Skimming across the snow-covered landscape near Fairbanks, Alaska, in a small sled pulled by eight athletic Alaskan huskies was an exhilarating experience that you don’t get in my native Kentucky.
It’s also an experience you don’t get in Alaska unless you go during the winter, a time many groups don’t think about visiting our northernmost state.
However, my wife, Marcheta, and I discovered that while winter can be a challenging time to visit Alaska, it also provides fascinating perspectives and opportunities not available at other times of the year.
The folks at John Hall’s Alaska Cruises and Tours, longtime providers of summer trips to Alaska, realized the same thing and last year inaugurated an 11-day Iditarod and Aurora Adventure that capitalizes on two Alaska features that can only be savored in winter — the Iditarod dogsled race and the aurora borealis, or northern lights.
“We got feedback from our guests. People said they wanted to go in winter; they wanted to see the aurora,” said John Hall III, son of the company founder, who helps run the company with brother Joe and sister Elizabeth.
We joined 26 other adventurous travelers on this year’s tour in early March.
‘The Last Great Race”
We were quickly introduced to the Iditarod, a challenging race of more than 1,000 miles over frozen rivers, tundra, mountains and windswept Bering Sea coastline from Anchorage to Nome in sometimes brutal conditions that can reach 45 degrees below zero and lower.
Promoters proudly call it “The Last Great Race.”
Our first stop after arriving in Anchorage was the Iditarod Trail Headquarters in nearby Wasilla, where you are greeted by a statue of Joe Reddington Sr., who founded the race 43 years ago, holding a husky. Although mostly a gift shop (it is the best place to buy Iditarod souvenirs), the building has a small museum room that shows an informative video that gives good background on the race and the amazing dogs.
The next day was spent at the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, about an hour up the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet from Anchorage, where we had a choice of activities, including riding snowmachines (that’s what snowmobiles are called in Alaska), snowshoeing, skiing or visiting a wildlife refuge. Marcheta and I opted for a massage at the spa, followed by a tram ride 2,300 feet up to the top of Mount Alyeska and lunch at the resort’s white-tablecloth Seven Glaciers restaurant, with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and the skiers headed down the steep slopes.
That evening, we got an exposure to how big the Iditarod is in Alaska as we joined nearly 2,000 people at the kick-off Mushers Banquet at the downtown convention center, during which the 85 mushers who took part in this year’s race drew for starting positions.
“It’s the most logistically challenging event in the world,” said Mark Nordman, the director of the race, a few days later at one of the more than 20 checkpoints where a cadre of volunteer veterinarians inspected the dogs, and the mushers could rest and pick up supplies. “There are no roads; everything has to be flown in by plane.”
Our group had flown to the small town of McGrath, about an hour and a half northwest of Fairbanks, in three small planes, the same way extra food, bedding and supplies are flown to the race teams for the Iditarod.
“It’s huge in the state,” said Nordman. “It’s our Super Bowl. It’s a really big deal.”
We experienced that excitement the next morning as we walked among the mushers and their dogs as they prepared for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in downtown Anchorage, where truckloads of stored snow had been spread along several blocks of Fourth Avenue.
“The first thing you will notice is the noise: It’s near deafening as the dogs come to the starting line,” said John Gailey, the land tour manager for John Hall’s Alaska.
And he was right. We positioned ourselves near the starting line and watched as the eager teams of 16 dogs yelped, jumped up and down with excitement and strained at their harnesses in anticipation before being given the “Go!” by their drivers.
“These dogs want to do this,” said Gailey. “They are highly tuned, highly trained athletes. They are trained to run.”
The teams drove for a couple of miles through the streets of Anchorage before stopping and being shipped about 40 miles north to Willow, where the official race started the next day. That afternoon, we drove to the Talkeetna Lodge, overlooking Denali National Park, our home for the next two nights.