Gates of the Arctic: Adventures in Northern Alaska

Winter sports here include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding, snowmobiling and flightseeing over the muscular Brooks Range. Then there’s the most popular wintertime reason to visit Bettles: aurora-watching.

Due to its spectacular weather — Bettles has the most clear days of any settlement in Alaska, according to the National Weather Service — and its distance from city lights, the town has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best places to glimpse the aurora borealis. The lodge even has a heated aurora-viewing cabin alongside a nearby river for guests who wish to enjoy nature’s laser show in seclusion.

It’s afternoon when several lodge guests and I pay a visit to Dave King, a veteran dogsled racer, who will take us for a dogsled tour. As we pull into his snow-covered yard, dozens of dogs outside their doghouses bark excitedly and pull at their chains, jumping into the air with excitement. Dave brings out a perky-eared snow-white young husky named Vixen, and pats her as he talks about racing.

Alaska is full of natural beauty.
Arrigetch Peaks, in Gates of the Arctic National Park, are a stunning sight.

It’s immediately clear that racing is equal parts athleticism, psychological strength and science. “I like looking at snow and figuring out how abrasive it is, and what’s happening with it at different temperatures,” says Dave. It helps me know what the dogs have to deal with.”

To deal with the extreme demands of racing, Dave’s dogs consume some 13,000 calories a day while on a course such as the Yukon Quest, an extreme, 1000-mile (1,609 km) gauntlet from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Canada, which King has run several times. “You finish each race with new information that makes you want to try again the next year. That’s what keeps me coming back.”

Dave strides among the eager dogs, selecting the lead dogs, Rocky and Suva, and others to fill in the team of 12. Once hitched up, the dogs dash out of the yard with Dave on the runners. These are athletes, and Dave needs to give them a chance to run full-out before our rides. After dipping down to the nearby river and traversing a three-mile (4.8 km) course through the woods, Dave and his team swing back and pick up me and Lisa, a lodge guest.

We settle down into the sled, and we’re off with a tinkling of neck chains, the excited panting of the dogs and the scraping of the runners on the snow. The dogs sprint along the road for a brief period then duck off into the trees along a snowmobile track. As we pass through a clearing next to a stream, the snow — half snowflakes and half ice shards — glitters like millions of crystals.

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