Unity couple to join Peters man in return to Alaskan wilderness

| Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Tim and Loreen Hewitt were in thick trees along a bison path, sleeping in the stillness of the Alaskan wilderness, when they heard a frightening sound.

Last February, the Unity couple was there hiking the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile trek that continues to 1,000 miles — if the 50 participants survive the double-digit below-zero temperatures, frostbite, blisters and trench foot.

The eerie howls from a pack of wolves at 3 a.m. woke Tim Hewitt, who was zipped into his sleeping bag.

“Hearing wolves from a distance is disturbing sometimes,” he said. “It will raise the hair on the back of your neck from a distance, but these wolves were close. Not only were these wolves close, but they were moving closer to us.”

Because of condensation from his breath, his sleeping bag had frozen shut. The pack was nearing.

Hewitt yelled as loudly as he could. The wolves passed.

“I had never been afraid of wolves, but I am now,” he said.

Last year, Hewitt, 59, was the first person to complete the race unsupported. Where the other racers stopped at night in villages to sleep and used bags dropped at post offices to replenish their food supplies, the Unity man did it alone.

He carried 2 12 pounds of food for each of the 24 days he was out on the trail, as well as a gallon of fuel to heat snow to make drinking water.

“There's a comfort level. If I didn't have that, I would've never thought I could go unsupported. ... I thought I could get it done,” he said.

The Hewitts, along with Rick Freeman of Peters Township, organize the Laurel Highlands Ultra Race, either 31 or 70 12 miles on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail.

All three are headed to Alaska again this year to compete, beginning on Sunday.

“I like the fact that you're responsible for yourself, and you have everything you need on your sled,” said Loreen Hewitt, 57.

Both run daily and often practice pulling their 30-pound sleds with daylong and overnight treks on the hiking trail in Somerset County.

The recent polar vortex was nothing for these travelers, who often must brave temperatures well below freezing. Freeman, 55, said his ideal conditions include anything from 5 degrees below zero to 5 above.

“It doesn't take long to acclimate. It's amazing how fast your body gets used to the temperature,” he said.

Tim Hewitt said he often can feel one of his toes get cold, indicating that he should warm his core temperature.

“As soon as that toe starts to get cold, that's kind of my canary in the coal mine,” he said.

The three often will go at their own pace, catching up with each other at some points, but other times hiking solo, Freeman said.

“They're intense,” he said. “Tim doesn't like to stop for any reason.”

All three locals said the trek is worth it for the beauty of the serene wilderness, wolves aside.

“It's complete highs and complete lows. … There are times when you just want out, and there are times when you say, ‘I'm so lucky I get to do this,' ” Tim Hewitt said.

His wife, who has family from Michigan, said the course reminds her of the landscape there. This year, she will try to take on the 1,000 miles for the third time, instead of stopping after 350 miles.

“It's a gorgeous trail. You get to see a lot of different parts of Alaska and different people,” she said.

Freeman said he enjoys seeing the Northern Lights shine miles and miles away from any other civilization.

“The trail always throws different challenges at you,” he said.

The race, like life, is accomplished by focusing on a goal and remaining determined, Tim Hewitt said.

“You have to have a goal, and you're not going to get there right away. You're going to have failures along the way. It's just a matter of maintaining focus, so you're moving in that direction,” he said. “It's just like going to Nome: Eventually, if you put one foot in front of the other long enough, you will get there.”

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or sfederoff@tribweb.com.

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