An Alaskan trek that saved the snowmobile

Minnesota man, 79, to retrace journey from 40 years ago

Posted: Monday, February 28, 2000

MINNEAPOLIS - Forty years ago, Edgar Hetteen set out with three companions on a 1,200-mile trek across the Alaskan wilderness in a last-ditch effort to save the motorized sled he felt was the key to his company's future.

If Hetteen could only get the word out, he believed the Sno-Traveler - the first modern-day snowmobile - would transform winter travel in harsh northern climates.

``We needed to draw adventurers,'' Hetteen said. ``We needed to prove our snow machines worked.''

The 21-day trip over the rocks, sand, ice and snow of Alaska, riding through blizzards, torrential winds and sand storms, did just that.

Today snowmobiling is a $10 billion industry. There are more than 4 million snowmobilers around the world and 130,121 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in the United States, nearly four times the miles of interstate highway.

Polaris Industries Inc., the company Hetteen started, had sales of $1.3 billion last year. It's the world's largest manufacturer of snowmobiles, a strong second in all-terrain vehicles, a top maker of personal watercraft and a growing presence in motorcycle manufacturing.

The grand adventure that showed the snowmobile was more than a goofy machine has never been far from Hetteen's mind. Last year he approached his old company - he had jumped to rival Arctic Cat in 1961 - about retracing the 1960 Alaskan trek from Bethel, on the Bering Sea coast, to Fairbanks. Polaris agreed.

Hetteen, 79, and nine others plan to leave March 15 on the anniversary journey, which is also intended to raise money for medical research. The group will include David Johnson, 77, Hetteen's brother-in-law who invented that early snowmobile, and Tom Tiller, 38, who took over as Polaris chief executive last May.

In addition to the larger team, there will be other differences.

``Forty years ago, the only thing that ever used that area was dog teams. We were the first mechanical surface transportation to ever cross anywhere in the state of Alaska,'' Hetteen said. ``I would expect we will see a lot more snowmobile trails now than dog trails.''

Snowmobile technology also has come a long way.

``There are many years of innovation in these new machines,'' Hetteen said. ``We were extremely lucky on that first trip. We had some problems but it could have been more severe.''

Just 10 days into the 1960 trip and less than halfway to Fairbanks, the group was traveling on the frozen Yukon River miles from the nearest village when Hetteen's machine gave a choking pop and died.

He took the machine apart in the driving wind and bitter cold, replacing the coil that introduces electricity to the engine. As Hetteen cranked up the machine for a test, he dropped his hammer into the spinning fins of the flywheel, stripping out all of the cooling fins. For the rest of the distance, he traveled on hope that the machine wouldn't overheat and die. It didn't.

There was no advance publicity about the early trip because Hetteen and his friends weren't sure it would be successful. Thus, they became a mystery as they stopped in remote villages where such machines had never been seen before.

For this trip, team members will have satellite phones and a global positioning system that will feed their exact location back to computers in Minneapolis. The adventurers will participate in live Internet events on the company's Web site,

If the weather cooperates and the snowmobilers are not forced to make detours faced during the 1960 trip, the new trip will be 900 miles over eight days.

``We're all a little crazy,'' Tiller said, when asked why he wanted to retrace a trip that was done in desperation to save a company that is now successful, with net income up 8 percent in 1999 and sales up 12 percent.

Polaris also hopes the trip will raise $100,000 for research to combat ALS, the progressive neurodegenerative disease commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, Tiller said. The company is matching contributions by its employees to the National ALS Foundation.

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