Photo: DCrane/Shutterstock

To See the Real Alaska, You Need to Brave the Rugged Winter

Alaska Ski and Snow National Parks Narrative Insider Guides
by Eben Diskin Mar 12, 2020

“You’re driving through Alaska in February?” said my local bartender, looking up from the tap as though I had told her I wanted to wrestle a polar bear. “You know the highway is, like, a huge sheet of ice, right? If you don’t have four-wheel drive, you’re screwed.”

As it turns out, she was born and raised in Fairbanks, and I was suddenly terrified of what I had signed up for.

Alaska holds an interesting place in the American consciousness. In a country with few real wildernesses left to explore, Alaska is the final frontier, a land largely unspoiled by industry and development where humans happily take a backseat to the natural world. It’s also a state that occupies two different realities — one in the summer, the other in winter.

Summer means kayaking through Kenai Fjords National Park, camping along the Tanana River, and hiking in Denali. The warm months are tourist season for a reason. They allow you to enjoy the state’s diverse geography unencumbered by 17 layers of thermal shirts. But if you want to experience the real Alaska, you have to wait until the days shorten, temperatures drop below zero, and 10-foot snowdrifts are a common sight. Because winter in Alaska is different than winter everywhere else.

In Alaska, winter is a way of life. Temperature gauges regularly read -30°F. Summer hiking trails are replaced by unpredictable snowmobile tracks. And yes, the highway is covered in ice. But Alaskans don’t let any of that keep them indoors, and neither should you. Alaskan winters are a complex relationship between man and nature, where nature constantly slaps you across the face and then rewards you with some of the most rugged, untouched landscapes you’ve ever seen. You just have to earn it.

Driving — not for the faint of heart

Driving in Alaska in winter

Photo: mos_rittiron/Shutterstock

For me, “earning it” meant driving north from Anchorage to Fairbanks, with a few pit stops in Denali National Park. I hadn’t let the bartender totally spook me, but I did decide to take my buddy Pete with me, a “car guy” who prides himself on his prowess behind the wheel. The bartender was right about one thing, though. Without four-wheel drive, we would have been screwed.

“That woman wasn’t kidding,” said Pete just an hour into the drive. He had hopped behind the wheel of our Toyota Highlander with the confidence of a guy who knows how to steer into a skid, and views a little black ice as a “cool challenge.” Soon enough, he would be gripping the wheel at the 10 and 2 o’clock position, knuckles whiter than snow.

Indeed, anyone thinking about driving in Alaska in the winter needs a rental car with four-wheel drive and snow tires. This is not optional. Without proper traction, black ice and snow cover can make roads pretty dicey. It’s also important to keep in mind that the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks isn’t an exit-based highway. That means any pit stops, fuel-ups, snack runs, or bathroom breaks you may need, you have to find along the highway itself. Otherwise, there’s nothing. So fuel up wherever you can.

Driving in Alaska isn’t impossible; it just requires infinitely more concentration. Take whatever amount of caution you’d normally exercise back home, multiply it by a thousand, and you’ll be just fine.

A real dose of Northern Exposure

Talkeetna, Alaska in winter

Photo: Michael Rosebrock/Shutterstock

If you conjured an image of an Alaskan town based on picture books, postcards, and Northern Exposure, it would be Talkeetna. This small community of just under 900 residents is said to be the inspiration for the town of Cicely from the popular TV show. And much like Cicely, the place is full of characters straight out of Central Casting.

Upon checking into the Talkeetna Roadhouse — open since 1944 and one of the last true roadhouses in Alaska — we were immediately issued a word of caution by the innkeeper. Not about the three feet of snow that had fallen that weekend or the frigid temperatures. Instead, she warned us about the poltergeist who lives downstairs.

“You’re our only guests tonight,” she said, “so if you hear noises downstairs, don’t worry, it’s just our poltergeist. He likes to move things.”

“Is he a friendly ghost, at least?” I laughed.

“Not a ghost,” the woman corrected me, without a hint of amusement on her face. “Poltergeist.”

To give our poltergeist some privacy, we left to start exploring the town, which is basically two or three streets and a path leading up to the railroad tracks.

“Oh! You should walk the path under the railroad,” she said as we were heading out the door with great enthusiasm. “You can see where the rivers meet.”

Walking the path along the river that led under the Talkeetna Railroad Bridge is the perfect illustration of Alaska’s simple winter pleasures. In the utter silence, the feeling of remoteness sunk in for the first time; the idea that there were no beaten trails or visitor kiosks or cell service — just you and the spruces, reliving a simpler time in a world filtered gray and blue.

