Mechanical engineering student project channels The Call of the Wild
Author: Julie Rutherford, Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science
Posted: March 1, 2016

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race cuts through nearly 1,000 miles of breathtakingly brutal Alaskan terrain. With blizzards and subzero temperatures the norm, the trek from the small town of Willow to Nome is a race against both the clock and the elements. Thanks to a Portland State University student one Iditarod musher will be equipped with a highly-efficient and indispensable piece of equipment in time for the 2016 race: an ultra-light, compact and high-capacity stove.

A typical dog sled offers very little extra storage space, and unnecessary weight will only require extra effort from the dog team, so Iditarod mushers tend to pack light and carry only essentials. Per race rules, they are each required to bring a cold weather sleeping bag, ax, snowshoes, protective booties for each dog, and an operational “musher cooker” and pot capable of boiling at least three gallons of water. Mushers use the cooker to melt snow and to thaw food for themselves and for each member of their pack, which is typically 14 dogs at the Iditarod start.

Aimee Ritter, a junior mechanical engineering major who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, teamed up with civil engineering technician Tom Bennett to revamp a cooker for Iditarod musher Lisbet Norris. Bennett, an active member of the non-profit mountaineering education organization Mazamas, connected with Norris through mutual friends.

PSU student Joe Ladd, who helped etch the lid, Ritter and Bennett pose with the final cooker.

“Lisbet said she was preparing for her first Iditarod in March 2014 and when I asked her how the preparations were going she said her cooker was too big and too heavy for her sled,” said Bennett. “I told her that I worked out of the Machine Shop at PSU and then she challenged me to get some students to make her a cooker.”

Bennett produced the first iteration of the PSU cooker for Norris in 2014. Ritter’s design is version three.

“Traditional cookers are constructed out of a five-gallon bucket and an aluminum pie tin that holds methanol-based fuel. They can take up to 60 minutes to heat properly, and present awkward packing arrangements due to their round shape,” explained Ritter. “The goal was to design something that was stupid easy to operate and as efficient as possible.”   

Her cooker is square, and houses four Vienna Sausage cans that she converted into burners. Each burner is outfitted with a stovepipe and fireproof carbon welding felt. The felt acts as a wick for the fuel and lights more quickly than does tinder. Each element of the cooker, from the arrangements of the ventilation holes to the placement of the burners within, was painstakingly verified to achieve the most efficient design possible.

Her final design is the product of two months of extensive iteration and validation conducted both in the lab and in the field. Anchorage is located within two hours of Willow, and its thriving musher community, so Ritter also was able to personally interview mushers about how their cookers could be improved while home for the summer.  She tested her cooker over winter break and twice transported it to Mt. Hood to test its performance in high winds.

Ritter estimates that her cooker will cut the time it takes to heat in half, allowing Norris a distinct advantage. Bennett is leading a Mazamas outing to the starting line when the Iditarod officially kicks off on March 6.

This project was supported with funding from the Beta Project, a seed funding program to encourage student innovation, and the Undergraduate Research and Mentoring Program. Both opportunities are available to students who attend the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State. 

Ritter and Bennett are now working on a cooker design for Denali National Park rangers, who rely on dogsleds to patrol the park. (Denali Park rangers testing cookers pictured at right).