Street in charming Talkeetna is quiet in winter,
unlike summer when tourists swarm.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
is a freelance travel writer.)
Hall’s Alaska offers various winter and summer tours.
Reservations aren’t being taken yet for the "Iditarod
& Aurora Adventure" in 2019 and 2020, but you can
contact the company to get on the wait-list for priority
booking, www.kissalaska.com, (800) 325-2270.