Having just left the ski fields of Vail and a tropical minus 10, I was now back in Fairbanks, Alaska for the second time – at minus 35! My hosts from the Alaska Travel Industry Association had pulled together an amazing itinerary and I was thrilled to be here in the icy throes of winter.
My first challenge; to photograph the wonder of the Northern Lights or “Aurora Borealis”, so named after the Greek Goddess of dawn ‘Aurora’ and the Greek name for the Northern wind ‘Boreas’. My journey started by 4WD from Fairbanks along the treacherous Dalton Highway to my first stop – Coldfoot – home of the TV show “Ice Road Truckers”.
In blizzard conditions we drove 8 hours to cross the Arctic Circle and enter the Brooks range. A spectacle to behold even with falling snow and fog only allowing me temptingly brief glimpses of the rugged mountain range in front of us. A sudden break in the clouds on Chandalar shelf revealed close to 1000 caribou hugging the mountainside, shrouded in mist. Just as I had my camera set up a group of several hundred broke off and came running full speed down the slopes straight towards me, providing a great series of images. My local guide explained they were probably being chased by a wolf… just what I wanted to hear!
From there we travelled back to Slate Creek Inn at Coldfoot for warm “Arctic” style Ice Road Trucker hospitality. No letup in the snow… And no Northern Lights yet. But what I had learnt was some fascinatingly technical information on what causes the Northern Lights… But that’s for someone else to write down.
An early flight back across the Arctic circle down to Fairbanks the next day saw clear skies at last and gave me an indication of what I had been missing. A huge expanse of glistening snow and ice blanketed my world from horizon to horizon. Landing at Fairbanks it began snowing again, there would be no Northern lights tonight. Instead I ventured out to see the World Ice Carving Champs, a visual spectacle purely in its own right. Wow! The forms these artists had created were mind-boggling. Eight metre high towers of finely sculptured ice with more detail than I could imagine in any Southern Hemisphere equivalent (sand castle anyone)? My camera was re-introduced to the cold as I snapped away, recording their fine works of art.
The next day I moved to Chena Hot Springs – another renowned Northern Lights viewing area and hopefully my ‘third time lucky’ charm. We took a rugged trip up a nearby hillside in a bouncing snow machine and sat waiting until 2am for the Northern Lights to appear. As I sat amongst the constant buzz of “you should have been here yesterday” stories I watched the snow fall and willed the visibility to improve. But the weather gods weren’t listening and I was fast losing hope of seeing the elusive Northern Lights.
After a soak in the natural hot pools the next morning it was back to Fairbanks. Northern Lights aside my travels around Alaska were revealing an exceedingly stunning winter landscape and I was being amazed by this country all over again. That evening as night approached the skies finally cleared and I headed out of town to a remote spot to wait. By 11 o’clock my fervent hopes were finally answered and sure enough, there were the Northern Lights! What a sight to behold! Blazing and shimmering across the sky they were well worth the wait… I’d been standing knee deep in snow at minus 35 degrees for four hours and I still couldn’t tear myself away. What a truly magical experience.
From here it was a repack of gear for the small plane trip to Galena. Three LowePro camera bags full of my Canon kit, layers and layers of “polar expedition” attire from RAB clothing, a dose of adrenaline and I was set to go!
Upon arriving in the remote village of Galena I was met by an icy blast of minus 35 – though it was mid afternoon and sunny – along with Jon, an amazingly friendly guy who was to be my host and personal guide for the next few days. He was a previous 2 time competitor in the Iditarod dogsled race across Alaska and was running the Galena checkpoint for this year’s race.
Jon treated me to a quick visit to his home – a traditional “yurt” with no running water or electricity. He had lived here with his wife and young family for 11 years and they were some of the happiest people I have ever met! Modern technology by damned.
On with more layers, load up the snowmobiles, attach the sled full of supplies and we were off… As we dropped down onto the frozen Yukon River I was in absolute awe over this amazingly surreal landscape. It was intensely cold yet with crystal clear skies the light carved out patterns and textures all around us. The intricate and varied shapes of clear ice that protruded through the snow marked our way along the river. I have travelled a lot but this was the most incredible feeling I have ever experienced!
Our mission was to track our way along the frozen Yukon in search of dog teams in the epic Iditarod dog sled race – a historic race covering 1200 miles across frozen Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. The sun was lowering and throwing long shafts of light through the trees onto the frozen terrain when in the far distance we saw our first team. Stopping and turning off our machines I was immediately overtaken by the astonishing silence of this place. Broken only by the approaching commands of the musher to his dogs and the repetitive ‘swish swish’ of their running feet through snow.
We continued for another couple of hours as the sun lingered patiently on the edge of the horizon. Several more teams journeyed past before – seemingly from nowhere – a lone mountain biker appeared on the trail. And I was pretty sure I wasn’t cold enough to be hallucinating just yet.
