Race day finally arrived in the Icebox of the nation and our film crew found themselves toasting bagels and swilling coffee at the BestValue Inn in International Falls in preparation for their 5:45 AM crew call to film the Arrowhead 135.
The dark Monday morning was much warmer then expected, a full 30 degrees above zero! We loaded our gear with apprehensive excitement in anticipation of the unknown. Everyone had their assignments and knew what to do, but we had no idea how it would go.
We were about to capture one of the toughest races on our planet, the Arrowhead 135, which began in International Falls and followed a snowmobile trail 135 miles through Voyeguer’s National Park and beyond, all the way to Fortune Bay Casino. Racers were allotted 60 hours to complete the course and chose their mode of travel prior to the start by foot, bicycle or skis. There were only three checkpoints along the way and many, many miles of frosty wilderness. Completely self-supported and carrying their own provisions, 138 racers launched down the trail for an epic adventure and only 35% of them crossed the finish line. It was a relentless race full of unexpected turns.
Our mission was to follow three specific racers: John Storkamp on foot, Bonnie Moebeck on bike and Mark Scotch on skis. Each of these competitors were gracious enough to join our crew a few days prior to the race for interviews and shots on the trail. We were joined by Colin Threinen and Scott Banac of Cine Flight Pictures with their alien-like octocopter (8-blade helicopter) and Jeff Engel on his snowmobile to hit the trail and capture some exceptional aerial and steadicam footage.
Interviews and aerial shots in the can, we waited for the rest of the crew to arrive in International Falls. As soon as they drove into town, they were put to task filming the pre-race meeting and received their first taste of what was to come. The excitement was high and the questions were many. How would the cameras handle the cold? How would we track our racers for 135 miles through the wilderness? How would our fingers and toes survive waiting at the trail crossings for our selected racers to pass by? We knew of 38 roads that crossed the snowmobile trail. Our plan was to separate into three crews and leap frog those trail crossings for the next 60 hours until the end. The plan worked.
We arrived at race start in the dark and waited. The first task was to find the racers. Mark was spotted right away and Bonnie a few minutes later. We searched and searched for John, who we later found out was rendezvousing at McDonald’s until 8 minutes prior to the start. Eventually, we found him and rolled cameras just in the nick of time. With the race director Dave Pramann illuminated by street light, we caught the spark of the gun and the racers were off! And, so were we.
For the next 50+ hours we jumped from trail crossing to trail crossing tracking our racers. It didn’t take long and Mark shot ahead on skis, while Bonnie and John kept in close distance of each other. We ran. We waited. We shot lots of Instragram photos (#amongthewild) of each other to pass the time. Then, the snow storm hit.
While waiting for the 3 racers at checkpoint one, 35 miles into the race, the snow began to fall. It began light, but didn’t stop. The warm temps made standing outside all day bearable for the film crew, but the racers arrived drenched in sweat and snow, a bad combo for cold weather racing. We began to learn how difficult the trail was becoming for the bikers as the heavy, wet snow piled up higher and higher.
Mark was the first to arrive on skis. He was in good condition and took a break inside the gas station to fuel up and dry off. He told us his energy was starting to drop, but overall, he was doing well and soon he was off. Next came Bonnie and her partner Dave, soaked to the bone. We caught up with them inside as they took a long break to dry their clothes and rest up before heading out again, unaware that the snowfall would soon become relentless. While they were resting, John strode in to slam some Poweraid, take short rest and be off down the trail. They were all still in good spirits, though uncertainty was certain and everyone acknowledged the trail was becoming more difficult. Our crew shifted and a few of us headed back to headquarters for a couple hours of sleep and night began to fall.
