By LJ Evans
It started with a garbage truck. At least that’s how Darrin “Bear” Edson and Ted Hetrick explain how they began being Nanook.
They drove the garbage truck in the mid-1990s as part of their jobs with Facilities Services. The longtime co-workers and friends are huge UAF hockey fans, so they decked the truck out with school insignia and wired a giant stuffed polar bear with crossed hockey sticks on the front. To promote the hockey theme on the days of a home game, they hooked up speakers and played loud rock ‘n’ roll as they made their rounds. They carried this zeal right into the Carlson Center.
“I was going to all the hockey games with my family, and I noticed there was no mascot anymore,” Edson says. The student who had worn a white bear costume to fire up the crowd had graduated and moved on. Edson and Hetrick asked then athletic director Randy Pitney, ’72, and equipment manager Ken Larimore, ’79, ’85, ’97, if they could play dual mascots. Edson thinks they suited up as Nanook and Hat Trick for their first game in fall 1996. Edson was the friendly Nanook, the one the kids all loved, and Hat Trick was the one with attitude — his costume head had teeth, and he growled.
“The original suits weren’t very polar-bear-looking,” Edson says. Larimore remembers them bearing more resemblance to another species altogether.
“Most of the first ones we had looked like white wolves,” he says.
The fans got it, though. Edson and Hetrick had fun goofing around with the crowd at the hockey games, so they also started going to basketball and volleyball games. They were a hit every time they showed up.
They also appeared in the Fairbanks Golden Days parade with the other UAF participants and floats. The first year they walked the whole way, on a typical hot July day, in full costume.
“Never again,” they both groan.
“Wearing that suit is like sitting in a sauna and breathing through a straw,” Edson says.
Now they ride in a three-wheeled cart that they’ve decorated, of course, in UAF colors and insignia. Edson drives and Hetrick stands up in the back, wearing the bear suit, tossing out candy for kids all along the parade route.
Multiple personality bearOver the years, long before Edson and Hetrick took on the role, a number of students, staff and fans — female as well as male — have played the bear. The UAF sports mascot has been the polar bear since the 1930s, and in 1963 the Polar Bears became the Nanooks, from the Inupiaq word for polar bear. There isn’t a record of when the first polar bear suit appeared, nor of all the people who’ve played the role, but there have been many.
Even Larimore recalls being pressed into service a few times. Once in the 1980s the coach asked him to be the bear for a women’s volleyball game. Most of the time Nanook wears a hockey jersey, but that night Larimore wore a pair of basketball trunks over the bear suit. A former student was at the game with her newborn baby.
“She handed me the baby to hold, which was cute, great, no problem.”
But the young mom had arranged for a couple of guys to come up behind Larimore and yank the basketball shorts down around the bear’s feet. The crowd howled with laughter, but Larimore was totally unfazed. He just shuffled off toward the Patty Center lobby with the baby cradled safely and firmly in his arms.