The steady thrum of the Cessna 206 engine is drowned out by a crackle of static, followed by an enthusiastic voice over my green headphones.“Now thisis Alaska!” enthuses our pilot, Tyler Klaes.Below, jagged pinnacles and spires look as if a giant chef has whipped a bowl of cream into stiff, frothy peaks.
The endless variations of pitched angles and triangular blue-gray shadows, combined with the banking of the plane, gives me the sensation of looking through an immense, horizon-to-horizon kaleidoscope.
Flying To Alaska
We’re flying over the 7,000-foot-high (2,134 m) Arrigetch Peaks, the most awe-inspiring array of upthrust summits in the 8.4 million-acre (33,994 km²) Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, in Alaska’s Brooks Range.
To my left, frozen waterfalls cascade down the shady side of an immense block of snow-dusted granite. We draw closer, and then pass into the shadow of the monolith.
“This one is called Xanadu,” Tyler says. Just beyond, a ridge shaped like a giant, uprooted tree stump reaches skyward. Another peak spirals gracefully inward like a nautilus, with shell-thin edges.
From these jumbled crags flow numerous tributaries of four major rivers: the Colville, which flows north to the Arctic, the Noatak and the Kobuk.
Which course west to the Chukchi Sea, and the Koyukuk, flowing south to the Yukon.
Tyler calls out the names of the pinnacles as we bank around them: “The Albatross … Pyramid … Shot Tower … Battleship.”
The names sound straight out of a Star Wars – like movie in which good battles evil, and stone damsels with names like East Maiden (yet another of the peaks) face down hulking, white-cloaked villains.
The late afternoon sunlight is turning the granite and limestone faces a warm golden color with tinges of rosy pink as our plane banks southward, toward the village of Bettles, where I’m staying on this expedition of wintry wonder.
As we leave the mountains behind, we follow the broad Alatna River valley. Below, the snow-capped river twines like old-fashioned ribbon candy in loops so tight that, in places, it seems to form figure-eights.
“We’re only 600 feet (183 m) above sea level here, so there’s not much gravity acting on the rivers,” says Tyler. “They meander around and get pretty ropey.”
Frozen lakes pock the surface, bright-white circles on the dark surface of white spruce and birch forests. Tyler flies low over the treetops.
“See those heavy-looking tracks?” he asks, motioning to a dark line in the snow alongside a frozen stream. “Those are moose. Caribou make lighter-looking tracks.”
Moments later, the plane turns in a slow arc over a moose cow and calf standing in hip-deep snow, before we descend to the Bettles airstrip.
Bettles is alongside the Koyukuk River, at the southern end of the Brooks Range. It’s 180 miles (290 km) northwest of Fairbanks and 35 miles (56 km) north of the Arctic Circle, in Alaska’s expansive interior.
I’ve come here in the middle of winter to experience Alaska in its mantle of powdery-soft snow, its threadlike frozen rivers winding through patches of boreal forest, capped by a dome of robin’s-egg-blue sky.
I’ve never been to Alaska in the winter, and my imagination has embroidered a landscape of deep snow drifts and extreme cold.
Yet, when our plane from Fairbanks settles down onto the runway outside Bettles Lodge, I’m surprised to find just knee-deep snow, as fine as sand.
Bettles is a small village of a few dozen houses, a weather station, post office, ranger station and two lodges run by Dan and Lynda Klaes (our pilot, Tyler, is their son):
Bettles Lodge, a rough-hewn log structure built in 1948 that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Aurora Lodge, a simple, comfortable inn built in 1994.
The town is accessible only by aircraft much of the year. (In winter, villagers build “The Ice Road,” a temporary link to the nearest highway by packing down the snow along an old trail; the “highway” crosses two rivers.)
Bettles is populated by Athabascans and Inupiats who have lived on the land for many generations, as well as other hardy souls who have drifted to this remote outpost to provide services to visitors.
Despite being a tiny community, Bettles looms large as a base camp for adventure. As many as 90 percent of the Gates of the Arctic backcountry visitors use Bettles as their transportation hub into northern Alaska.
The Summertime in Alaska
Summertime options for outdoors enthusiasts abound, ranging from float trips down the region’s untamed rivers to hiking, fishing, camping, rock climbing, wildlife viewing and bird watching.
The mountains transform in summer, with lakes turning into emerald pools, brilliant glaciers on nearby granite precipices reflecting in their surface.
Summer’s round-the-clock daylight gives visitors the chance to enjoy exceptionally long days of activity.
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.
A Visit to Dave King
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.
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.
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.
Back to Our Lodge
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.