By Matt Kane
DELANO Early mornings in white-out conditions on treacherous sea ice and choppy terrain for 45 hours over the course of seven days doesn’t sound like much of a snowmobiling joy ride, but Steve Swenson and his riding partner, Bob Menne III, battled such trying conditions on their Polaris XCR Switchback snowmobiles for more than 2,000 miles in last month in a vast, unfamiliar place.
“It was like somebody took a white five-gallon pail and put it on your head,” said Swenson of the white-out conditions while crossing Norton Bay to get from Unalakleet to Kayuk in western Alaska. “All we could do was follow our GPS going out to sea, knowing land was behind us.”
Sound fun, yet?
The conditions Alaska presents in February tested both Swenson, 52, and Menne, 53, who met as coworkers at Polaris in the 1990s, but the big picture helped them throttledonward.
“You think ‘How bad is this? I’m snowmobiling in Alaska.’ That made it more enjoyable,” said Swenson of the trek that ran Feb. 17-25. “Sometimes you didn’t want to be there, but your realized there were worse things.”
One of those worse things gave Swenson a purpose and a goal for participating in the Iron Dog, a 2,031-mile Alaskan race that follows the path used for the Iditarod Dog Sled Race, from Big Lake, to Nome to Fairbanks. The Iron Dog is the world’s longest snowmobile race.
In 2013, at the age of 16, Swenson’s oldest son, Mitchell, severely injured his spinal chord in a crash while trail-riding on his dirt bike.
The injury left Mitchell paralyzed and put him in a wheelchair, but, through intense rehabilitation at the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Golden Valley, Mitchell has regained some core strength, and, at his high school graduation in 2016, was able to walk with his classmates.
“When he was paralyzed, the surgeon said [Mitchell] wouldn’t walk again,” Swenson said. “He walked at his graduation, using forearm crutches. That was really neat.”
Mitchell is still unable to walk on his own, but, now, at the age of 21, he is back to doing what he and his dad love riding snowmobiles.
“I’m doing pretty well,” Mitchell said.
Because of how much the Courage Kenny center and its Activity-Based Locomotor Exercise progarm (ABLE) helped his son, Swenson wanted to provide others the means to rehabilitate in the ABLE Program.
“If we are going to do this, I wanted to bring some value to it for others. What better way,” Swenson said when decidding to turn the Iron Dog into a personal charity run. “It all came together.”
Sponsors Lube-Tech, CP Diecasting and Polaris Racing covered the majority of the $35,000 it took for Swenson just to get to the starting line. That coverage allowed Swenson to ride for pledges.
The goal was $15,000 through pledges and donations.
“I achieved that goal,” he said. “That equals 12 weeks of therapy at Courage Kenny.”
Actually, as of Wednesday, Swenson’s ride raised $17,300 for an ABLE scholarship. That money will go a long way, according to Courage Kenny Foundation President Stephen Bariteau.
“Steve’s efforts will provide scholarship funds to help those who need ABLE to get into the program. A full scholarship is $8,000. Therefore, Steve’s impact could provide two full scholarships to help people,” Bariteau explained. “Scholarship funds are needed because insurance pays a fraction of this important physical fitness intervention. With this reality, our clients and families rely on scholarship funds in order to receive the benefits of the ABLE program. The community, including Steve and his race partner, play a vital role in helping Courage Kenny clients.”
Mitchell Swenson, who knows what it’s like to need the ABLE Program applauds his dad’s want to give back.
“I think it’s a cool thing of him to do something like this to help the other people who aren’t fortunate to be able to go to the ABLE program at Courage Kenny in Golden Valley,” said Mitchell, who is studying automation robotics in engineering and technology at Hennepin Technical College in Eden Prairie.
Mitchell isn’t the only one proud of and grateful for his dad’s effort.
“Individuals like Steve and his riding partner are excellent ambassadors for Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute clients and their families,” said Bariteau, who noted that a snowmobile endurance race is a first when it comes to fundraising for Courage Kenny. “Their words and actions demonstrate a level of support and commitment, which impact the lives of those we serve. Their involvement also gives additional opportunities to tell the story about Courage Kenny’s ABLE program, likely in a way and with an audience we may not normally reach with our own efforts.”
Back in the saddle
Swenson was an avid snowmobiler while growing up in Hamel and while working at Polaris, but his sled time lessened significantly as he aimed his focus on his family, which includes wife, Darcy, sons Mitchell and Nicholas, 18, and daughter Brooke, 15.
“I [rode] for 30-plus years, but put it aside to spend time with family, so I could watch the kids do their sports,” he explained.
In recent years, motorcycles have replaced snowmobiles as the go-to machine, as Nicholas, a college student at Iowa State and an AMA enduance champion, embarks on a professional riding career.
“I really just jumped back into it this winter,” Swenson said of serious snowmobiling.
Riding in a cross country race was nothing new to Swenson. On a snowmobile in the 1980s, he competed in the Jeep I-500 that ran from Thunder Bay, Ontario to St. Paul during the St. Paul Winter Carnival before it was altered, and, on top of a motorcycle, he traveled to Portugal in 1999 and competed in the International Six Days Enduro (ISDE), which Swenson referred to as “Olympics of Motorcycling.”
That endurance race in Portugal was almost two decades ago. And his riding time on a snowmobile had greatly decreased since his heydays. But, the opportunity to give the Iron Dog ride a purpose convinced Swenson to test his endurance once again.
“My teammate asked if I would do this race in Alaska, and I said, ‘Yah, if we can put it to good use and raise money for the ABLE program at Courage Kenny Center,’ said Swenson.
Swenson and Menne showed their own courage and determination throughout the Iron Dog, and became one of 21 teams out of the starting field of 29 to finish the race. They finished in 16th place, with the official riding time of 47 hours, 28 minutes, 24 seconds (48:28:24).
“For a couple of old guys, we were pretty happy with our results,” said Swenson.
The race in Alaska quenched Swenson’s thirst for giving back, and also his love of everything, both, snowmobiling and motorcyling.
“Action, speed, man-and-machine against nature-and-the environment. Adrenaline and visual stimulation,” Swenson listed when asked whay he loves riding. “I also love the decision-making process, as it demands quick decisions. And living with the danger also adds excitement.”
The Iron Dog winner was the Alaska team of Mike Morgan and Chris Olds, who crossed the finish line at 36:54:49.