the fifteen other teams battling the same problems. The race is a matter of survival against those elements, your knowledge of the terrain, your ability to fix your snowmobile -- and running against talented, experienced teams that have been through it all before.
My partner, Jim Knapp, is from Big Lake, Alaska. We had debated at Pontulla Lake whether to continue or to lay over at Rainy Pass Lodge for the night. Of the sixteen teams, several had decided to stop, but others had already refueled and left. The next stop was Rohn River, 75 miles up the trail, by way of Hell's Gate and then down the South Branch of the Kuskokwin River to Rohn River Road House. As we were heading into Ptarmigan Pass on our Polaris Indys, we came across four other teams heading back down to Rainy Pass Lodge. They said the wind was wiping out any trace of the trail and that you could only see for about fifty yards.
Again, we made a decision to continue. In a short time we caught up with the team of Ellis Smith and Rod Price riding Arctic Cats. After going a few more miles, we could no longer find the trail. At this point we could only see about fifty feet, but we knew that there were at least two other teams ahead of us. One of those teams was being led by the famous John Faeo and his partner Rod Frank, the champions from last year's race. If there is an open river to cross, a blizzard to go through, or a mountain pass full of snow, John Faeo is already through it and on his way.
We spent some time trying to locate the trail, looping around and backtracking, but by this point we were thoroughly lost. We stopped and pulled out our compass and maps. We had already been on the trail for about 16 hours since our start in Big Lake. We were exhausted and all getting close to hypothermia, especially me. When you are in that condition, maps and compasses do not make any sense. Later, back at home when we looked at the maps, it would have been so easy to continue and use our compass to go on through the storm.
After wandering around for another hour, we finally decided to return to Rainy Pass Lodge - if we could find it. We had picked up two native Alaska race teams, but one of the teams decided to take off in the other direction by themselves. I wondered if they hadn't just signed their death certificates. (We later learned that they had found their way through the storm.) The team that stayed with us had one machine with the headlight out, so we tried to keep that machine between us so he would not get lost from the group.
Being originally from South Dakota, I had always said that the difference between Dakota and Alaska was that the snow came down straight in Alaska and sideways in Dakota. Well, this could have easily been a Dakota blizzard. The harder it snowed, the harder the wind blew. Keeping your bearings on where you were going was difficult.
The next time the group stopped, I suggested that we find a place to make a shelter and build a fire to wait out the storm. I was getting cold, colder than I had ever been in my life. Pretty scared, too, even to the point of thinking that maybe, just maybe, we weren't going to get out of this one alive. I hadn't experienced this much anxiety since being a door gunner in Vietnam. The group agreed to go one more hour and if we hadn't found the Lodge by then, we would hole up. Since the wind had hit us in the face on the way out, we decided the way back was to put the wind to our backs.
We had two gas cans tied on our racks behind our seats for extra range, and had poured in the extra fuel. My empty fuel can fell off and my partner Jim, who was behind me, stopped to pick it up. We were the last two machines in line and I was afraid that we would lose the other guys if we stopped. "Jim, just leave it!" I yelled at him. "No, we will need it later," Jim replied. "Not if we lose the others and die out here," I told him. Jim continued to strap it on to the sled, and luckily we were still able to follow the tracks and catch up to the other two teams about five minutes later. Right about that time we came across the trail heading back to the Lodge, and made it to the Lodge fifteen minutes later.
We ended holing up in a woman's dog musher cabin who was the care taker for the hunting horses that were kept at the Lodge year round. I will never forget how good the warm wood stove felt and the hospitality of that lady. When we woke in the morning, the storm had cleared and there was well over a foot of new snow that had fallen.
As if the first day of the race didn't have enough excitement for us, day two would prove to be equally as challenging. The sky was clear, but it was cold. The race route was taking us through Ptarmigan Pass since the Iditarod Committee had asked us not to use the shorter route through Rainy Pass. The only problem was that this route would take us through Hell's Gate, and it is aptly named. Even though the route was almost fifty miles longer to the Rohn River Roadhouse, we thought it would be safer. Once through Hell's Gate, it was thirty-five miles on down to the Roadhouse.
When everyone refueled in the morning we happened to be the last ones in line. Unfortunately, they used up all the gas and we ended up having to wait. Tom Rutter from Big Lake was flying some gas in with his Super Cub but had not yet arrived. Mike Shoop, who was there to help break trail through the pass for the race, emptied all of the gas he had out of his gas cans and his machine which was enough to top us off.
Once fueled, we took off up into the pass. Jim was about fifty yards behind me. We were following the trail made by the other racers and were in last place at the time. I didn't like running at the back of the pack, because if something went wrong, there would be no one else coming from behind to help. Maybe because of this, I was going too fast for the conditions (trying to catch up) and wasn't paying close enough attention to the trail. The path went up and over a small ridge, and I noticed another trail going off to the left - but I chose to keep going straight.
