1,400-mile snowmobile trek follows Iditarod Trail

SUNDAY, MARCH 30, 2014

A Kettle Falls man has an enduring love-hate relationship with snowmobiles and the Iditarod Trail.

In 2012, Bob Jones was frank after completing his 14th 1,400- mile journey with a companion to follow the famous Alaska sled dog race: “I hate those things so bad. One was broke and the other on its way out. Sold them both in Alaska. It’s a good feeling to be snowmobile- free.”

Two seasons later, his memory had faded like a happily expectant mom who’d screamed “Never again!” through the last childbirth.

“It’s worth the hardship,” he said last week as he returned from his 15th time snowmobiling the Iditarod. “The money I spent was a bargain.”

Jones, 74, and his son-in-law, Josh Rindal of Spokane, made the 21-day journey on two snowmobiles.

“It’s not a wildly popular thing to do,” he said, noting that only one other snowmobiler did the entire route this year. “But it’s one of the greatest pleasures I’ve had in my life for two reasons: the land and the people.”

They followed the mushers from Anchorage to Nome on the Iditarod course, which ranges from 950 to 1,100 miles depending on the year’s conditions.

Jones photographed the landscape in its golden low-sun glory as well as during raging blizzards. Trail conditions varied from pillow-soft fresh snow to wind-blown brown barrens, alder thickets and treacherous crumbling ice bridges over open water.

They slept along the way on bunks in basic public cabins, in road houses, on the floor of a village library and in an unheated tent for mushers.

They learned to cope with deprivation.

“Two things you don’t get after you leave Anchorage,” Jones said: “good Wi-Fi and cream for your coffee. It’s powdered creamer all the way. And if you’re on a low-carb diet, you’ll starve to death before you get to Nome.”

Jones kept a daily diary full of folksy insights on traveling and socializing along the trail.

He’s not a stranger in the Alaska bush – this year’s trek marked his 101st visit and a total of more than 21,500 miles logged on the Iditarod Trail. But he’s still moved by the people he meets in the harsh landscape.

In remote villages, such as Elim, the natives are very inquisitive and polite, he said.

“They want to shake your hand. And they never offer a hand without taking off their glove, regardless of their age and no matter how cold it is.

“Everyone along the trail knows where you are. You get to a village or checkpoint and people say, ‘Gosh, you got here an hour early,’ or something like that. They know where you’re going. It’s the damndest thing.”

People traveling the trail by one mode or another were fascinating, too.

“After the third day, the mushers had all left us in the dust,” he said. “They go faster with their sled dog teams than we do on our snowmobiles.

“But we’re not racing. We’re traveling, and meeting people is more than half the fun.”

He marveled at several fat-tire cyclists pedaling more 1,000 miles over the snow.

Jones was talking to a man at a Unalakleet cabin when he saw a person hiking the trail in the distance.

“Of course, the guy knew about her. Travelers stand out on the trails, especially solo travelers, and the word spreads. He said it was her 29th birthday.

“So I snowmobiled back and met her. She was hiking with poles and pulling gear on a sled.

“I said, ‘Happy birthday, little hiker.’ She got a little teary with happiness and gave me a hug.”

Later he would learn that Shawn McTaggart of Anchorage last year became the first woman to solo the 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome as a participant in the Iditarod Trail Invitational ultra-race, finishing in 30 days, 18 hours, 10 minutes.

Jones was especially taken back by a grizzled 6-foot-6 man skiing the trail with his wife.

“We stopped to say hello and the conversation wandered from the fact that he’d been up Mount Rainier and then to his climb on Mount McKinley. I got to thinking and asked, ‘Is there any chance you’re a famous person?’

His wife said, “Minus 148.”

“I ran over and gave him a hug! It was Dave Johnston who climbed McKinley 47 years ago, a member of the expedition described in the book Minus 148 Degrees.”

The legendary 1967 expedition made the first winter ascent of North America’s highest peak.

The trail is rugged in spots, taking its toll on the 65 mushers in the race, some of whom had to be evacuated with broken legs or hands after dog teams accelerated through ice and rock where braking was impossible.

Snowmobiles take a beating, too.

After years of breakdowns on the rocks, bare ground, deep snow, ice, water and bitter cold one encounters on the winter route, Jones and Rindal geared up for this Iditarod trip with new snowmobiles they say were perfect for the task.

“I’ve compared rigs with other Alaska snowmobilers and settled on the Ski-Doo Expedition Sport,” he said.

“They are low-end, bare-bones machines, but those little four-stroke machines started good and ran good. For an old guy like me who isn’t an athletic rider, I love the low-end torque. You can be in the worst place, feather the throttle and it will walk you right out of trouble.”

At 525 pounds, the machines are lighter than other snowmobiles he’s used and easier to dig out when they get stuck – which happened at least five times on the trip.

Jones and Rindal spent about $4,000 to ship two snowmobiles round-trip from Spokane.

They drove a pickup to Anchorage so they’d have a vehicle to haul their machines to the starting area.

“I spent $1,053 on fuel from my house to Anchorage,” Jones said.

They spent about $5,000 total traveling out on the trail round-trip from Anchorage including their flights back from Unalakleet to Anchorage.

“That part amounts to a little over $100 a day for 22 days of traveling in Alaska,” Jones said. “That’s not bad at all, considering the price of gas, food and beer out in the bush.”

Adding drama to the trip, Jones’ heart went into atrial fibrillation just before leaving.

“I was OK sitting around, but once I got out on the trail my legs started swelling up,” he said. “Pretty soon I’m the fattest man in Walmart.

“I was pretty screwed up for two weeks. Josh was saving my butt on a daily basis.

“I told him if I keel over just roll me off the trail into the snow and leave me be.”

He said he gained 40 pounds of water before he could get diuretics prescribed by his physician.

“First, a nurse gave me a low dose from her prescription, just enough to get me some relief until I could fill the full prescription in Nome,” he said. “People take care of each other out there.”

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