In a town you can walk end to end in less than 15 minutes, we were pretty convinced we had seen everything. So when the innkeeper said, “You guys met the mayor, right?” at check out, we were a little surprised. We hadn’t exactly been given the keys to the city, so no, we didn’t cross paths with the mayor.

“Stubbs used to be the mayor,” she said. “But he had a rough go. He got attacked by a dog once and went to the hospital. Then a couple years ago, some kids shot him in the butt with a BB gun. He’s dead now, but he was so friendly, always going up to everyone and saying hello.”

To avoid accidentally offending anyone, I didn’t say a word.

“Denali’s our new mayor. Go see him before you leave; usually hangs out at Nagley’s store.”

I worded my question as carefully as I could, “And this mayor… he’s a dog, right?”

“Oh dear, no,” she said, as though that were as ridiculous as calling a poltergeist a ghost. “He’s a cat.”

Turns out, all the way back to the 1970s, the unofficial mayor of Talkeetna has been a cat. Denali comes from a long line of town mayors that includes Gemini, Squeaker, Charlie, and, of course, the beloved Stubbs. Nagley’s General Store serves as the mayor’s “office,” and the store even has a webpage dedicated to the furry mayors of Talkeetna’s past.

After you’ve seen Denali the cat — and gotten a full dose of Alaska’s eccentric charm — it’s time to hit the road again and see the real Denali.

In Denali in winter, there are no beaten paths

If you’re planning on spending more than a day near Denali National Park, stock up on food before you leave Talkeetna. There are no restaurants or cafes conveniently located near the park that are open in the winter. You won’t be flooded with options for hotels in the off-season either. Luckily, the Tonglen Lake Lodge is open year-round, and it’s in the perfect location for daily excursions to both the national park and the state park of the same name.

Just under three hours north of Talkeetna, the lodge is a massive cabin at the end of a long, spruce-lined driveway, set a mile back from the road. Stepping into the lodge feels like stepping into a familiar living room. There are four guest rooms in the main house that all share a kitchen, a spacious living and dining area, a wrap-around porch, and unobstructed views of the lake. But the place’s greatest asset isn’t its views or convenient location — it’s the owner, Donna Gates, who lives on the property. An artist who came to Alaska in 1980, Donna is as Alaskan as it gets. She’s lived on the lake for 40 years and knows the wilderness inside and out. If you’re lucky, she might even take you on a walk with her five dogs through the backwoods of her property, which culminates in a viewpoint overlooking Pyramid Mountain.

When you first arrive in the Denali region, surrounded by snowy peaks and intriguing signs marking places like “Iceworm Gulch,” you might feel the urge to carve your own path through the wilderness. Do. Not. Do. This. In the summer there are dozens of well-trod trails through the park, but Alaskan winter means very few navigable roads — even for a 4×4 vehicle — and even fewer marked trails.

Unlike vacations to other national parks, where hiring a guide might be considered a sign of incompetence, nobody will judge you in Alaska. They will judge you, however, for needing a helicopter rescue from the backcountry because you decided you could hike it yourself.

Much of Alaska’s tourism infrastructure may shut down in the winter, but several guides and tours do still operate in the Denali region, and they specialize in winter excursions. Traverse Alaska offers custom adventures that can be tailored according to your interests. That includes hiking, backpacking, glacier trekking, snowshoeing, and dogsledding. Traverse provides transportation to and from your airport — in case you decide not to rent a car — and customizes itineraries for however long you like, whether it’s an afternoon of snowshoeing or a week-long packrafting trip.

Where sled dogs are superstars

Sled dog racing

Photo: freevideophotoagency/Shutterstock

No one ever said your guides had to be all humans. Alaskan Huskies have an unparallelled affinity for the land, and taking in the views from a dogsled is one of the most memorable ways to see Denali. Outer Range Dogsled Tours operates in the town of Healy, just north of Tonglen Lake, and their dogs love nothing more than a run through the wild. Darting through narrow corridors of spruce trees that open up to sprawling vistas of the Alaska range, you’ll feel at once overwhelmed and calmed by the state’s vastness.

Talking to your Outer Range hosts, you’ll quickly learn that dog mushing isn’t just a tourist attraction — it’s fundamental to Alaskan life. Winners of the Iditarod and Yukon Quest dog sled races are treated like Super Bowl victors. It seems like everyone has, at some point, either owned a dog team themselves or knows someone who races.

In the small town of Healy — a town of 1,000 people near the park entrance — trivia night at the Totem Inn bar is a popular pastime, and dog mushing is a frequent topic. The theme for the night was, fittingly, “winter in Alaska.” Joining a team of two locals, Pete and I braced ourselves to contribute absolutely nothing to the group.

