Iditathon walker hits halfway mark

Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Racing the Iditarod Trail being pulled behind a team of dogs is considered to be one of the toughest, wildest, wilderness challenges around.

Now take away the dogs, and you've got simply a man, a sled and a thousand miles of the most forbidding hiking trail imaginable.

Hiking that solitary trail is the challenge Soldotna's Denis Douglas has set for himself.

Douglas set out Feb. 17 on a winter stroll up the Iditarod Trail from Anchorage to Nome. By the time he's done, he will have hiked 1,050 miles through some of the most remote terrain on the planet.

He's doing it partially for the challenge, but mainly to benefit the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Douglas is calling his trek, "The Power of One: Walk for a United America Iditathon." He is soliciting donations with the help of the Kenai Firefighters Association and the Association of School Business Officials.

Eighty-five percent of the money he raises will go to the Leary Firefighters Foundation Fund for New York's Bravest and the Twin Towers Orphan Fund. The remaining money will go to local fire prevention, training, education and safety efforts and to provide scholarships to area high school students.

This is Douglas' second time walking the Iditarod trail. When he's not out hiking through the wilderness, he lives on Mackey Lake in Soldotna. He earns a living raising shellfish on Kachemak Bay.

So what would make a 50-year-old shellfish farmer from Soldotna want to try and walk the length of the Iditarod Trail -- twice? Just a simple desire to help those less fortunate then himself.

In 1992, Douglas completed his first trek to raise money to help a friend pay for cancer treatment. He said he got the original idea one day while buffalo hunting in the Farewell Burn area.

"We were pulling the buffalo meat on a sled back to the airplane, and we were using a part of the Iditarod trail," Douglas remembers. "I told the guy I was with, it sure would be neat to walk this. I can't repeat what he said to that," he said Saturday, while resting in Ruby, halfway between Anchorage and Nome.

From that initial curiosity, a mission was born. When his friend got sick, Douglas decided to use his quirky idea to help a friend in need.

"I went down to the sporting goods store in Kenai and got a sled. About two weeks later, I was out on the trail," he said of his 1992 adventure.

This year, he's benefiting from the experience and knowledge he gained the first time out on the trail.

"I'm in a lot better shape this time. Last time I should have died out there," he said.

Douglas remembered getting sick with stomach problems and being out of contact with civilization for 13 days.

"I went two days without food or water. It was pretty bad," he said.

Douglas said he's had no similar trouble this year, thanks in part to making sure he's got plenty of gear. He packs a 110-pound sled behind him, loaded with food and supplies.

He said even pulling such a load, he usually manages to keep up a fairly decent pace.

"I average about 30 to 40 miles a day," he said.

Not quite the pace set by Martin Buser in this year's Iditarod, but not a crawl, either. Douglas said the key to a good hike is simple.

"It's just pickin' 'em up and puttin' 'em down."

Being a lone man walking the trail can get pretty lonely, but Douglas said there's always something to keep his mind occupied. He said running into some of the sled dog teams this year kept him on his toes.

"Some of them passed me on the trail. At first, I'd dive out of the way into the deep snow next to the trail. After a while though I realized they have pretty good brakes on those things. Nobody ran me over."

Douglas said he even got a chance to chat with a few of the mushers with whom he shared the trail.

"I got to talk to a lot of them in McGrath."

He said one of the most rewarding parts of his trip has been all the people he's met along the way.

"Everybody out here has been just great. The people along the way are very friendly and helpful. The people I'm staying with right now pretty much gave me the run of their house," he said.

Douglas said he hopes to make it to Nome, weather permitting, in about a month. He planned to leave Ruby Sunday morning, but the weather wasn't really cooperating.

"It's snowing like crazy right now. A little bit breezy, too. I'm just tired enough right now that I might not want to try and risk going out. It's a fund-raiser, not a race."

Having already walked 500 miles through the wintry Alaska wilderness, a little caution sure won't hurt Douglas' bid. You can bet as soon as the snow lets up, he'll be back out on the trail -- 'pickin' 'em up and puttin' 'em down.'

Anyone wishing to contribute to Denis Douglas' "The Power of One: Walk for a United America Iditathon 2002" can mail donations to: Iditathon 2002, c/o Kenai Firefighters Association, 105 Willow St., Kenai, AK 99611, or call 283-4557.

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