There are certain dreams and experiences that set themselves apart from the rest. They are either more difficult or expensive to achieve or they are just so big that they never feel achievable. My dream of going to Alaska was all of these. Alaska, for generations, is where people have gone to test themselves, their abilities
and their limits as well as “find” themselves. This is why Alaska has gained the motto, “The Last Frontier” and become known for the slogan, “North to the Future.” For me personally, getting older, having a family, timing, and finding just the right individual to share such an experience with were all factors that made this potential experience, so difficult. Finally, the planets aligned, the weather cooperated (sort of) and the perfect Alaskan partner was available to share the experience with.
This story actually begins several years ago. I was in Bend, Oregon BASE jumping with my good friend Matthias Giraud. The morning of a local BASE jump, Matthias mentioned that a friend of his, James Scott, would be coming along for the jump. He mentioned that James lives seasonally in Bend, while also splitting time between his home state of Alaska, and California, where he works as a lineman. What I gathered from the conversation is that James is pretty much awesome at everything he does. Furthermore, it seems that there is very little that James HAS NOT done. Oregon state Ju Jitsu champ, helicopter pilot, skydiver, BASE jumper, speedflyer, skier, snowboarder, mountaineer (climbing dozens of peaks, including Denali), snowmachiner and even moose rider… The list really does go one from there. Most notably however, is that James is just a super rad dude. You’ll rarely see him without a smile on his face, funny socks on his feet or doing some random act of kindness. A genuinely good and
nice guy. After our BASE jump that morning, we hung out the majority of the rest of the day and James taught my son a variation of the game Rock, Paper, Scissors. This one was Bear, Ninja, Cowboy and is played not just with your hands, but with your entire body. Interesting how a guy who is 6’3” and 225 lbs. and a Ju Jitsu champion is also so light hearted and good with kids.
Over the years, James and I kept in touch. Rarely meeting up due to our very busy and hectic schedules, but the offer finally came about for me to go to Alaska with James. Things fell through for two years until, like I mentioned before, the planets aligned and everything fell into place. James gave me a timeline of the month of April to work with and I began planning. April in Alaska is a very
significant time of year. It’s basically Spring Break Alaska. For the most part, everyone stops working and converges on two locations over a three to four week period. Summit Lake and Thompson Pass. The former is located about midway between Valdez and Fairbanks while the latter is just about 40 minutes north of Valdez. Everyone packs up their campers, snow machines, four-wheelers, skis and other toys and gets ready to party and ride.
The first few days of the trip were spent prepping and packing up the trailer to head down to Summit Lake for a week and a half. We were heading to the 30th Annual Arctic Man Challenge. A combination snow machine and GS ski/snowboard race (2 miles downhill, 2 miles uphill being pulled by a snow machine at speeds over 90 mph, then 1.5 miles back downhill to the finish line) that draws everyone from Alaskan locals to World Cup and Olympic athletes. It’s also a week of some of the craziest and most rowdy of parties. With a prize purse of over $15,000 per division, the only thing more serious than the course, is the competition. James has been competing in the race since he was 15 years old and is a three time champion. For one week, Summit Lake has the third largest population of any other place in Alaska. This was going to be quite the experience!
As fun loving and jovial as James is most of the time, when it comes time to compete, he’s all business. He also becomes the focal point and the center of the universe at Arctic Man. Everyone knows that he is the person to go to for course, technique, tuning and strategy advice. The same can be said for James’ driver (on the snowmachine) Casey Boylan. At the ripe old age of 21, there are very few drivers that have as much technical ability and guts as Casey. He and James have been partners for 5 years. And it shows. Casey and James spent the several days leading up to the race practicing “hook-up” (where the skier/snowboarder meets up with the snowmachiner and then gets pulled by them), the canyon run (running uphill through the canyon after hook-up) and the release at “First Aid” (where the skier/snowboarder releases from the snow machine and races toward the finish). All eyes are on Casey and James. They are the ones to beat.
As the days went on, the city of Arctic Man grew, the parties got crazier and the mood of the racers stayed light. The daily weather had been perfect, but the weather report for the race day(s) got worse and worse. Clouds and snow were moving in. We all kept our fingers crossed. Then the day before race day, James asks me if I want to race. Wait, WHAT?! It wasn’t the entry fee or the fact that I would have to find a driver (even though Casey immediately said he would be more than happy to be my driver) it was the fact that I am no racer. No race experience and certainly not mentally prepared. I eventually settled on being a Forerunner (going just before the racers, being the course “test dummy” and thus validating the course and timing equipment). I was not prepared for this, but was so excited (and intimidated).
Race day came and so did the weather. We all headed up to the start line and waited and hoped for the clouds to clear. We finally got a short break and the word came up to start the Forerunner. Things just got real. James gave me a few last words of encouragement and advice and the countdown began. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO!! Even with a break in the clouds, the light was super flat. Thank goodness for the pine bows and course gates. As I continued to accelerate, the gates seemed to go by in a blur. I entered into the downhill canyon and things got really hard to see. I could no longer see the course; I could only feel it. When I would begin to feel the softer snow, I would turn to get back on course. This was the real deal. I finally got to the hook-up where my driver Jesse Brown was waiting (Casey wasn’t allowed to drive for me as it would be an unfair advantage to see the course in the Forerunner stage before the racers). Our hook-up went well and Jesse mashed down on the throttle. The feeling of being pulled up through a winding canyon, in low visibility, on long, skinny GS skis at over 70 mph is, shall we say, puckering. Finally on top and out of the canyon, Jesse hammers down on the throttle for the last straight away
before the release. Everything is a blur. I release from the rope and plummet down the last hill towards the finish. Thighs are on fire, heart is pumping, adrenaline is flowing. I’m doing everything I can to just keep it together. I finally cross the finish line and come to a skidding halt. After taking my skis off and walking over to the side of the course, I collapse to my knees, massage my thighs and catch my breath. What a RUSH!!! Walking up to the spectating area was laboring. I met up with James’ dad, Jim, and he gave me a hand shake and a beer. Chatting a bit about the experience, the course and the weather, we expressed that we hoped that it would get better. Unfortunately, as the women’s ski and snowboard racers started to cross the line, the snow came down harder and reduced the visibility to only a 100 feet or so. After two 1 and 2 hour delays, the race was finally cancelled.
I caught a tow behind a snowmachine back to the camp. With the heavy increase in snow machine traffic, the ski tow back was like being pulled at 20 mph across a mogul course on GS skis. Saying that I was glad to be back at camp is an understatement. That night the beer flowed like wine in the beer tent. Arctic Man 2015 was in full effect. Wet t-shirt contests (with both men AND women as participants), snowmachine giveaways, DJ’s, dancing, fireworks and some
VERY interesting characters (see photo of “Lexington Hughes”). The party raged on till the early morning hours. We even congregated to a friend’s Airstream that had been converted into a fully lined cedar sauna.
Daylight finally came and so did the sun. Complete bluebird day and by 9 am, almost the entire “city” was vacant. In a matter of about 4 hours, over 10,000 people had broken down camp and headed to their respective areas of the state. We began to do the same. Saying goodbyes and double checking our rig. We said goodbye to Summit Lake and pointed our azimuth south to Valdez, for more fun and adventure, Alaska style! To be continued…