Virginia man embarks on solo race against nature

Posted March 01, 2013, at 1:49 p.m.

LYNCHBURG, Va. — A few weeks ago, Russ Simpson went up against the elements in a self-designed snowmobile trip where he faced challenging courses, harsh weather, surprises in nature and solitude.

“It was me versus nature. And it was me versus me, too,” said Simpson, of Faber, a week after returning. He talked from his shop, the Apple Shed, located on U.S. 29.

Simpson is no stranger to the sport of snowmobiling. He planned to compete in the big Iron Dog race in Alaska last year as a way to bring awareness to melanoma, something he was diagnosed with in 2007, but was unable to because he didn’t have a team. He instead planned this trip so he could continue training and get long distance experience, possibly preparing him for attempting the Iron Dog race again.

He continued his strenuous conditioning and workout sessions, even after the unsuccessful run in Alaska. And although he didn’t race, Simpson refused to give up and tried to look on the bright side, viewing it as a learning experience.

His 628-mile trip this year began in Greenville, Maine on Feb. 13. It ended in the afternoon on Feb. 15 back in Greenville after looping up through Quebec. He spent about 13 hours on trails for the first two days and a few hours on the last day.

“I’m glad I did this, this year,” he said. “It kept my interests up.”

Since he was not competing in an organized race, Simpson did not have the safety measures and air support usually in place for the riders. Instead, he carried a survival kit, which had food, shelter, a lighter and a buck knife. He also had a cellphone, and would call a friend in Nelson every day at 7:30 p.m. to check in and let him know he was OK. However, the phone did not have a strong signal, and he did not have a satellite phone.

Because of the possible danger, Simpson left out details of the trip when he described it to his wife and mother. When his mother heard about the trip after, Simpson said she asked if he had lost his mind.

However, Simpson said battling melanoma has changed his outlook on life, eliminating stress and giving him courage.

While out there, he said, he wasn’t afraid. He said he wasn’t reckless and was comfortable with his skills and knowledge of the outdoors.

“I felt I could deal with every situation,” he said.

Simpson planned his trip to test him on challenges he would face in Alaska, including un-groomed trails, freezing temperatures, fast speeds and narrow paths. It helped him sharpen his agility and precision on the 600-pound machine.

“When you get on tight trails at night, you’ve really got to be on your toes,” he said, mentioning animals, like moose, would dart out from the trees.

The differences between the Maine and Quebec portions were stark, most notably in the number of riders out there. During his ride through Canada, Simpson saw a lot of chimney smoke, but few people, while in Maine he would often come across small groups of snowmobilers. Simpson was often questioned on his trip because he was riding alone, something that is not done up there, he said.

Simpson also detected a temperature difference across the border.

“When I got into Canada, it seemed like the temperatures just bottomed out,” he said.

The temperature hovered around five degrees with the wind chill. He would occasionally have to lift and wipe his balaclava because it kept freezing. When he was riding, it would feel like 20 below. The cold was the biggest challenge, he said.

His favorite part of the trip was meeting local people. Although he doesn’t speak French, he still had pleasant interactions with the French Canadians. The language barrier did pose a few challenges, primarily in spreading his message on proper skin care and the dangers of melanoma.

Simpson said this experience was a much better experience than last year’s attempt at the Iron Dog competition in Alaska, where he was unable to compete because he didn’t have a team. He said this trip helped wipe away the frustrations of last year.

“It was like getting thrown from the horse and getting back on,” he said. “It felt so good.”

Although the last trip didn’t pan out as expected, he was able to learn a lot from the top racers, which he put to use on this adventure.

Some of the skills he picked up were how to make tight turns on the narrow roads and skim across the tops of snow drifts on bumpy trails instead of riding up and down them.

This trip has inspired Simpson with future plans, he said, including a similar trip with riders from the area, and encouraging snowmobilers in Maine to have long-distance races. Currently, most races in Maine are 100 miles. Simpson said he enjoys racing, but has difficulties finding competitions in the area.

“It’s something I love to do,” he said. “I love snowmobiling. I like the speed, and I like to hone my skills.”

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

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