Bad choice. I went right over a cliff, free falling about thirty to forty feet and landed on a down hill slope. The slope continued on for what seemed like forever, but all I cared about was trying to get out of the path of my machine, which was rolling down the slope right behind me. I was just flying down the hill. I couldn't believe it when I finally stopped. I looked up, and luckily Jim had stopped before going over the cliff. He came down the "other" trail that had gone down to the left, avoiding the cliff.
Several other racers has also gone over the cliff. There were pieces of hoods and windshields everywhere. I later found out that several machines had twisted frames and tunnels from this fall. My windshield was gone and the handlebars were bent. The hood was busted up, but the rest of the machine seemed to be OK. After straightening the handlebars, I decided to try and fire up the engine. To my surprise, it started.
After getting all of the gear strapped back onto the machine, we started on the trail again down into Hell's Gate. We got onto the river and could really cruise. We figured that we could make up some time here, as the path that all of the other sleds had taken was pretty rough. I decided to pull out of the rough track and run the soft powder for awhile to take a break. The problem with running unmarked powder is what lies underneath it, and sure enough I hit a big rock. Luckily, the impact was centered so I was able to hang on. Again, everything seemed to be OK, but not more than a couple of miles down the river, my motor overheated. We flipped the machine over and found the extrusion in front of the track smashed and falling off. There didn't appear to be a leak, but we suspected that the coolant wasn't flowing through it. We tried to splice in a hose in place of the extrusion, but we couldn't get the trick to work.
It seemed that we were out of luck. We looked around and were trying to decide what to do next. We couldn't believe it, but back in the trees off the river was a small cabin. We sure didn't remember any information about cabins between Ptarmigan Pass and Rohn River, but there it was. It was far enough back into the trees that we never would have spotted it if we had been moving.
Since it was nearly thirty-five below zero and the wind was blowing, we would have had a tough time in a two man tent and have often wondered if we would have survived. We opened the cabin and found it to be well stocked with supplies (after the race, we contacted the owner from Wasilla and reimbursed him for everything we used and really thanked him). It didn't take long for us to get a fire going and to start warming up again.
I was trying to quit smoking at the time and hadn't brought any cigarettes with me. I looked everywhere in that cabin for a smoke. After we had been there for about six hours, I finally saw a pack of Winstons on a beam. As I was opening the pack, Jim said, "Oh, I see you found those Winstons." Jim knew they were there all along. I could have killed him! He knew how bad I wanted a cigarette, especially then.
Jim did all the cooking, and made some of the best pancakes the next morning I've ever eaten. After being holed up there for about 24 hours, we heard an airplane circling overhead. Tom Rutter had found us in this Super Cub. Since he was now in range of our hand held radio, we were able to guide him in. We had packed a runway with Jim's machine out on the river, so Tom landed right there in the canyon on the river. He jumped out and told us that he sure was glad that he had found us. Tom had radioed back before landing, and after awhile, Larry Thompson, the famous Iditarod and bush pilot landed with Sandy, my wife, and Terry Knapp (our mechanic and Jim's cousin), in Jim's Cessna 185.
Terry helped us fix the machine, and Jim convinced me that we should continue the race, although I was very reluctant. We were now almost two days behind the other racers. At this point we were no longer racing, but just wanted to finish what we had started. We didn't know it yet, but it would be six more days before we would finish.
When we finally did pull into Nome, we had been on the trail for nine days, probably a record for the longest time on the trail and still completing the race. Some of the other teams that had finished had left for home three days earlier. Tom and Birdie Rutter had spent a lot of money, along with our wives to be there for us when we arrived in Nome. They had made a banner for us to put at the finish line. It was one of the happiest moments in my life when we pulled in under that banner. I would never have finished but for Jim Knapp. I was for quitting, but Jim said, "Billy, we started this race and we are going to finish."
This race was in 1985; I ran the race a total of 5 times, in 1984, '85, '86, '87 and '88. Each year, after the race, I promised never to do it again. But by mid-summer I would forget the bad times and send in my $2000 entry fee for another year. In the five years, I finished 3 times and placed 4th once with Ellis Smith, riding Yamaha Exciters.
I started Billy Norman in 1984, selling snowmobile and ATV parts, and outboard propellers, along with chainsaws and CB and VHF radios. Ninety percent of my customers live in the bush communities of Alaska. At one time I had a 152 and 172 Cessna. I became a bush pilot and flew to many of my customers' villages around Alaska.
Now I live in Gillette, Wyoming, and continue to do the same business with my customers in Alaska. My wife Sandy (we've been married 33 years!) works with me. She always hired a pilot and followed me in all my races. One year, she even crash landed.
I still get the fever, but at 53, I'm getting too old for Iron Dog Racing.