With my alarm set for 1:15 AM, my car’s crew was up and packing to head out by 2:00 AM. Sarah Jeffrey, our master chef, had lovingly packed our brown bag lunches and we set out for checkpoint two. However, we barely made it out of the cabin and we were met by the storm. Our cars were blanketed in inches of snow that had fallen in the past few hours. Not comprehending what this meant for the racers, we knew it was bad for us. We had 45 minutes to make it down the highway and a 10-mile gravel road to checkpoint two on unplowed roads. Highway 53 was a breeze, but we were met with deep snow and two ruts to follow the entire 10 miles to the checkpoint at Melgeorge’s resort. We had crossed paths with Brett and Brian Piekarski from our crew who alerted us to the conditions. They informed us they had just pulled a car out of the ditch and our other crew (Chris Hergott and Nikki Aune) had rescued a biker wandering aimlessly down the road. With sleep deprivation setting in and the elements in full force, we pushed forward and made it to checkpoint two.
The scene was beautiful and eerie, like a bicycle graveyard. Piles of bikes were covered in snow outside of the cabin with their lights still blinking in the blackness. We pulled out the cameras and began to shoot, and just as we began to capture the scene, a snowmobile pulled up with Bonnie and her partner Dave. The trail had become nearly impassable for the bikers. We started to hear stories of how the bikers were being forced to push their bikes through 10 inches of snow and many of them were requesting rescues with possibly hours of wait time as the limited number of snowmobile drivers worked endlessly to ensure everyone’s safety.
Bonnie and Dave were out of the race. Exhausted and soaked they took reprieve inside the cabin and we waited for John. We learned that Mark had arrived much faster than expected and by the time crew #3 (Chris, Nikki and Brett) had caught up with him, he was fast asleep for a short break in one of the cabins. They became his personal paparazzi and staked out his door to catch him before he skied off into the night. John, who estimated from past races to be at checkpoint two in about 9 hours, instead arrived 15 hours after leaving checkpoint one. Day had broke, it was still snowing and racers were dropping like flies.
Day #3 is a haze. Crew #1 (Adrian, Cliff, Monte and I) hung out at checkpoint two while John recouped and Bonnie dried out. Crew #2 (Dan, Rick and Laura) were 30+ miles down the trail trying to stay one step ahead of Mark. He was in the lead for skiers and we had to separate our crews to keep track of him. Brett and Brian arrived back at checkpoint two to pick up Bonnie’s bike and give racers a ride back to International Falls. Crew #1 broke for a short nap to be well rested in order to catch the finish. Crew #2 and #3 shared and swapped shifts and to stake out checkpoint 3 for John (they got some great footage of him napping on his Pringles can), while continuing to track Mark. The end was in sight.
Waking up a couple hours after falling asleep, calculations put Mark at the finish line around 10:30 PM, so we aimed to arrive there by 9:00 PM. A mere 20 minutes or so after we pulled in, Mark was closing in. I waited in the bushes below the hill with the walkie talkie to alert the camera at the finish. The night was cool and quiet, and he was clearly visible as he approached lit up by the lights of Fortune Bay Casino. He skied in with grace. It was hardly noticeable he had just skied 135 miles for 38 hours straight. He slowed to talk with me before the finish. I was so proud to watch him ski up the hill and cross the finish line! What an accomplishment! John was still out there and our crews were still tracking him.
Daylight broke again and our crew headed out to the finish one more time. This time we were all there to witness John cross the finish line 51 hours after his first step in International Falls so long ago. The atmosphere was celebratory and John was in good spirits. He strode straight up the hill and over the finish line to talk with us on-camera for some time before heading in.
All the crew had become quite attached to our three racers and felt as though we had raced with them. There was a great sense of pride and accomplishment with smiles all around.
We would like to give a huge thank you to Head O Lake Resort for sponsoring the filming for this event and providing excellent lodging for our crew.
We also need to give a big thank you to our three racers for being willing participants and Dave Pramann, the race director, for letting us be constant presence throughout the race.
And lastly, but definitely not least, I would like to thank the Arrowhead 135 film crew for doing such an amazing job and giving their all under difficult conditions and lack of sleep. I never heard a complaint and they brought home many, many hours of gorgeous footage.
Now, it is time for us to edit. We have hours upon hours of footage to navigate, so it may take some time. But keep your eyes peeled, the plan is to have a short film that will inspire all the racers in Arrowhead 135, 2014.
Photos by Dan McGowan.