After snowmobiling 1,414 miles along the Iditarod Trail, Bob Jones said life is especially sweet back home in Kettle Falls.
“I’m a free man,” he said. “I sold my snowmobiles in Alaska.”
He made the break to snow-machine independence after completing his 14th tour following the Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome. Jones had shipped both of his snowmobiles to Anchorage so his son-in law, Josh Rindal of Spokane, could join him on the monthlong adventure.
“I hate those things so bad,” Jones said with a smile. “One was broke and the other on its way out. It’s a good feeling to be snowmobile-free.”
Snowmobiles are easiest to hate when they seize up in the middle of nowhere with temperatures far below zero.
“Breakdowns have kept me from reaching Nome several times, like 2009, when my machine dumped its oil and froze the engine in the Dalzell Gorge.”
The gorge is one of the most dangerous and remote portions of the grueling race course.
“If you took an aerial photo of the entire 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail and placed an X on the worst possible spot to break down, the mark would have been right on top of my machine!” he said.
“I got to McGrath via bush plane, went into the bar and announced there was a bounty on that piece of (crap): $2,000 dead or alive into McGrath!
“I had serious doubts it was even possible, but two big, tough guys spent a week getting it 125 miles back to town.”
Jones had a new engine installed and rode the snowmobile solo along with the next year’s sled dog race. “I couldn’t relax the whole way,” he said, not quite joking.
The Iditarod Trail is hard on machines. In 2001, Jones rode a course virtually void of snow; mostly just brick-hard frozen ground.
In 2007, he and the mushers endured 18 of the coldest days in the race’s history with temperatures to minus-40.
“There was no snow on the south route, so we rode the north route,” Jones said, noting that Spokane real estate developer Harlan Douglass joined him that year. ”Again, a great deal of the trail was bare and frozen to the hardness of concrete.
“We’d planned to ride back but canceled that idea along the way. It was the coldest and toughest race in history. A third of the mushers had scratched in the first 150 miles. Some were dumping and breaking bones.
“Tough as it was, Harley would get up every morning, shake my hand and thank me for inviting him along.”
Another year, Jones’ Arctic Cat blew up before reaching Nome, prompting other forms of combustion.
“I’ve never been like most snowmobilers, who become diehard supporters of the brand they own,” he said. “I just want one that works.
“I was so mad at that Cat, I found a big piece of wood and started smashing it. Arctic Cat guys would try to stop me, but guys riding Ski-Doos would stop and cheer me on: ‘Hit that SOB!’ they’d yell.”
While he curses them, snowmobiles are the vessel to Jones’s adventure addiction.
Linking small villages separated by 100 or more miles of frozen wilderness isn’t for everyone. But the route is perfectly suited for a man with a million-dollar smile and a gift for gab to go along with his high threshold for pain, minimal sleep requirements and Alaska-size capacity for beer.
“The villagers all know me and like me because I stay a day, have a good time and leave,” he said.
“These people don’t see a lot of visitors, so they remember you. Ride in with a smile and they treat you right. Help a guy one year and the next year he’ll hand you a bag of smoked salmon chunks to say thanks.”
Jones tows a sled with fuel and gear for camping in bitter cold. Mostly he stays at primitive trailside cabins, schools or roadhouses, happy to have the occasional bed even if the bedding hasn’t been laundered.
“You have to recognize wild Alaska is a harsh place. People who live there are tough. The men, too.”
Jones was fascinated by Alaska long before he had a snowmobile.
“When I was younger, all my friends had snowmobiles but I never owned one. My hunting partner and I didn’t get into it because we wanted to save our money to hunt in Alaska.
“We were saving our backs, too. My friends were hurting their backs from snowmobiling. Seems like half of them were filing Labor and Industries claims. But I was going to Alaska, sometimes a couple times a year. … I was 55 when I got my first snowmobile. I’ve had several since then and I’ve hated them all. But they can get you places.”
Jones has logged 100 trips to Alaska. In recent years, he’s focused on snowmobiling with the famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
“After my first trip with three other guys in 1995, I never went to sleep alone one night that I didn’t think about the Iditarod,” he said.
“The historic trail is interesting in itself, but it’s 100 times more interesting with dog teams on it. I’m fascinated by what the mushers do.”
His son-in-law is the latest of several good traveling companions who shared Jones’ fascination.
“At the end of the trip Josh said it was 10 times better than he’d imagined – the trip of a lifetime,” Jones said.
Rindal, 33, works at the Air Force Survival School.
“He’s a good man to have on a trip, not just because he’s young and can dig out a stuck snowmobile while I’m there wheezing and trying to get my breath,” Jones said.
Convincing friends to join him on the trail hasn’t always been easy. “You need a person who can get a month off work,” Jones said. “Somebody with some resources – it’s not cheap.
“Somebody who enjoys bitter-cold winter camping – it’s not always fun.
“Put all that together and there’s not a lot of people standing around wanting to do it,” he said, noting that one year he was the only person not related to the race who snowmobiled the whole route.
“It’s a very small world up there. The same guy pumps fuel for everyone who comes along in each village, so it’s easy to keep track of ridership because there aren’t many travelers to keep track of.
“I’ve done the trail solo and that’s not smart. People worry about you. Actually, you have less freedom when you’re alone. You have to pay more attention; you’re in survival mode all the time.”
Jones and Rindal said they relished starting their snowmobiles – sometimes with great difficulty – and setting out to ride as far as they could see, or farther. Sometimes they’d ride into the night for a shot at rolling out sleeping bags in a wood-heated cabin.
The region from Anchorage to Nome is like the Wild West.
“Save for the scattered game wardens, there’s not really any law out there,” Jones said.
Mushers have little chance to enjoy the route, he said.
“Years ago, the most common question they’d ask when you saw them is, ‘Where are we?’ Now they have GPS, but they still don’t get to relax until the end, especially now that the race has become a survival sprint.”
Snowmobiling with the racers puts him close enough to the mushers to feel a little of their passion and pain.
For that privilege, he endures the suffering of owning a snowmobile.
“Everybody has an opinion on what snowmobile is made for riding the Iditarod,” he said. “Everybody up there speaks Snowmobile. After a month of listening, one machine emerged as the one that would hold up to the trail: The Ski-Doo Expedition Sport.
“I have money down on two of the damned things.