“Who is the youngest winner of the Iditerod?” the quizmaster asked. The room buzzed with hushed guessing. Our teammates rattled off at least six or seven names as possibilities, none of which we had ever heard before. This is what it must feel like to wander into a Boston sports bar having never heard of Tom Brady.

“I was a handler for my best friend who raced the Yukon Quest last year,” one of our teammates told us. “I followed her in a van for 300 miles, and if a dog got hurt, it was my job to take care of them. You met her today. Jennifer.”

Jennifer was our Outer Range guide, and given her skill and comfort with the dogs, it didn’t surprise me at all that she raced the Quest. Trivia night drove home just how interconnected this small community actually was, linked by a common passion for nature, sport, and adventure.

Fairbanks is Alaska’s hub for northern lights — and Thai food

If you were hoping to mount a GoPro to the hood of your car to capture Alaska’s sprawling woodlands and white mountains, the two-hour stretch of highway between Healy and Fairbanks is the time to do it. But this picturesque road is also the most challenging due to dramatic temperature drops as you head north, making for slicker, icier conditions. It’s not uncommon to see a 30-40 degree swing between Anchorage and Fairbanks, and when we arrived at our hotel, Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, it was hovering between 0 and -10.

Fairbanks has consistently been recognized as the coldest city in the US. But despite the unforgiving temperatures, you’ll probably feel a warm dose of familiarity here. Alaska’s northernmost major city has a multitude of bars, retail outlets, grocery stores, lodging options, restaurants, and, yes, stoplights. Your car might take a few minutes to start, but when it does, everything is located within a 10-minute drive, including a surprisingly diverse culinary scene.

When you ask people where to eat in Fairbanks, they don’t give you the answer you’d expect. Sure, you can go to the rustic Pump House for locally caught Alaskan salmon, but people will generally steer you toward the Thai food. Fairbanks is home to a large number of immigrants from Thailand, meaning there are over 25 different Thai restaurants serving up authentic cuisine. Everyone has their favorite spot, but we ate at Bahn Thai on 3rd Ave. Even Pete, whose diet consists exclusively of chicken fingers and energy drinks, gave props to the food here.

But you (probably) didn’t come to Alaska for Pad Thai. Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service offers multi-day guided moose hunts, dog sledding trips, snowmobile tours, and ice-fishing experiences. After conquering the Alaskan highway, Pete was ready to sign up for a four-day moose hunt, but we opted instead for a snowmobile/ice fishing combo. We set out from Rod’s cabin in North Pole, Alaska — about 20 minutes east of Fairbanks — on snowmobiles, bound for the frozen lake where we’d try our luck with arctic char, rainbow trout, and grayling.

Remember that scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Lucy first enters Narnia and walks through the forest of snow-covered trees? That’s North Pole, Alaska. The thing about constant below-zero temperatures is that snow never melts, or turns to slush; it stays pretty pristine, tingeing the spruces with a silvery white. There were no roads in this backcountry, or signs, or trails of any kind. Led by Rod, we carved our own trail through a labyrinth of Christmas Trees until we came to a little fishing cabin on the lake.

Despite expert guidance from Rod and his team, Pete and I didn’t catch a single thing. The guy next to me, however, caught five fish within the hour, though I stopped hating him when he offered me a bite of his fifth rainbow trout (all caught fish are cooked on the spot).

Some people will tell you that you haven’t actually experienced Alaska in winter unless you’ve seen the northern lights in Fairbanks. These people probably stayed up until 4:00 AM three nights in a row, and then on the fourth, on two hours of sleep, finally saw the lights through bleary eyes. The northern lights is one of travelers’ top bucket-list items, and Fairbanks is one of the best places in the world to see them. But the hard truth is, the lights are fickle. Predicting their appearance is almost impossible. Even if you have perfectly clear skies and no light pollution, there are a variety of meteorological factors that come into play. Sometimes, it’s just not in the cards.

Fairbanks has a dedicated aurora-watching facility called Aurora Pointe, about 20 minutes northeast of the city. This building atop a lonely hill truly is the perfect place to see the lights — if there are any to be seen. It gives people a warm, comfortable place to gather, play board games, drink coffee, and grow increasingly sleep deprived while waiting for the lights together. While we never saw the lights, the sense of community fostered by collectively waiting for a celestial phenomenon that might never show up is actually incredible.

So even if there’s a poor aurora forecast during your trip, go to Aurora Pointe anyway. And to track the lights yourself, check the UAF Geophysical Institute’s Aurora Forecast, which predicts the strength of the lights on any given night.

Lights or no lights, fish or no fish, Alaska isn’t really about catching something elusive. It’s about letting it catch you, letting it throw crazy weather and uncomfortable conditions at you, and adapting. The Alaskan winter kicked our asses. It’ll kick yours too. And that’s kind of the point.

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