Arctic Man a hot spot in the Hoodoos

Skier Petr Kakes skates off of the "Tit" at the top of the race course to meet up with his snowmachine partner Todd Palin. Photo by Nina Schwinghammer/The Sun Star

By Tom Hewitt
Sun Star Reporter

Driving to Arctic Man at night, signs of the event appear long before the Hoodoo Mountains come into view. RVs and trucks pulling snowmachine trailers form southbound caravans, and impromptu camps spring up in the pullouts along the Richardson Highway. As the Summit Lake valley comes into view, the winking headlights of packs of machines dot the mountainside, bobbing up and down as their drivers navigate the landscape.

It’s a serenely beautiful sight, and one that belies the entire rest of the spectacle that is the Arctic Man Ski & Sno-Go Classic.

The event, built around an adrenaline-fueled race in which skiers and snowboarders are towed down a mountain course behind snowmachines at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour, celebrated its 25th annual running last weekend. Thousands of outdoor enthusiasts, snowmachine fanatics, and all-purpose partygoers were on hand to watch the race and join in the festivities.

It was the rookie year for Nathan Adamczak and Brian Buechler, a pair of UAF-affiliated racers who decided to get in on the action after several years watching from the sidelines. Adamczak, a civil engineering major, was the team’s driver. Buechler, a senior engineer with the Geophysical Institute’s Alaska Satellite Facility, dug out a well-worn pair of Atomic skis for the occasion.

To prepare for the kind of speeds they would experience in the race, Adamczak and Buechler held training runs on the Chena River. “It went pretty well,” Buechler said as the pair unwound at the Pub after a run in early March. “I’m pretty sure we hit 86 or 87 miles per hour, but the GPS crapped out at around 82 and stopped giving us readings.”

Though Arctic Man began as a $100 bar bet between friends, it has grown exponentially in the quarter century of its existence. Upwards of 10,000 people now make the pilgrimage to the Hoodoos on

the second weekend of April. Concrete attendance numbers are nearly impossible to calculate, largely due to the fact that many snowmachiners “commute” to the event from Summit Lake and other nearby areas unconnected to the official Arctic Man camping area. The event’s website put last year’s population at “approximately 13,000,” and this year saw similar numbers according to event organizers. Whatever the spectator count, one oft-repeated Arctic Man factoid is undeniably true: for one weekend each April, the mass of tents, trucks, and recreational vehicles is effectively the fourth-largest city in Alaska.

For the average attendee, Arctic Man is more party than race, and by Thursday night, twelve hours before the snowmachiners and skiers took to the course, the festivities were in full swing. At a pad half a mile from Racers’ Row, a group of UAF engineering students and alumni mingled with members of the Happy Boy Racing team who had come in support of racers James and Wade Binkley, Luke Smith, and Ryan Twitchell.

With four campsites, three bonfires, a sound system blasting AC/DC, and an LCD projector playing vintage ski movies, the party raged long into the night. “So I hear there’s some kind of a race tomorrow?” joked senior business major Jonathan Bradish as the speakers bumped Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” and Simon Mangold poured motor oil onto the bonfire, sending flames 12 feet high above the projector screen.

The next morning, spectators lined the course, clustering in strategic locations. On the lower course, much of the action centered around First Aid, a steep downhill just past the point at which skiers and snowboarders slingshot loose from their tow. The combination of torque from the release and the steep downhill make the site the most perilous area of the course and help explain its name.

Grad student Annie Hooper, a friend of Adamczak and Buechler, stood anxiously at the top of First Aid with fiancé and rifle standout Patrik Sartz. “They told us to spread out all over the course,” Hooper said as she awaited the team’s run. “I just hope Brian doesn’t get hurt,” she said, looking down the mountain with concern.

More than 50 teams competed in the race, which saw clear skies and warm weather contribute to a fast, hard track. As racers hurtled down the course, they were often followed by a helicopter capturing footage for a National Geographic Channel special.

The speedy conditions led fans to speculate that this would be the year a team would break the four-minute barrier that has stood since the race began, but it was not to be. Scott Macartney and Tyson Johnson won their third title and $25,000 with a time of 4:04.85 in the main event. Adamczak and Buechler finished nearly a minute back with an unofficial time of just over five minutes earning them 21st place out of a total of 27 teams that finished the race. Mercifully, First Aid did not live up to its billing, as it saw a few spectacular wipeouts but no serious injuries.

The party reached new levels Friday night, as racers still riding adrenaline highs joined their friends and well-wishers in the packed beer tent. A cover band belted out rock standards as race fans packed in shoulder-to-shoulder, drinking and discussing the day’s events. On the dance floor, the Happy Boy contingent monopolized both the prime real estate and the attention of a few dozen good-looking young women as they celebrated a top-10 finish by James Binkley and Luke Smith. Bedecked in mullets and outrageous one-piece snowsuits, the Happy Boys outlasted the band before stumbling back to their campsite, where they rejoined the engineers, continued the dance party, and put the torch to their thrift-store couches.

The next morning, Buechler sat in a rented motorhome as he reflected on his team’s performance. Having captured video footage from training and the race itself, he planned to edit a package together to shop to sponsors in hopes of securing better equipment for next year’s race. He wasn’t disappointed in the team’s showing, he said, but he was already looking to the future. “We’re going to do better next year,” he said. “We’re going to do a lot better.”

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