Gates of the Arctic: Adventures in Northern Alaska

The dogs run along the frozen river then bound up the bank and through a willow, aspen and birch forest. A fine spray of powdery snow kicked up by the dogs flies into our faces, and Lisa and I laugh with the exhilaration of speed. We lean into turns, but tumble gently out on one sharp turn, laughing, like tipped-over toddlers in snowsuits. Dave calls “whoa!” and the dogs stop and wait for us to catch up and climb in again, to experience yet more of the thrill.

Back at the lodge, we settle in to visit with other guests before dinner. The lodge chef swings into the room with a tray of a regional delicacy: moose meat, prepared teriyaki-style. As I enjoy the rich, full flavor, the chef tells us how this particular hors d’oeuvre came to be. “It’s Jeanne’s moose,” she says.

Jeanne Stevens, a petite Athabascan elder, has run the town’s post office since she was in her teens. In her late 70s now, she still zips around on a snowmobile, has her own riverboat for fishing, and hunts moose; our appetizer is the result of her most recent hunting expedition.

After dinner, Jeanne herself drops in to meet the latest lodge guests. She speaks quietly, in short statements, as if the rest of her thoughts are dissipated by the vast spareness of the landscape.

She invites us to visit her place, and we tramp up the stairs above the post office and enter her apartment, which is filled with museum-quality native art ranging from beaded fur mukluk sealskins or hide boots and parkas to an astonishingly elaborate beaded map of Alaska featuring its flora and fauna, designed and crafted by Jeanne.

During the hour-long visit, we learn that Jeanne has been faithfully passing along her skills to the younger generation in beading workshops. I am entranced with the warmth of this woman who doesn’t even know any of us, but who opens her home to us with such a spirit of generosity.

There are still several more nights to go, as well as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and evenings filled with the tales of visiting townsfolk and the camaraderie of this small outpost with a big heart. Yet now it’s time to rest for the night. While I sleep, the lodge hosts will stay up and monitor the skies.

Partway through the night, alerted by lodge hosts, we tumble out of our dreams and, bundled up, stroll through the glowing snow, to be greeted by cool green flames of light flickering above nearby treetops. The flames grow in size, then a tinge of pink seeps into the edges, like a paintbrush touched to a wet canvas. The broad bands of light form into curls and tendrils, pulsing a yet more vivid green, then trail off into the wide spaces of frozen peaks and broad river valleys in Alaska’s great white interior.

If You Go

Gates of the Arctic National Park: Bettles

Alaska Tourism Office

Bettles Lodge & Bettles Air
Bettles Air, owned and operated by Bettles Lodge, provides wilderness transportation to and from Fairbanks and throughout the Brooks Range. Lodge owners Dan and Lynda Klaes offer numerous tour options year-round, ranging from fishing, hiking and photography day trips to visits to gold-mining camps, flightseeing and river float trips.



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