Juneau is sometimes referred to as the tropics of Alaska; we don’t get the extreme negative temperatures that the interior and the north get, we don’t tend to get as much snow (except for that winter in 2007 where Eaglecrest had a deeper snowpack than anywhere else in the world *), and we don’t have the big game associated with the more rugged Alaska such as caribou, polar bears, and musk ox. The gear that I have is reasonably good gear, in that it gets me around in Juneau and I am reasonably comfortable most of the time. Plus, suffering a bit sometimes keeps me from taking things for granted. I am a baller on a budget so I don’t spend crazy amounts of money on my gear, but I also want to be able to go do the stuff I want to do. And something I have really wanted to do is go see the start of the ‘Last Great Race’. And in February of 2017 I found myself heading to Anchorage and Fairbanks for the Iditarod.
My friend White lives in Anchorage, so for a few airline miles I flew in on Friday morning. Getting off the plane in ANC, I am reminded of just how dry it is there. Even though ANC is also on the water, everything is instant static and chapped. Fur Rondy coincides with the start of the Iditarod, and is a city festival centered around winter activities that lasts for a week. This year my wonderful mother made onesies for her Juneau brood, among her other sewing projects. She made adorable animal onesies for my Facebook Wife’s two children, so when I saw the child pattern had a fox, I was instantly in love. My mom put a lot of thought and effort into my onesie, really thinking through each part and how to make it the best and most practical. (Detachable tail for easy washing? Yes please!) We Googled red foxes to make sure we were getting it right, and many texts were sent with questions and comments. Mom takes sewing seriously.
One of the more exciting events at Fur Rondy, is the Running of the Reindeer. For people who are familiar with the Only Fools Run at Midnight in Juneau, this is very similar. People dress up in costumes and there are four herds (men, women, couples, and tourists). I ran in herd two for the gals and rocked my fox onesie (only one lady yelled out to me “hey, what do you say?!” to which I replied “ring a ding ding ding!”). Although it was noticeably less warm than my North Face down parka I brought, I was committed to the neon orange. I ran out ahead of the pack, as the snow they put on the road was a lot like running in sand and I didn’t want to stumble into anyone. They let the runners get a head start, then they let the reindeer go. The sound of their hooves punching into the snow as they ran up behind me was just incredible. I was honestly surprised at how tiny the reindeer are, as I for some reason thought they would be somewhere between a deer and an elk. The reindeer expertly dodged all the runners, and ran to their pen at the end. Though there wasn’t a giant herd of reindeer, it was still an awesome experience and one I highly recommend. At the end, a family with small girls asked if they could get a picture with me, because their daughters loved my fox onesie the best.
After Fur Rondy events, White and I headed to Fairbanks on Sunday afternoon. The drive was beautiful, and I would love to do it again when the landscape is less monochromatic. We passed several moose on the side of the road, and luckily none of them ever felt the need to see if the snow was whiter on the other side. For someone from Juneau where we don’t plow the end of the road in winter, I was expecting the road to be in terrible condition. Instead the pavement was almost completely dry, with very few spots where the snow had gotten packed down and turned to ice. On a few bends it’s obvious the sunlight doesn’t warm the pavement being in perpetual shadow and we took those corners a little slower. We passed several plows and big rigs making sure the road and shoulder were clear, instead of having massive berms blocking the view of anything that might want to emerge from the woods, be it large or small. We covered 348 miles and lost about 40 degrees. Along the way we had a beautiful view of Denali, but some clouds capper her peak by the time we headed north.
Arriving into FAI we found our hotel and straight off it was a slog of Iditarod spectators and support. Many languages were spoken in the lobby, and the parking lot was full of trucks and SUVs plugged in for the cold night.
