Sno-go pioneer traces 900-mile trip through Alaska Bush 40 years after original

Snowmachiner relives adventure

Posted: Friday, March 31, 2000

MINNEAPOLIS -- As an experienced snowmachiner, 79-year-old Edgar Hetteen didn't give it much thought when he hopped off his machine and broke through the crusted snow during his 900-mile trek across Alaska.

But he kept sinking.

''I had stepped off and stepped into this bottomless quagmire. I was in up to my armpits and I had not reached bottom yet,'' Hetteen recalled Wednesday. Luckily, a fellow traveler was nearby to haul him out of the hole, and he resumed his journey.

Hetteen and nine companions spent eight days this month retracing the route Hetteen took 40 years ago in an effort to save his young company, which was making the first modern-day snowmachine. The trip transformed winter travel in northern climates.

Many of the people Hetteen met on the first trip were still living in the Alaskan wilderness when he returned, but their lives had changed.

''Forty years ago we saw dozens and dozens of dog teams hauling supplies and people. This time there was only one dog team in evidence and I believe that was for recreational purposes only,'' he said.

''What I saw was the people taking their children to school on the snowmachine, bigger children driving their own machines, machines going down the river hauling supplies,'' Hetteen said.

''We had successfully contributed to the beginning of a new era, a mechanized era, for those people. There was less work, more production per hour. That was a highly gratifying thing for me,'' he said.

In 1960, when Hetteen and three companions made their first trip from Bethel, on the Bering Sea coast, to Fairbanks, their early snowmachines were the first mechanical surface transportation ever to cross anywhere in the state of Alaska. Hetteen made that trip to prove the snow machines worked and to save Polaris, the company he co-founded.

Although Hetteen left Polaris years ago, he convinced the company -- now the world's largest manufacturer of snowmachines -- to retrace the trip that proved the snowmachine was more than just a goofy machine.

This time, David Johnson, 77, Hetteen's brother-in-law and the inventor of the early snowmachine, also made the trip. Polaris used the adventure to officially launch its new marketing campaign, titled ''The Way Out.''

Polaris plans to use the campaign for all its products, which include all-terrain vehicles, personal watercraft and motorcycles.

''With more and more two-income families with fax machines, cell phones, the Internet, traffic jams, everyone's looking for the opportunity to get away. That's exactly what we provide,'' said Chief Executive Tom Tiller, 38, who participated in the Alaskan trek.

Tiller said he was overwhelmed by the hospitality of the Alaskan people, who met the group as they arrived in each of the small villages, fed them and gave them a place to spend the night.

''They treated us like celebrities,'' he said. ''We went into the schools and talked to the kids about safety in snowmobiling and afterward they would get our autographs for an hour. To them, particularly Edgar and David, it changed their lives so much for the better. They really wanted to say thanks.''

Most of the children had never seen a snowmachine helmet, Hetteen said. Polaris is sending a supply of helmets to each of the schools the group visited.

People also were curious about how the two elderly men would fare during the long trip. Very well, thank you, says Hetteen.

''I didn't feel any different at the completion of this trip physically than I did at the end of the trip 40 years ago. So I don't think we should be so concerned about how old we are,'' he said. ''I had a supply of Tums, Mylanta and Pepsid AC with me. I forgot to use any of them on the whole trip.''

Hetteen traveled the final two miles into Fairbanks aboard one of the original Sno-Traveler machines, providing dramatic evidence of the changes in snowmachines over 40 years.

''It's a good thing it was short because the machine was not in very good mechanical condition,'' he said. ''The crowd paid very little attention to the old machine and that's great. New, shiny technology, that's the way to go.''

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