After spotting a moose, I spot the “Mushing Mortician.” Along the Iditarod Trail, in Alaska’s snow-coated wilderness, 57-year-old funeral home owner Scott Janssen barks, “Straight! Straight!” to his sled dogs barreling toward a checkpoint 311 miles into the famed, grueling and controversial 1,000-mile race. Nearby, canine teams rest on scattered straw; one musher removes his dogs’ protective booties to rub ointment on their paws while another feeds slabs of Chinook salmon to her hungry pack before the next push.
I’ve arrived at this remote deep-frozen village of McGrath an easier way — by a flightseeing plane that will soon soar us over the Arctic Circle and land in the isolated funky Gold Rush town of Bettles, population 10.
Most tourists flock to Alaska for summer cruises. But late winter offers a behind-the-scenes peek at the spectacular Christmas card beauty, vast solitude and storied mettle of the frosty Last Frontier. Did I mention full-tilt quirkiness? During my 11-day powdery adventure, I do my first-ever hike with antlered guides, including a rambunctious reindeer named Buttercup; come face-to-bearded-face with prehistoric woolly mammals at the “world’s only musk ox farm,” and sip aurora-hued martinis in a neon-aglow ice museum after melting outdoors in natural hot springs. And, huge score! From a mountaintop at night, I awe-strikingly gape at the twirling, morphing, phosphorescent green-and-pink Northern Lights.
This is all part of a John Hall’s Alaska Tour that my husband and I take in early March. The all-inclusive unique itinerary, created by the family-owned company, is packed with activities (snowmobiling to a crystalline-blue glacier, curling lessons, an ice art exhibition boasting a chiseled Mongolian warrior) along with caveman-portion meals only found in a state one-fifth the size of the Lower 48. Guests even receive a keepsake sub-zero parka, although at times temps hit a balmy 20 degrees. Our bus journey, about 360 talc-white miles from Anchorage to Fairbanks, is a roadshow itself as lively tour escort Danielle Bailey points out only-in-Alaska landmarks: The McDonald’s in Wasilla where a black bear climbed through the drive-thru window at night and was discovered feasting on ketchup packets when the manager opened up. The bear break-in occurred not far from Sarah Palin’s home and the Mug-Shot Saloon.
We begin in Anchorage as Alaska celebrates its pioneer grit at the 83rd annual Fur Rondy festival that features locals costumed as toilets-on-skis for shivery outhouse races. Fur Rondy coincides with the 46th annual Iditarod, which is under a cloud before it starts: There’s the 2017 scandal when a champion musher’s dogs tested positive for banned painkillers, the loss of top sponsors, and increasing pressure from animal rights activists who cite chained living conditions, abusive treatment and deaths of dogs. Mushers are adamant about how much they love their “bred-to-run athletes” — Iditarod king Rick Swenson adored his multi-winning lead dog Andy so much he had him stuffed and mounted after the husky-mutt died at age 18 in 1993. I see furry Andy on display at the Iditarod’s log cabin museum.
Before the informal Mushers Banquet, we attend a “meet-and-greet” cocktail gathering with the 67 contenders, a quarter of them women. They’re all very nice and chatty when I politely question what seems like an insane, treacherous tradition for four- and two-legged creatures. One musher tells me about hallucinating semi-trucks on the wind-whipped barren tundra and another about falling asleep at 3 a.m. and crashing into the solid Yukon River. Another racer, raising awareness for pediatric diseases, will carry the ashes of a 3-day-old baby girl in his sled.
At the rib-eye banquet, competitors pick bib numbers from a native mukluk boot and the next morning, with sled dogs yipping, yapping and powerfully pulling their harnesses, the Iditarod’s 11-mile ceremonial start dashes through fan-cheering downtown Anchorage. The following day, we’re at the race’s official start in Willow about 80 miles away.
On a calmer note, at a 1930s-era homestead in nearby Palmer, our group bonds with Ice Age musk ox. They look like bison who mated with Cousin Itt. About 80 of the shaggy, long-haired, rare ruminants lumber about — and play tetherball with their thick-horned heads — on the 75-acre nonprofit Musk Ox Farm. When they annually shed, their coats are hand-combed and the quiviut fiber turned into yarn for knitting.