We met White’s photographer friend Madden, and he whisked us off to go aurora hunting. After a long drive (by Juneau standards), we stopped outside of Fox on a road atop a hill, and had views all around with very little light pollution from the towns. I learned as much as I could about night photography from Madden, and just as we were getting ready to call it quits, the elusive lady graced us with her display. This was by far one of, if not the best, aurora show I have ever seen. What FAI lacks for in mountains, it makes up for in expansive views. We could see a full sweeping arc of light, pulsing and dancing across the black sky. The aurora was so bright and dynamic, I could have stayed there forever. But alas, it was getting on 12:30 and we had big plans for the next day, err, later that morning. Apparently when going to bed back at the hotel, I fell asleep mid conversation then woke up to contribute something that I guess actually made sense, before immediately falling back asleep and slightly snoring as only sleep deprived people do.
After waking up from what felt like only a brief nap, we packed up the truck and drove to the Chena River. We parked, waited a bit, then made our way down onto the snow-covered river amongst the other brave souls who came out to cheer on the mushers despite the -35 degrees. This is where I found out that my Juneau gear is not truly adequate for FAI winters. And I guess most adventurers experience this at some point: the gear from home just doesn’t cut it where you go. But let me tell you, chivalry is not dead. It just has a silver beard and swears like a sailor. The guys gave me hand warmers for my mittens, and toe warmers for my boots. They even put small hand warmers along my legs in my boots to try to help keep my feet warm. When adventuring to a very cold place, you should do some serious research and don’t be cheap on the outer layers. While they were almost sweating in their Lacrosse Ice King boots, I was doing the pathetic cold prance in my North Face boots to try to keep blood circulating to my poor feet. I had my North Face parka zipped to my chin, while their Mountain Hardware puffy jackets were halfway unzipped as they were trying to dump heat to prevent sweating. White would say “man, I could just take a nap right now I’m so comfortable.” To which I would playfully glare “warm isn’t even close to how I would describe myself right now.” My seal and fox hat and beaver mittens made by the Fritze’s out of Dillingham worked flawlessly as my breath froze to the fur beneath my chin. The boys quickly had frozen mustaches and the delicate white glaze on their beards complemented the snowy landscape. But I must say, of all my gear I’ve purchased, my locally made furs are the only things that really kept me warm as expected… Next time, I’ll make some better gear purchases before I come to -35 degrees to stand around outside for 4 hours. I saw several mushers with Sea Fur Sewing mittens out of Sitka, and I might invest in some before I head back to a winter in FAI. Madden also had a crucial point about furs, they don’t freeze and break. I guess people have actually had that happen. Uhhh, no thanks. I’ll support my local native artists and local economy with its sustainable resources managed by FNG.
But even with the -35 and the incredible cold, the experience was worth every face-numbing, toe-tingling, shivering second of it. For anyone who has not traveled to see the Iditarod, this is something I HIGHLY recommend. After all, Alaska is our playground, and this is something that people travel from all over the world to both participate in and to see. There were several Norwegians, a few French, and some other international competitors this year who will battle it out with the finest from Alaska and the US along hundreds of frigid miles. The sound of the dogs panting as the run by, the slobber frozen to their fur, and the sound of their bouncing gangline makes the experience something that you can never get through a screen or from a truck window. I am not someone who has closely followed the Iditarod in the past, though I have always been interested in updates and hearing that everyone makes it through unharmed and seeing pictures of the dogs. But after experiencing the exhilaration firsthand as mushers and teams go by on day one of their epic journey, this is probably something I will take more interest and pride in as an Alaskan. I know I haven’t done anything to support the Iditarod thus far, but maybe giving Aliy Zirkle a high five as she mushed by added to her good spirits.
Courtney Wendel has lived in Juneau since she was a year old. She has a twin brother and an older brother, and learned to enjoy the outdoors at a young age by following the boys into mischief. Graduating from JDHS in 2006, she attended UAS to receive her Literature of the Environment, BA English degree. When not at work she spends most of her time on the diverse trail system hiking, running, or camping with her spotted pooch and adventure buddies.