24-Jan-2004 -- As a Christmas present, my husband arranged a weekend out at Winterlake Lodge (http://www.withinthewild.com/content/subpages/winterlake_winter), about 100 air miles from Anchorage, Alaska. The lodge is actually on Finger Lake, which is a checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail and famous for the thousand-mile dog sled race to Nome each year. It wasn’t until after we planned the trip that we noticed we’d be fairly close to 62ºN, 152ºW and although it’s only a secondary confluence, we were still excited about finding it.
We were scheduled to fly out from Anchorage at 10:00am AST on Friday, December 23. The morning was clear and beautiful. On our way to the airport, we could see across Cook Inlet to the Tordrillo Mountains to the west, and Denali (Mt. McKinley) was visible to the north. As we got closer to the airport however, we could also see a low bank of thick fog forming at the north end of town. By the time we were supposed to take off, dense fog had consumed Lake Hood and prevented all but IFR flights from departing (the Beaver that was to take us and three other lodge guests out was VFR). We were delayed for about three hours; however, we had a great time hanging around the little lobby swapping stories with Jack Barber (our pilot and owner of Alaska Air Taxi, http://www.alaskaairtaxi.com), his wife Brenda, and soon-to-be new friends Scott, Cristie, and Drew McMurren. Such is travel in Alaska.
Once in the air we were soon free of any clouds and moose spotting kept us engrossed until about an hour later when we neared Winterlake. Just before landing, I got a few photos of where I thought the confluence might be. We unloaded the plane, piled up gear in sleds, and strolled over to the lodge where Kirsten Dixon had a gourmet lunch waiting for us. Catching the last of the sunshine, we snow-shoed around the area for a bit, then settled in for the evening and a fantastic dinner in the main lodge. Our cabin was originally a trapper’s cabin, both well-built and beautifully maintained over the years. The pipes were frozen, but the stove worked just fine. One might think that having to take a trip to the outhouse in the middle of night at something below 0ºF would be a drawback, but when the sky is glowing with northern lights, the problem is that eventually, you have to come back IN.
In Alaska in January it’s easy to sleep in and still get up before dawn. Our first outing for the day (after rib-sticking Irish oatmeal, hot muffins, and fresh orange juice) was to break trail with skis and snowshoes over the part of the Iditarod trail that runs from the lodge westward. Ostensibly this helps condition the trail for the dozens of dog teams that will arrive in weeks to come, and I’m sure that’s the case when Carl Dixon grooms it by himself. He was kind enough to let us think that our tromping around for half a mile or so actually contributed something to the race. I know it made us feel good, but in hindsight, he’s got some extra work to do filling in the craters made by skiing mishaps, and snowshoe misdirection (making a trail where there shouldn’t be one).
Spoiled now to Kirsten’s meals, we delayed our trek to the confluence until after lunch (it is, after all, only a secondary point). We tempted a few others to join us and because we were already losing light, Carl opted to caravan out in snow machines, which would shorten the hike to about half a mile. Scott was going to join us on snowshoes, and Carl would catch up with us on skis after he tended to a bit of trail branch trimming. Sadly we learned too late that Scott’s borrowed snowshoes were too small for the task of floating him over deep snow. Being more explorers than humanitarians, Mark and I abandoned him at the third snowdrift, somewhat assured that Carl would find him and do something, well, humanitarian.
For the most part, I followed Mark’s tracks, trying to match his stride but make my steps outside his holes. After a few hundred yards of leaping from step to step, I decided to stop tracking "Godzilla" (Mark is very tall) and I settled for an uneven but less arduous trek. Fate and Mother Earth treated us well, as we were able to easily travel across beaver ponds and valley clearings. A short climb up and just beyond a ridge brought us to the spot after only about a half hour. Had it been summer, the same trip might have taken hours and we would have been visited by millions of mosquitoes. We both photographed the GPS, each other, and ourselves. We looped back and missed Carl by a few yards but we all gathered back at the bottom of the hill for our saunter back over the beaver ponds and up to the snow machines. Scott had already returned to the Lodge with his son, Drew.
Yes, you guessed it; we celebrated with a grand dinner and wine.