As Alaska’s most northerly large town, Fairbanks is home for many arctic-bound outfitters and small plane companies. Calling around reveals that the Northern Alaska Tour Co. has two unsold seats on a trip to Coldfoot, north of the Arctic Circle. The next morning seven of us meet at the flight office to hear a safety briefing and look at the map of our destination. Braving the wind and minus 20-degree temperature, we climb aboard an eight-passenger Piper Chieftain (heated), piloted by Todd Mackinaw.
Taking off in a swirl of snow, Mackinaw pushes the plane up into clear air for the 90-minute flight north, cruising low over the oil pipeline road and crossing the serpentine loops of the frozen Yukon River. Dipping between successive ranges of low snowcapped peaks, he points out his favorite fishing camp site, an empty valley among hundreds, one whose only residents are brown bears. Then, with the Brooks Range visible beyond, we see the Coldfoot air strip below.
A former mining outpost, Coldfoot survived until a string of relentlessly sub-zero winters drove away settlers. Now it consists of a historic sign, a maintenance depot and a truck stop on the road to Prudhoe Bay. We all want to see the pipeline close up, and find it partially covered in snow. But around the corner are the unlikeliest of local residents, 20 sled dogs in training.
Like all Alaska sled dogs, they live outdoors, even in winter, each chained to its dog house to protect it from running after wolves and risking a fatal fight. Most sled dogs aren’t pets. But this bunch gets attention and likes it. Hustling back to the café, we warm up with cups of cocoa.
By the week’s end, I’m running out of juice. I’ve skied at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, and dog-sledded through a Sitka spruce forest behind a team of huskies. I’ve explored the blue-ice caves in the Portage Valley, and toured the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center nearby. When I stop at the enclosure where the resident brown bears (rescued orphans, now slightly scary adults) live, they wake up from their winter snooze and lumber out when I whistle.
I’ve joined a guided snowshoe hike on the frozen Susitna River, where an occasional — and treacherous — patch of open water threatens life and limb. I’ve even attempted to learn the secret of creating bakery-fresh, home-made apple pies at my hotel for the night, the Roadhouse, in Talkeetna.
Though museum visits aren’t in the plan, I’ve toured the fabulous new Alaskana exhibits at the University of Alaska’s Fairbanks campus. Heading to Chena Hot Springs, we go snowmobiling, a sport so exhilarating that within 30 minutes I’ve toppled the thing over into a snow drift not five feet from rushing water. Warming up afterwards, with a long soak in a hot pool, my wet hair freezes into frosty spikes. It’s not pretty.
But a last reward awaits: 12 hours and 350 miles of awe-inspiring scenery seen from the comfortable warmth of a window seat on the Alaska Railroad. As the train winds southward to Anchorage, I can finally shed most of the uniform that’s kept me warm — sometimes too warm — from first to last.
That would be my puffy fur hat with ear flaps and sunglasses, two breathable ski-shirts and a plump down jacket. Add mittens with expedition-style glove liners, padded ski pants over fleece long underwear and — for the coldest days — the crème de la crème: toe-warmers inside insulated waterproof boots. Alaska in winter? It couldn’t be easier.