It was with a warm wash of relief that we hugged my aunt Pam and uncle Tom beneath their hand painted welcome. In the front hall we shed our layers along with the tension of nine days driving through deep wilderness. It was thanksgiving, and while we’d crossed over a hundred rivers and through acres of woods, our relatives had not been confident we’d actually arrive on time, given that winter conditions along the Alaska Highway are hardly predictable. We ate a pre-thanksgiving dinner, enjoying the company and warmth of family; a big change from our lonely dinner at the haunted motel on the tundra the night before.
It was dawning on us that we’d accomplished our goal. Or at least dawning on me. I’d given up making it any further north. We’d been traveling with “the Milepost” a compendium of every landmark on the Alaska Highway and beyond. It included the road to Prudhoe Bay, the Dalton Highway, and this section specifically warned against traveling in winter. It was a “if something happens out there, no one will hear you scream” type of warning. So I scratched Prudhoe Bay off the list of destinations and tried to appreciate what we’d accomplished. I should have know that Magda wouldn’t be so complacent.
It seemed we’d leaped through a lucky weather window on our way up, threading the needle between two deep freezes reaching down below the arctic circle. When the second one hit we were safe at Pam and Tom’s, the Subaru snug in their garage. We watched as the thermometer fell, plummeted really, from what I considered a terribly cold -3° to an unbelievably frigid -30°. This was winter in Alaska’s second city, and apparently it hadn’t even really begun.
With the bitter cold came a crisp, clear sky and a chance of spotting the northern lights. In her research Magda learned that the prime viewing time for the ‘lights’ (as they’re simply called in Alaska) was between midnight and two am. So it was seven hours after full darkness that Tom, Pam, Magda and I suited up like astronauts in the front hall, or what Tom liked to call the ‘air lock’. Once fully layered, we jettisoned out into the deep freeze and drove north to escape the lights of the city.
We first spotted a faint grey smudge against the night sky. It might have been a cloud except the sky was clear. The stars sparkled like snow crystals.
The smudge grew and changed, eventually becoming two, then three ribbons of faint green. The four of us had been outside of the car to watch the sky transform, but as frost formed on stray hair and my unruly mustache became as hard as a plastic comb, one by one we dove back inside to thaw out. Only Magda stayed behind, dancing and stomping to keep warm but reveling in the smoky green light show she was capturing above our heads.
By the time I ushered her back into the car my own toes were burning with cold. If not coerced she might have stayed longer, ignoring the intense chill. Our toes and fingers felt scorched by fire as we headed home in the wee hours of the morning. We stuffed them deep into warm pockets and monopolized the heating ducts.
Once we’d had some sleep and become accustomed to staying in one place we had a chance to appreciate Fairbanks. For many residents they’ve come to the little city just south of the arctic circle because it is almost literally the end of the road. You’d be hard pressed to escape much farther north, at least by car, from the lower 48. It’s remote location, a funky fortress at the edge of the arctic frontier, lends itself to be a refuge for small population of people who the rest of the U.S. might consider to be – a bit odd.
One of these real Alaskans we wanted to meet was the brother of our friend Jody Morlock. Charlie is a Vietnam vet, a hunter, trapper, taxidermist, oil painter and teller of tales. He lives in the peculiar Fairbanks suburb of ‘North Pole’, a bit of real estate marketing that lends itself to extreme year ’round Christmas kitch. “Suburb” makes it sound in some way urban, which it is definitely not and this is just the way Charlie likes it.
“I wouldn’t want to live in a place where wild animals don’t git inter yer garbage.” He told us, leaning his bulk as far back as his rolling chair would allow. We sat around his easel while he told us his long and interesting life story.
He reiterated what my aunt and uncle had already told us: Alaska is the end of the road, exactly what brought him. He’d retreated first from Florida then to Montana and finally to Alaska where he and his family could have a more personal relationship with solitude. His taxidermy store resembled an artist’s studio, his craft on display all around. Hung amongst post-mortem wildlife were Charlie’s oils; painted in the Remington motif, thick with western and frontier heroics. It struck me that while Charlie’s sister had moved to New York to thrive as an artist, Charlie had come to Alaska, exactly the opposite extreme, to do the same.
