The chorus of 150 howling Siberian and Alaskan huskies, who live on the property with champion musher Bill Cotter, startles me from pondering my new hairstyle. I remember I have a dogsledding date. Cotter, who has raced the Iditarod 18 times (placing as high as third), is a sort of dog whisperer, if you will. The dogs, with names like Blue, Tacoma, Wallace, and Aztec, go berserk when he begins picking them out for this morning's ride. Every one of these beautiful creatures is barking, "Pick me! Pick me!" They absolutely live for this, and it's a treat to see.
Next thing I know, snowcapped trees are flying by in a blur of wind and fur as a 10-dog team pulls the 250-pound sled, me, my photographer, Cotter, and a second sled carrying Cotter's apprentice. It's unbelievable, really. Cotter rattles off commands barely above a whisper, and the dogs respond like clockwork. Still, it's freezing out here - and this ride is only 30 minutes. Deductive reasoning makes it abundantly clear: Anyone entering the multiday Iditarod must surely be insane.
THE NEXT EVENING, I transfer to the Mount Aurora Fairbanks Creek Lodge, another popular destination for viewing the northern lights. Over a fabulous dinner of gigantic Alaskan king crab (the best I've ever had) and cedar-plank baked salmon, co-owner Stephen Birdsall gets me all worked up about the lights (he has installed low-level red lights around the property to help guests' eyes adjust to night vision). "The lights will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck," he tells me. "When they start moving, you'll feel like they are coming down to get you." Birdsall's property boasts 270-degree views of the open sky, so I'm feeling pretty confident that tonight's the night.
Wrong. I set my alarm for one a.m. and hop outside to the viewing deck. Same thing: There are faint patches of green, but nothing like the intense photos around town. I wait around in the cold for about 45 minutes but give up before my toes begin to fall off. Can't anyone around here think of a warmer way to wait for the lights? At any rate, I'm beginning to believe they are a Photoshop creation.
I SPENT MY FINAL NIGHT at a wonderful log cabin bed-and-breakfast called Grand View (the view, of course, refers to the lights). This gorgeous spruce home is owned by American Dave Thompson and his lovely Irish wife, Clodagh, who had enough sense to put in a Jacuzzi on their outdoor deck overlooking the expansive Tanana Valley. Now that's what I'm talking about. Once again I set my alarm for one a.m., and I fall asleep in my bathing suit with Christmas-morning-like anticipation - surely the third time must be the charm.
Nope. Thanks for playing. It turns out to be the cloudiest night of the trip. The next morning, I express my newest hypothesis, which I cleverly title the "Adobe Photoshop Northern Lights Conspiracy," to my host from the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. I'm clearly bummed about the lights, and in an effort to lift my spirits, he asks me if I've ever driven a car across a frozen river. I most certainly have not, I tell him.
So off we go to the Chena River, which he tells me freezes over during the winter, offering a convenient shortcut for the locals. But even that’s a no go: The Department of Transportation has cut off the thoroughfare with signs and a sizable roadblock disguised as a snowdrift. My host is puzzled, saying it was open as recently as a week ago and that people drive over it all the time. Later that afternoon, I learn why it was closed. A newspaper headline reads, “DOT Puts Brakes on Chena River Ice Road: Popular shortcut hasn’t frozen solid this year.”
And to think he was dead set on driving across it. I told you these people are insane. Of course, that’s meant in the most complimentary way possible.
American Airlines offers seasonal daily service to anchorage starting June 8 and offers codeshare service from anchorage to fairbanks on Alaska Airlines. For more information, visit www.aa.com.