“Alex Trebek is our patron saint,” the farm guide reveals. Turns out the “Jeopardy!” host, smitten with musk ox, is a farm benefactor and known as “Herd Godfather.” (Here is your clue, players: An Arctic animal whose hair is eight times warmer than wool and softer than cashmere.)
Next up is the eccentric tiny hamlet of Talkeetna, the inspiration for the town in TV’s “Northern Exposure.” Our group of 16 is staying at the bluff-top deluxe Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge (off-season we have the 212-room spread to ourselves) when predawn I’m in a lobby rocker drinking coffee under an upright 2,000-pound taxidermied grizzly bear shot by a 10-year-old girl. Slowly, miraculously, a coral-pink sunrise unveils the coveted prize right out the window: all 20,310 feet of elusive Mount Denali, the tallest peak in North America. Most tourists never see the entire mountain because it’s shrouded in cloud cover two-thirds of the time. Afterward, at the icicle-roofed down-home Roadhouse, we pour birch tree syrup over fluffy sourdough pancakes made from a 1902 starter. Our plucky waitress informs us that Stubbs, Talkeetna’s recently deceased mayor of 20 years — he was a tabby cat — has a meowing successor named Denali. She also has us pass around a fossilized walrus penis, an Alaskan souvenir.
This John Hall tour is the “Iditarod & Aurora Adventure,” and I’m obsessed about the latter. At the Talkeetna lodge, full-time “Aurora Hunter” Todd Salat gives a slide presentation about the unpredictable polar phenomena. Basically, the aurora borealis — aka the Northern Lights — results from solar-charged particles and you’ve got to have inky clear skies and no light pollution to have a crack at the most sought-after cosmic show.
Our best shot is north in Fairbanks. That’s where we join the herd at Running Reindeer Ranch for a comically enchanting daytime walk. Owner/reindeer guru Jane Atkinson first lays out ground rules about our seven hoofed escorts — most notably “Don’t play ‘push the antlers’ game with Jasper.” The 450-pound Jasper sports a helluva intimidating headdress and apparently insists on winning. We also learn crafty Olive will traipse right through the open door of Jane’s house. “She knows she’s not supposed to be inside so she goes into the bedroom to hide and lay down.”
Off we trek into the birch tree-dotted glistening boreal forest with reindeer behind us, or in front, or alongside so we can pet them, or roughhousing with each other (this is when you back up really fast). Young Margarita nuzzles her nose inside my coat. At one point, Buttercup is antler-gaiting me, then she dashes around and the “rip” I hear are her horns snagging my Velcro shoulder pocket.
After dinner, we’re in Fairbanks’ boonies gabbing over beers with folksy owners Ron and Shirley at their kitsch-crammed Chatanika Lodge saloon, its rafters plastered with thousands of visitor-signed dollar bills and a 1955 red Thunderbird parked inside. Out back around midnight we excitedly catch our first glimpse of the aurora, but it’s only a couple of hazy lime-toned bands that quickly fade.
Our very last day, we’re farther from Fairbanks staying at Chena Hot Springs Resort. In the morning, snow flurries cascade on hubby and me as we blissfully turn to rubber and my ponytail to permafrost in the 1905-discovered steamy springs of a boulder-rimmed man-made lake. That afternoon, we watch a sculptor carve our ice martini glasses before we plop on caribou fur-clad ice stools and belly up to the Aurora Ice Museum’s bar to lap appletinis. Later, our group piles into snowcats for an ultra-bumpy half-hour ride up a secluded mountain; standing in pillowy drifts, we toast the magnificent setting sun with Champagne. Yes, skies have amazingly cleared.
Around 9, I’m consuming a vat of vegetarian curry in the lounge when someone yells, “The aurora is starting!” Outside, it’s as if a luminous green funnel cloud touched down. I soon ride a snowcat back up the mountain for a sensational 360-degree view among gangly snow-draped spruce trees straight out of Dr. Seuss. In the bone-chilling pin-drop quiet wilderness, between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., Mother Nature delivers a doozy. The electrifying aurora repeatedly spirals up like genies, then flattens into wiggling chartreuse curtains underlined with magenta streaks. I can’t believe my lucky stars. But there they are, brightly piercing an emerald, otherworldly tango in the incomparable 49th state.
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