Have you ever dreamed of challenging the wilderness? It takes courage, knowledge and determination to survive against the elements, plus, more than that, it takes a good reason–or a dream.
Edgar Hetteen, sometimes called the grandfather of the snowmobile, was such a dreamer. He, along with his brother-in-law, David Johnson, started Polaris Industries, and then a few years later, Edgar developed the Arctic Cat snowmobile. But, more important, this man proved to the world that the snowmobile could meet the winter wilderness challenge.
In 1959 the snowmobile industry was just beginning in North America. When Edgar and David’s Board of Directors wanted them to turn to better money-making aspects of their business, cutting back snowmobile production, they feared their dreams for a glorious future for the machine were threatened.
But, Edgar was determined; he didn’t falter even when he heard comments like: “Edgar, who would want to ride on that crazy contraption you and the boys are building?”
Edgar decided that what the Polaris snowmobile needed was evidence it was a useful machine-proof it was more than a toy. In Edgar’s opinion the best way to demonstrate the snowmobile could actually be a workhorse was to go somewhere on it, so, he set out to do just that. On March 5, 1960, Edgar; an employee, Earling Falk; Rudy Billberg, an Alaskan bush pilot; and his wife, Bessie, all began a 1200-mile trip across the Alaskan wilderness.
In 1960 snowmobiles were wobbly, low-powered machines that roared over the snow! Setting out with two10-horsepower Sno-Travelers and one 7-horsepower Trailblazer, the Polaris team had the best machines of the day, but they weren’t comparable to modern snowmobiles.
As well, they towed two freight toboggans carrying 900 pounds of supplies each, plus gas cans and snowshoes strapped to the snowmobiles, which further slowed their progress. Without her own machine, Bessie either doubled with one of the men, or stood on a toboggan.
Wilderness survival meant being prepared for rugged weather conditions, especially in March when ranges from thawing to minus forty in the Arctic. One of the biggest foes the Polaris crew faced was the wind, which chills right through clothing, to the bone, and can freeze a person to death very quickly.
At one point on the journey, the wind was so strong it created a sandstorm-the 60 mile-per-hour gale picked up snow, plus silt and sand, and blasted the daring travelers. The drifts were no longer white, but brown from blow dirt.
In order to protect his team, Edgar searched for a cabin that trappers had told them about, but he couldn’t find it in the zero visibility. As night fell, they huddled together; thankful for the team skills they had developed, which likely saved all of them from losing their lives.
The wind also caused a problem for the team on the ice. One miserable day a trapper forewarned them of danger, telling them how his dogs had lain on their bellies, being blown helplessly down the iced-over river. Of course, when the Polaris drivers reached the river the wind also pushed their snowmobiles along, just like children’s toys!
While thawing temperatures eased the need for the team to fight the cold, it created other problems. Rivers and water bodies could no longer be considered safe without testing, in fact, there was often open water the machines had to avoid. One of the most difficult tasks for a driver, and sometimes the only option, was driving the snowmobiles along the steep river embankments with the towed toboggans.
Each time the team crossed a water body, or tried to drive down a river, they had to check the ice for safety. Using the ax, Edgar would take one chop, if it went through the ice wasn’t safe. If it took two, then they held the snowmobile throttles open and charged across.
Early snowmobiles often broke down since the technology was new, and these ones were no exception. However, the crew used their ingenuity to fix every mechanical problem they encountered, even turning disasters into benefits.
During one major repair session, Edgar repaired his machine with such cold, numb fingers, that he dropped his hammer into it. Without the protective shroud in place, the running motor sheared all of the cooling fins from the flywheel. Luckily, it turned out that the snowmobile ran well that way!
One of the greatest challenges to any survival crew is keeping their spirits up, and Bessie has been credited with being the one to smile and keep going on this team. In addition to making sure they had hot meals to eat, she offered encouragement every mile they rolled along, despite the trail conditions.
Camping during an Arctic winter is a challenging experience. Each night the crew divided up into their tents, except for a few nights they found trappers’ cabins for use. Luckily one night they even encountered a couple, that offered to share their warm cabin and provided them with a hot meal.
The team took 21 days to cross 1200 miles of the Arctic, from Bethel on the Bering Sea Coast to Fairbanks. At times they only traveled 8 miles per-hour, or slower. However, to the Eskimo people they met, it was a remarkable journey. Today, due to the wilderness challenge Edgar Hetteen and his team took with their Polaris snowmobiles, winter travel has changed, not only in Alaska, but also in many other parts of the world.
Hetteen, E., & Lemke, J. (1998). Breaking trail. Bemidji, Minn: Focus Pub.
Vint, B. (1977). Warriors of winter: The previously untold history of snowmobile racing. Milwaukee: Market Communications.
Article Copyright 2003 by Linda Aksomitis