Bonanza stares at me with her deep blue eyes and begins to sniff my hand. Then she leans against my legs with all her weight and I just fall backwards into the snow.
An hour ago I had wondered how a few dogs could pull an entire sled with people sitting in it—but now I know: they are not just dogs, but fur-covered dynamos, totally hell-bent on dragging anyone through the woods as they wag their tails behind them.
I look at Bonanza, the lead dog. "I like cats better," I tell her softly. But there are no sled cats on hand in northern Alaska right now, and my boyfriend loves dogs. Besides, he has always wanted to go dog sledding—and if not now, then when?
And so we are riding through the Arctic. Propelled by paws and gliding on runners—but also on foot and car wheels. From dogs to northern lights, and from the taiga to the tundra, over 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where our base camp is located in Coldfoot. Coldfoot is a town that is not really a town, but just a truck stop. More than 200 miles away from any other point resembling a city. Here we live several days in what seems like shipping containerst that are heated by diesel generators, where our window is frozen for two days, and WiFi is way too 21st Century.
Come join us as we journey to wild Alaska. Maybe we will see one of the famous gigantic moose?
"The dogs are dying to go on a sled ride," explains our dog-sled musher, Dan. "They want to do it on their own. There's no point in forcing an animal to do anything." I like that thought.
I have just enough time to throw a wool blanket over my legs to keep them warm. It is minus 4 Fahrenheit and Dan yells, “Mush!” which is the command to go. The seven-dog team roars off carrying us, Dan, and the sled. I feel like I'm in a Santa Claus commercial, with reindeer shooting into the sky over chimneys and rooftops.
What energy, what powerful legs, what thick fur!
A few times the dogs chase over tightly compressed mounds of snow, causing the sleigh to leave the ground for a second and then come down with a bang. I watch as my third lumbar vertebra flies into orbit around the earth, where it will forever circle as space junk. Branches from fir trees join the snow and dust as they fly by us. The mountains are in front of us, while the gray-blue sky covers us from above.
Every now and then we stop so the dogs can take a break. Some sniff the snow, others eat it. I imagine myself thundering through downtown Peoria on a wagon pulled by dogs in the summer, stopping now and then to sniff a scoop of chocolate ice cream at an ice cream parlor. Wonderful!
After about 45 minutes we are back and Bonanza, our still-strong lead dog, still has enough energy to push me around like a goat in a thunderstorm. I'll have to do a ride like that again. In Greenland. For several days.
With sled cats.
Shortly thereafter we are back in Coldfoot—our new hood. Or in our hood container. In Northern Alaska there are no real towns, and apart from the Dalton Highway, there are no real roads. Instead, there are only the scattered wooden cabins of people just doin’ for themselves, a few villages of Athabascans (Alaska Natives), truck stops, and container camps for workers of the oil pipeline. We stay in one of these camps for a few days.
The sleeping containers have extremely thin press-fit walls. The rooms are simple. The hallway looks like the interrogation chamber in a Russian spy movie, and it is the only part of the building that is actively heated by the diesel generator. If you want heat in your room, you open the door to the heated hallway. If you want to lower the room temperature, you open the window. It seems like a simple system. In theory.
Our window is frozen shut for two days due to a cold snap, dropping the temperature below minus 30 F. Wouldn't have opened the damn thing anyway with those infernal temperatures.
Otherwise, Coldfoot consists of a gas pump, a truck stop cafe serving mostly burgers, bacon, eggs and soft drinks, and an airport with a single runway made of scraped snow. Pilots turn on their own landing lights via radio and the only security is a cawing raven sitting with his bare ass on glare ice.
Doesn't he freeze there? Ravens are probably as tough as sled dogs in Alaska. They probably even pull sleds like reindeer and secretly drink diesel from the gas pump at night.
As backwards as this all sounds, it sums up how little we need to be satisfied. The rooms are clean, we have a shower with hot water, the down comforter on the bed keeps us warm, there is ample food, drink, a lounge with board games, no war, and no terror. Essential things that we take for granted, and that millions of people in the world don't have.
Plus, there are no annoying emails either, because Wi-Fi is non-existent and the single cell phone signal is weak.
Compared to the nearby village of Wiseman, the truck stop at Coldfoot is almost a metropolis. Both places exist only because gold was once discovered and mined in the area. Wiseman is currently home to 11 souls, all of whom are living in small cabins (in Coldfoot, depending on the season, there are almost 100 people).
In Wiseman, there is no running water, they heat with wood they cut themselves from the surrounding forest, and the locals eat whatever happens to pass by in the wilderness. Some residents have not been back to Fairbanks, over 250 miles away, where the nearest supermarket is located—for years.
One of the cabins has been empty since its 90-plus-year-old owner passed away a few years ago. Because there is no doctor or hospital here, people either move to Fairbanks when they get old or sick, or they die.
The empty cabin has now been resurrected as an outpost for northern lights observations, as we spend two nights out here just to see the lights witth a romantic wood stove heating the snow—and us—so that our body parts don't freeze off while waiting for the magical lights to show up in the sky.
I set up my tripod and wait. Nothing. Whoever thinks the lights flicker merrily all night like decorations at the Christmas market will grow long in the tooth. And probably also cold in the tooth as well, despite the wood-burning stove.
But at some point, we see a turquoise band begin to develop between the clouds. It stretches like a plume of smoke carried by the wind, beginning at the mountain peaks and crossing the sky, where we see the North Star shines directly above us. Completely silent and so magically beautiful!
One day we take a tour on the Dalton Highway over the Atigun Pass in the Brooks Mountain Range to Galbraith Lake, about 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The landscape changes from barren taiga to treeless tundra. Climate zones, which made me shiver from the names when I first read about them in the school atlas while I was in 5th grade, but which also instilled me with intense curiosity.
As we cross the pass, strong winds begin to blow, whipping the loose snow from the rugged mountain peaks into the valley. Within minutes, the road becomes almost invisible due to the blowing, drifting snow. Guideposts in the form of little flags stuck in the ground are the only visible remnants of the road, and you only get a rough idea of whether you're still on course or about to crash into the North Pole. We stop briefly to eat some sandwiches, and I consider getting out of the vehicle. But I'm afraid that if I do, in a few seconds I'll look like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining (completely frozen to death).
Just as I lean back in the seat for a rest, a fellow passenger suddenly yells, "Moose!"
In seconds, six adults in the van are glued to the windows like children at the zoo at the orangutan's
Outside, in the flurry of snow blowing between scraggly fir trees, we see an elephant standing in the icy cold. Legs the size of tree trunks and a nose like a bulldozer. An Alaskan moose. They are the largest moose in the world.
I go wild with my photographic efforts. The moose is unimpressed, and I wonder how unimpressed he would be if I got out.
Then I would probably not only look like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining, but like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining now packed into a multitude of tiny little freezer bags. I decide that moose shots from the car window is okay, too.
In the evening we sit at a table in the truck stop of Coldfoot. Something greasy is lying on my plate and something sugary is inside my glass. We reflect on how unbelievably diverse life on our planet is. The ways of living, the climate, the landscape, the wonders of nature. When you travel, you see a little bit of everything—like a puzzle of a hundred thousand pieces.
Read more about our road trip on the legendary Dalton Highway where we encountered a frozen enchanted forest, a Yukon River crossing, and the Arctic Circle here: Highway to Hell: Adventure Trip on the Dalton Highway in Alaska.