Before the informal Mushers Banquet, we attend a “meet-and-greet” cocktail gathering with the 67 contenders, a quarter of them women. They’re all very nice and chatty when I politely question what seems like an insane, treacherous tradition for four- and two-legged creatures. One musher tells me about hallucinating semi-trucks on the wind-whipped barren tundra and another about falling asleep at 3 a.m. and crashing into the solid Yukon River. Another racer, raising awareness for pediatric diseases, will carry the ashes of a 3-day-old baby girl in his sled.
At the rib-eye banquet, competitors pick bib numbers from a native mukluk boot and the next morning, with sled dogs yipping, yapping and powerfully pulling their harnesses, the Iditarod’s 11-mile ceremonial start dashes through fan-cheering downtown Anchorage. The following day, we’re at the race’s official start in Willow about 80 miles away.
On a calmer note, at a 1930s-era homestead in nearby Palmer, our group bonds with Ice Age musk ox. They look like bison who mated with Cousin Itt. About 80 of the shaggy, long-haired, rare ruminants lumber about — and play tetherball with their thick-horned heads — on the 75-acre nonprofit Musk Ox Farm. When they annually shed, their coats are hand-combed and the quiviut fiber turned into yarn for knitting.
“Alex Trebek is our patron saint,” the farm guide reveals. Turns out the “Jeopardy!” host, smitten with musk ox, is a farm benefactor and known as “Herd Godfather.” (Here is your clue, players: An Arctic animal whose hair is eight times warmer than wool and softer than cashmere.)
Next up is the eccentric tiny hamlet of Talkeetna, the inspiration for the town in TV’s “Northern Exposure.” Our group of 16 is staying at the bluff-top deluxe Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge (off-season we have the 212-room spread to ourselves) when predawn I’m in a lobby rocker drinking coffee under an upright 2,000-pound taxidermied grizzly bear shot by a 10-year-old girl. Slowly, miraculously, a coral-pink sunrise unveils the coveted prize right out the window: all 20,310 feet of elusive Mount Denali, the tallest peak in North America. Most tourists never see the entire mountain because it’s shrouded in cloud cover two-thirds of the time. Afterward, at the icicle-roofed down-home Roadhouse, we pour birch tree syrup over fluffy sourdough pancakes made from a 1902 starter. Our plucky waitress informs us that Stubbs, Talkeetna’s recently deceased mayor of 20 years — he was a tabby cat — has a meowing successor named Denali. She also has us pass around a fossilized walrus penis, an Alaskan souvenir.
This John Hall tour is the “Iditarod & Aurora Adventure,” and I’m obsessed about the latter. At the Talkeetna lodge, full-time “Aurora Hunter” Todd Salat gives a slide presentation about the unpredictable polar phenomena. Basically, the aurora borealis — aka the Northern Lights — results from solar-charged particles and you’ve got to have inky clear skies and no light pollution to have a crack at the most sought-after cosmic show.
Antlered trail escorts sometimes veer off the path at Running Reindeer Ranch near Fairbanks. (Norma Meyer/TNS)
Credit: Norma Meyer
Credit: Norma Meyer
Our best shot is north in Fairbanks. That’s where we join the herd at Running Reindeer Ranch for a comically enchanting daytime walk. Owner/reindeer guru Jane Atkinson first lays out ground rules about our seven hoofed escorts — most notably “Don’t play ‘push the antlers’ game with Jasper.” The 450-pound Jasper sports a helluva intimidating headdress and apparently insists on winning. We also learn crafty Olive will traipse right through the open door of Jane’s house. “She knows she’s not supposed to be inside so she goes into the bedroom to hide and lay down.”
Off we trek into the birch tree-dotted glistening boreal forest with reindeer behind us, or in front, or alongside so we can pet them, or roughhousing with each other (this is when you back up really fast). Young Margarita nuzzles her nose inside my coat. At one point, Buttercup is antler-gaiting me, then she dashes around and the “rip” I hear are her horns snagging my Velcro shoulder pocket.
After dinner, we’re in Fairbanks’ boonies gabbing over beers with folksy owners Ron and Shirley at their kitsch-crammed Chatanika Lodge saloon, its rafters plastered with thousands of visitor-signed dollar bills and a 1955 red Thunderbird parked inside. Out back around midnight we excitedly catch our first glimpse of the aurora, but it’s only a couple of hazy lime-toned bands that quickly fade.
Our very last day, we’re farther from Fairbanks staying at Chena Hot Springs Resort. In the morning, snow flurries cascade on hubby and me as we blissfully turn to rubber and my ponytail to permafrost in the 1905-discovered steamy springs of a boulder-rimmed man-made lake. That afternoon, we watch a sculptor carve our ice martini glasses before we plop on caribou fur-clad ice stools and belly up to the Aurora Ice Museum’s bar to lap appletinis. Later, our group piles into snowcats for an ultra-bumpy half-hour ride up a secluded mountain; standing in pillowy drifts, we toast the magnificent setting sun with Champagne. Yes, skies have amazingly cleared.
Around 9, I’m consuming a vat of vegetarian curry in the lounge when someone yells, “The aurora is starting!” Outside, it’s as if a luminous green funnel cloud touched down. I soon ride a snowcat back up the mountain for a sensational 360-degree view among gangly snow-draped spruce trees straight out of Dr. Seuss. In the bone-chilling pin-drop quiet wilderness, between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., Mother Nature delivers a doozy. The electrifying aurora repeatedly spirals up like genies, then flattens into wiggling chartreuse curtains underlined with magenta streaks. I can’t believe my lucky stars. But there they are, brightly piercing an emerald, otherworldly tango in the incomparable 49th state.
IF YOU GO
John Hall's Alaska offers various winter and summer tours. Reservations aren't being taken yet for the "Iditarod & Aurora Adventure" in 2019 and 2020, but you can contact the company to get on the wait-list for priority booking, www.kissalaska.com, (800) 325-2270.