Snowmachiners log 13,000 frozen miles

Arctic explorers hit 'road' again

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2001

ANCHORAGE -- From the edge of the Bering Sea in northwest Alaska across the vast Arctic to Baffin Island on the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean, the winter wanderings of Roger Siglin and Dick Hattan cover 13,000 miles.

The two Fairbanks men are off again in late this month when they fly to the very north of Canada's Yukon Territory and set out on yet another 25-day expedition. This time, they plan to cross the stark, empty land between the village of Inuvik and Churchill, the Hudson Bay community famous for its visiting polar bears. It's a 2,400-mile jaunt.

The pair have been putting together snowmachine expeditions for a little more than a decade now. And just about every year, as spring light warms Alaska, Siglin and Hattan disappear for a month in the Arctic's subzero temperatures. Riding the snowmachine equivalents of Volkswagen Bugs, they tow 700-pound sleds across arctic ice and snow-covered tundra.

''It's safe to say these guys are in a class of their own,'' said Craig Compeau of Fairbanks, owner of the state's largest Ski-Doo dealership. ''They have made some pretty incredible trips, and these guys are not spring chickens.''

Siglin is a wiry, 64-year-old retired national park superintendent who has covered about 900 miles on foot in the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Hattan is a 52-year-old radiologist.

The arctic expeditions started as a lark, Siglin said.

''We were wondering what we could do to break up the long winter,'' he said. They ruled out sled dogs because of the year-around commitment. Trekking by snowshoe didn't have much appeal because of the limited amount of terrain that could be covered. So even though Siglin had made a career out of ''no-trace'' camping and advocated keeping motorized equipment out of pristine wilderness areas, the two men decided to take a snowmachine trip from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay.

''I am not really a fan of snowmobiling,'' Siglin said. ''We just use it as a means of access. I don't do it as a weekend sport.'' A couple of their companions on a couple trips had never ridden a snowmachine before starting on a 2,000-mile trip.

''We both shudder at the thought of being called snowmachiners,'' Hattan added. But their travels have made them just that.

While what Siglin and Hattan do qualifies as snowmachining, it is not what would be considered normal recreational riding in Alaska. They aren't flying down trails at 70 mph, challenging others with their highmarking abilities, or traveling in comfort from rest stop to rest stop.

''We spend most of the trip going 10 to 15 miles per hour,'' Hattan said. The machines on which they travel on are Ski-Doo Tundras, a snowmobile model headed for extinction.

They like the machines because they are reliable, easy to work on and fuel efficient.

Usually, Siglin said, they sell their machines at the end of a trip, but because of Ski-Doo's recent announcement of plans to end the production of the Tundra, the two are thinking of hanging onto the machines they own.

In their decade of expeditions, they have covered about 5,000 miles in arctic Alaska and another 8,000 miles in the northern stretches of Canada without soliciting or accepting a dime from sponsors. They have kept their travels simple and rarely spend more than $2,000 a trip, Siglin said.

''Of the 13,000 miles of travel, outside the villages we pass through, we haven't met more than 20 people out on the trails,'' Siglin said.

They have found the land between the villages much like it has been for hundreds of years. Pristine. Void of people. Rich with wildlife. They have encountered herds of caribou, traces of polar bears, musk ox and wolverine.

The two always have a friend or two along on their expeditions, and each of the three or four snowmachines generally pulls a 700-pound sled, including enough fuel to go 700 miles, enough food for a month and enough firewood to last a week.

At the end of a day, they can set up a comfortable camp in about 30 minutes, Siglin said. They use Alaska-made ''Arctic Oven'' tents. Double-walled and designed to be used with wood-burning stoves, the tents make life in the cold more than bearable.

Their evening routine includes boiling water for heating up prepackaged dinners and for filling a half-dozen, liter-sized bottles, which are slipped into sleeping bags at bed time.

Most of their food is precooked, prepared and frozen before leaving Fairbanks.

In the morning, they fire up their wood stove, boil enough water to get them through the day, eat some instant oatmeal, strike camp, put pre-made bacon-cheese-and-egg sandwiches on their snowmachine mufflers and shove off.

''We drive until we smell bacon and melting cheese,'' Siglin said.

Lunch is sandwiches, also heated on the muffler.

Siglin said the men travel with bunny boots, the ultimate insulated winter footwear, in case they run into river overflow, but Siglin generally relies on Sorels with double liners, and Hattan wears Native-made mukluks.

''It's amazing what you can stand if you have the right gear,'' Siglin said. ''I don't like to do 40-below, but without the wind it is bearable. The wind is really only a problem when it is a side wind. When it's at your back, you don't notice it that much. If it is coming from the front, you can crouch down behind the windshield. But when it comes from the side, there is no way to get away from it. That's the wind that will find its way into your jacket.''

Siglin, who has climbed mountains in Tibet, Argentina, Peru and the Alps, is thinking more about warm weather these days. His wife, a school teacher in North Pole, is scheduled to retire in about 18 months, and they are talking about wintering in Argentina or Australia. Future expeditions might be something like a camel trip across Australia's Red Desert, Siglin said. But he hasn't quite got the arctic out of his blood.

''We've seen about all we want to see of arctic Alaska and arctic Canada,'' Siglin said. ''Now I wouldn't mind, if we could, getting into Siberia. Or maybe up around Ellesmere Island. And if we could get reliable fuel ...''



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