He stopped to talk and told us he was mountain biking the complete Iditarod Trail – unaccompanied, without support and without utilising the huts or checkpoints along the way (where the mushers stop to eat and sleep and to feed and rest their dogs). He was even carrying all of his own supplies! And this is through snow, on a bike, for 1200 miles! With the current temperature below minus 35 we decided he was either a total hard bas***d, or completely mad, or even more likely – a bit of both!
At last the sun disappeared and we finished our day at one of Jon’s remote yurt camps, complete with small log cabin and wood stove. In no time the fire was cranking, our frozen water supply was set out to thaw and Jon had cooked up a hearty moose stew. As a first time moose – eater I have to say it was delicious. After dinner I layered up to protect against the night-time temperature which was dipping below minus 40 by this stage, and ventured outside to see what Jon was up to. His headlamp in the distance led me to a spot on the Yukon where John had arranged two reclining loungers, a flask of coffee and right before me, the most amazing show of Northern Lights.
There are certainly challenges to taking photos in these conditions. I learnt quickly that I had to hold my breath whilst looking through the camera as any moisture from my exhalation instantly froze my cheek to the back of the camera! Any condensation at all froze immediately, completely encasing the camera in a clear layer of thin ice. To their credit my cameras kept operating flawlessly despite these conditions… Which was more than I could say for my fingers! And trying to keep my eyelids from freezing shut was a whole new experience entirely. There were contact icicles sticking to and slowly numbing every area of exposed skin… Time to grow a beard I think, and quickly.
The next morning saw us back out on the Yukon. The first musher we came across that day was Newton Marshall, an unlikely character who instantly caught my attention. The first ever Jamaican dog sledder to enter the Iditarod!
After a long day on the frozen river we returned to Galena’s busy transition point. There were a dozen or so dog teams being tended by their mushers, checked by vets and bedded down for a rest. There were mushers doing running repairs, grabbing a bite to eat and snatching a quick couple of hours’ sleep in the community hall to be ready for the icy conditions once out on the trail again. We spent the night at the checkpoint watching the teams come and go, watching the volunteers – who all go without sleep for days on end to offer support to the teams, watching planes flying past enroute to drop supplies along the trail, and watching the locals with their constant and very welcome supply of hot food for all and sundry… It wasn’t Grand Central station but it was as close as you were likely to get out here.
Leaving Galena I flew north to Nome, the finishing point of the race. It was here I would witness the real solitude of Nome – on the coast of Alaska about as far north as people travel - and the finish of the heroic Iditarod race. I was met by Richard Beneville, my “go-to” man on the ground in Nome. A true Alaskan character he was a laugh a minute and had a lot more planned for me than just waiting in Nome for the first dog team to arrive.
Crack of dawn the next morning I was met by a local hunter with a lifetime of experience in the Alaskan wilderness who was going to take me out to find musk ox – which I would be shooting with my camera as opposed to a gun. Within a few hours of our snowmobile journey (I was quite enjoying being at the helm of these things, imagine a jet ski but on steroids) we had indeed found musk ox, caribou and moose. All happy to pose for my camera.
Then it was back into town for the afternoon in anticipation of the winning Iditarod team crossing the finish line. The local siren sounds when the team is ten minutes out and the streets become packed with cheering crowds lining the home straight as we watched Lance Mackey making it home as the first man to win the Iditarod four consecutive years in a row. By this stage the town had swelled to four times its normal population and the place was absolutely buzzing with excitement and celebration.
Watching Lance rejoice with his dogs after the race you get a real sense of the bond these guys have with their team. Anybody with a pet dog at home knows the undying loyalty and devotion these animals are capable of. But when you put that in an environment where both man and dog’s lives literally depend upon the relationship and trust they have for each other, it’s truly humbling to witness. Disney have summed it up in a number of great snow and sled dog movies, but the real thing is that much more powerful.
The next morning, my last day, Richard arrived first thing to pick up my luggage and to drop me off at a local builder’s house who was lending me his “racing snowmobile”. These things just get better! I was then met by Miner Nick, a young guy who had ingeniously built his house on the beach from driftwood and other stray materials he had picked up from the foreshore. However a recent snow storm meant only the roof top and one second floor window were visible above the snowline. It was through the window that Nick entered his house! Nick spent his summers diving for gold in the Bering Sea and his winters ice fishing for the sought after delicacy of Alaskan crab. Together we travelled 5 miles out over the frozen Bering Sea to check Nick’s crab pot line. The early morning glow of sunrise was simply amazing out on the ice (at a luxurious 9.30am) and we spent the morning collecting Nick’s catch – which he admitted had been a bit slow for the past week. It was from here I rode my snowmobile across the frozen Bering sea and straight to the airport where Richard was waiting with my bags to meet my flight. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to take a regular airport shuttle again! The local’s favourite saying “there is no place like Nome” couldn’t be more true. This place was simply unbelievable.
My Alaskan winter journey had come to an end. It’s hard to imagine once you’re back home in your “normal” world that such a magical and extraordinary place really exists. And so, just to reassure myself that it wasn’t all a dream, I’ve already begun planning for my next return – this time to see the Eskimo and the polar bears. There IS no place like Nome.