A Journey North:
An Adventure in Alaska
I arrived in Alaska around midnight at the Fairbanks International Airport. Soon after I was greeted at the baggage claim by Tom and Cathy Dimon and their dog Millie, work connections of my dad’s who were to be my hosts during my stay in-state, and my adventure began.
I rode shotgun in Tom’s truck back to their house a few miles outside of town, speaking with Tom about Alaska, who mentioned some of the places he’s visited in the state. After about a half-hour ride through the dark country, we made it to the Dimons’ house, which sat alone, wedged between a treeline and an open field that backed up to more trees. The house looked almost surreal in the soft glow of the moon against the snow.
I was shown to my room upon entry, which was separated from the main part of the house by a mudroom, which I later realized was home to a wood stove and was draped on one wall with heavy outdoor gear. I quickly went to bed after my long day of travel.
The next morning I was treated to a hearty breakfast of pancakes, an unexpected treat* that felt very fitting for the wilderness setting outside the kitchen window. After breakfast, the three of us headed back over to the airport to pick up my rental car, and it was then I got my first real taste of Alaskan cold.
After the Dimons dropped me off, I remember stepping out of the airport into the parking lot after checking in with the rental company and noticing right away how cold it was. The cold in Alaska is different than it is in my native Kansas. While the harsh cold stings in Kansas, in Alaska it somehow feels bigger, less escapable and heavier, yet strangely more comforting and invigorating.
My first stop was the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which was only a short drive from the airport. The museum was interesting, and featured two main exhibits: northern artwork and cultural items upstairs and a science-and-nature-based exhibit downstairs.
The museum and university campus sit on a large hill overlooking the a large expanse of land and forest, with the Alaska Range mountains sitting in the distance. Standing on the ridge overlooking the scene, you can watch fantastic 4 o’clock sunsets that are truly breathtaking. It is worth mentioning the sun is only visible for 4-5 hours during the winter in Fairbanks, with some visible light for about an hour before sunrise and after sunset. The sun doesn’t move much, it just peeks over the horizon and seems to sit in about the same position before setting again.
During my time at the museum, I realized I had left an essential car cable at the airport, so returned to get it after leaving campus. During the Alaskan winter, it is necessary to plug your car in if it’s going to be parked for a few hours to keep it warm. Once the cable was fetched I ate at the Wolf Run Restaurant and spent some time at a McDonalds and the Alaska Coffee Roasting Co. before heading back to the Dimons’.
That night at the Dimons’ was truly not one to forget. The three of us ventured out into the subzero Alaskan evening to undertake a nightly event for the feeding their 20 sled dogs and cleaning their outdoor pens. The night was brisk, and I stood under the moon as the Dimons let the dogs out of their pens mostly two at a time into the main center yard. Eventually I found myself in a surreal situation: surrounded by huge howling, jumping, highly energetic dogs in the Alaskan outdoors. My face was freezing and there were sparkles floating in the air -- not snow fall, but these tiny pieces of ice crystal that floated around the whole landscape that made the whole scene even more amazing.
I took part in the feeding nearly every night, always enjoying the mystical forest surrounding the Dimons’ property under the eerie light of the moon and stars. The Dimons pour hot water into the dogs’ bowls before feeding them so they are fed and hydrated at the same time. The temperature is so low that it would make no sense to leave water bowls outside, as they would quickly freeze. I was in charge of feeding Stubby, Tuk, Tanner, Rufus and Yeti as I recall. Some of their other dogs were Keiko, Panzer, Sherman, Dude, Bolio, Rallee, Gus, Willow, Galena, Baleen. Spirit and Pal were their two black-and-white indoor cats.
Perhaps an even more amazing experience, however, was actually getting to go on sled dog runs with Tom and Cathy. They had three sled dog teams, and we were able to go on a total of four runs while I was there. The first run was incredible. The first eight-dog team was let out of their pens and into the main yard, which quickly turned into a madhouse of barking and excitement as Cathy tied a long line taut between two trees with eight smaller lines dangling down from it, incrementally spaced. Cathy then rounded up the dogs one-by-one and placed harnesses on them, then clipped them to each of the smaller lines, presumably in the order order they run the sled in. Meantime Tom was readying the sled outside the gate that led into the open country.
After all the dogs were harnessed, they were led one-by-one outside the gate and hitched to the sled itself, all during a frenzy of barking and excitement. I climbed into the sled, propped up on an overturned, square plastic basket and stuffed into several layers of winter gear. The dogs were all hitched up, and in the few moments before we took off I felt a shimmer of excitement inside, and eagerly awaited what was to happen next. The dogs were still barking like mad, filling the cold night air with a wild cacophony of wilderness sounds. And then, suddenly, the sled took off and the night went almost dead silent. The dogs were focused on the run, and only the noise of the sled runners gliding through the snow and hitting small bumps could be heard. We glided effortlessly through down the trail, through snow-covered pine trees and into the blisteringly cold air. It was one of the coolest moments of my life.
We went on three more runs, one more that night. The second of that night ended with one of the dogs, Panzer I think, being unable to continue the run because of his age if I recall correctly. He and I shared the sled during a good portion of that run. During the other two runs, I was able to ride (standing this time) on a smaller sled hitched to the back of Tom’s. This required a bit more balance but was every bit as exhilarating.
The interior of Alaska, as the area surrounding Fairbanks is called, presented me with many more excellent side adventures, including a trip to the Chena Hot Springs, a stroll around downtown Fairbanks and a drive down to the Denali National Park area. In the end, it turned out to be an adventure I will not soon forget.