The taxidermied pieces impressed me as sculpture, the poses of the animals fluid and vital. He was clearly a skilled craftsman but when I complimented his work he just brushed it off as so many empty words from a city boy.
He showed us the back of his shop. While the front looked like the North American section of a natural history museum, the back was a cross between a car mechanic’s and a north woods hotel lobby. Big game skins and half finished models were haphazardly arranged in a giant, bright garage. Foam corpses struck fleshless poses while decapitated heads stared at far off prey, or perhaps at a hunter, taking aim. He showed us the tanning process, the models beneath the skins and the tricks of bringing a dead critter back to life (as with everything, it’s in the details). We bonded over his airbrushing skills, and when I told him I was an illustrator, I was honored to be declared a “brother of the pen”.
I believe Charlie is a hard man to impress, but he nodded his head in appreciation when we told him about our trip and our drive from New York City – via Texas. He did ask after our winter preparedness since the day we met him it hadn’t climbed above -20°. I told him my grade of oil, he approved. I told him I was running 100% anti-freeze, advised by people who knew these things in the mid-west.
He tisked, “that’s the lower 48. They have no idea what’s going on up here. This is cold like none of them has ever seen.”
He advised we get the radiator flushed and filled with a proper mix as soon as possible.
We left Charlie’s after several hours of discussing everything except politics, which Jody had forbade him from bringing up. As we left his face broke into a devilish grin and he told us to go along with the joke he was going to play on his sister. He said he was going to tell her we all had gotten to arguing politics and stormed out of his store, disgusted. He was giggling as he devised his plan, so we gamely told him we’d go along – for a while at least.
As we drove back to Tom and Pam’s we began to smell antifreeze. In the extreme cold the car was rejecting the 100% liquid and spitting it all over the engine where it burned like sour green syrup. We limped back to the house and parked it in the garage. I was sure the car was finished, the radiator cracked, the head-gasket demolished. I even made the mistake of diagnosing the problem on the internet.
In fact it was a bad thermostat. Not incredibly cheap to fix, but not as bad as I feared. Once again the Subaru had pulled through.
While it was in the shop they winterized it the best they could, and we rolled the dice again by not installing a block heater. To celebrate having the car back in working order we began exploring the roads outside of Fairbanks. We visited nearby Chena Hot Springs for a glorious, relaxing soak in boiling mineral springs. The resort is also a renowned place to watch the Lights. Once again we stood outside in utter darkness for hours, freezing again, but this time with no results. We did get in one uniquely Alaskan thrill as we signed up for a turn around the forest on a dogsled.
Our mere arrival at the kennels sent a ripple of excitement through the dozens of waiting dogs. The Alaskan Husky is an unrecognized breed, mainly because they look like a bunch of mutts, but they all have a few things in common: They aren’t bothered by cold, they have boundless energy, and they love to pull a sled. They live to pull a sled. I was under the impression they could probably take or leave the sled part, as long as they could run, but as the handlers walked through the doghouses picking and releasing eager, howling hounds for the team that would pull our sled, the released dogs would make a beeline to the harnesses, whining and rolling in the snow until they were hooked in. Even harnessed they were still barking and whining, but when released at a word, the barking stopped and the sled jetted off across the packed snow, careening through the forest at a surprising clip. The dogs hadn’t been run for a few days and they had energy to burn. We were back in half the expected time, windburned and whipped by branches. Like the dogs, we were eager to go again.
Our last excursion was to the beginning of the Dalton Highway, the northern-most highway in the U.S. and one of the most dangerous. Instead of driving its length as we’d originally planned we settled for a picture at it’s very beginning. Just getting to the beginning took hours of negotiating icy turns and white knuckle blizzards kicked up by oncoming trucks. Rocks chipped the windshield. I breathed a sigh of relief thinking about the route untaken.
Standing under the sign we were just short of the arctic circle and Magda felt unfulfilled. I told her I simply couldn’t think of another way to reach the Arctic Ocean without taking a plane to Barrow.
When we got home, Magda sat down, got online, and started moving frequent flier miles and credit card bonus points around. By the time she was finished she’d scraped together just enough to cover two tickets to Barrow in a patchwork payment that Alaska Airlines dutifully accepted. Several days later we were at the airport, preparing to fly to the ultimate point north.