by Allen Cox
Few natural phenomena inspire such awe and fascination as the northern lights. Those who travel to the far north during the aurora season (mid-August through mid-April) just might be fortunate to catch the performance, that is, if the sun—the catalyst for the light show—happens to fire its solar flares in our direction. Combine this with witnessing the excitement of a 1,000-mile dog-sled race and you have a recipe for an unforgettable winter adventure in Alaska.
John Hall’s Alaska, a tour company that has been taking guests to the most remote reaches of Alaska for decades, makes the magic happen for those who commit to the 11-day travel experience, “Iditarod and Aurora Adventure.” Expertly led by Alaska insiders, the tour begins in Anchorage and ends in Fairbanks with exciting adventures along the way, many off the beaten path where most travelers never have an opportunity to go.
Once you arrive in Anchorage, everything is taken care of for you by your guides—lodging, meals, activities, transportation, baggage handling and more. You can sit back and enjoy the adventure worry-free. Of course, no one travels to the far north for a winter adventure without the proper cold-weather gear. John Hall’s Alaska provides a suggested packing list so you’re outfitted against the frigid temperatures, and they even provide you a subzero coat to protect you from the elements.
Anchorage is home to the ceremonial start of the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The entire city is abuzz with locals and visitors from around the world, all there to cheer on the dog teams as they run the course through the city. As a John Hall’s Alaska guest, you get to attend the official launch banquet and presentations, where you will learn about the race, get familiar with each of the teams and pick the one you’re rooting for to cross the finish line first.
While in Anchorage, you’ll have some free time to explore on your own. Tip: To learn what’s brewing in town, book the Big Swig Tour to visit some local craft breweries, meet the brewers for behind-the-scenes tours and, of course, sample their brews.
A day trip from Anchorage on John Hall’s Alaska luxury motorcoach takes you to the Musk Ox Farm in nearby Palmer, where you’ll enjoy a guided walk through the farm to meet the musk oxen in their natural element: snow and ice. This species has survived from the Paleolithic Era when they coexisted with the woolly mammoth and other mega fauna. They are prized for their undercoat, called qiviut, which is the warmest wool on earth. The Musk Ox Farm is dedicated to domesticating this once-endangered animal and provides optimal care.
With the anticipation of witnessing one of the world’s most extreme competitive events, you’ll leave Anchorage for the tiny town of Talkeetna where cozy Talkeetna Lodge—with North America’s tallest mountain in full view on a clear day—becomes home base. There, one of Alaska’s most renowned photographers provides guests a workshop on the tricky business of photographing the northern lights.
But the tour isn’t finished with the Iditarod yet. Nearby, you will visit the Iditarod headquarters and then witness the start of the actual Iditarod race. This is the real deal. Dog sleds are meticulously packed with the necessities of survival. The mushers are as prepared as they can be, and the yapping dogs are so ready to begin the race that it’s all they can do to contain themselves. You take your place on the sidelines as, one by one, the mushers and their dog teams burst out of the gate to begin the 1,000-mile journey across Alaska to Nome. The adrenaline is palpable. One can only guess at the stamina each of the teams will have to muster as they race from checkpoint to checkpoint before the final, arduous stretch to Nome, if they make it that far.
With the racers well on their way west, the tour heads north past Denali to Fairbanks, the departure point for a small plane flight to one of the Iditarod checkpoints, a village where the teams stop for a rest along the Iditarod route. As mushers arrive with their dog teams, you’ll watch the fascinating process of laying straw on the snow for the dogs to bed down and get some much-needed rest. The mushers melt snow over a camp stove and boil meat and salmon for a warm stew they feed the dogs, and, if the musher is lucky, when all the work is done, they may get to lie down and catch a few hours’ sleep as well.
Weather permitting, the flight back to Fairbanks makes a pit stop for a few hours above the Arctic Circle, often in the tiny community of Bettles on the edge of the vast Gates of the Arctic National Park. In Bettles—home to a lodge, a handful of residents and a sled dog kennel—you get a glimpse of what life is like in the Arctic winter.
The final days of the tour take place 25 miles outside of Fairbanks at Borealis Basecamp, a resort dedicated to viewing the northern lights. This region of the far north is under the “Auroral Oval,” a band that circles the northern hemisphere where the aurora is most likely to be visible. When you arrive, you’ll settle into your own cozy geodesic igloo with a transparent dome for optimal aurora viewing from your bed. You’ll take all three meals in a central dining yurt—all exquisitely prepared by a professional culinary team led by chef George Easter. Days are spent dog sledding with the resident canines, snowmobiling, helicopter touring or simply napping to make up for the sleep you lost viewing last night’s aurora from your igloo.
The end of some tours is a bittersweet affair, and the John Hall’s Alaska Iditarod and Aurora Adventure is certainly one of them. While you wish the adventure would last a couple more days at least, you will have acquired memories and photos to last a lifetime.
Check out this and other tours offered by John Hall’s Alaska at kissalaska.com. Learn more about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race at iditarod.com.
Aurora Viewing Guide
Fairbanks, situated on the 65th parallel in the sub-arctic, has low precipitation and distance from coastal areas, which all contribute to clear skies. In addition, low light pollution and long nights for most of the year contribute to darker skies that are optimal for northern lights viewing. All of these reasons combined make Fairbanks one of the best locations in the world to view the aurora. The Aurora Viewing Map & Guide by Explore Fairbanks demystifies chasing the aurora borealis for travelers seeking to view the northern lights in the Fairbanks region. This useful tool offers the core science behind the aurora, basics on photographing the northern lights, tips for aurora chasing and includes a map of prime aurora viewing locations. Travelers to Fairbanks can pick up the free Explore Fairbanks Aurora Viewing Map & Guide at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in downtown Fairbanks. Or find the interactive online version at explorefairbanks.com/aurora.