2019 Recap: Doggies of Alaska

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Anchorage lake runway
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Winterlake lake runway

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A few days after sleeping through yet another New Year’s ball drop, we were on our way to the Great White North for a lovely little foray into backcountry Alaska to get the Winterlake Lodge & their dogs ready for the winter tour season. We packed some Army duffels, which fit our snowshoes quite well, donned our fur-trimmed winter coats from Wintergreen Northernwear, and flew outta the Midwest.  Steve had spent a winter season in Alaska before, but this was my first time to experience Alaska’s darker, colder, snowier side. Boy, was it something else.

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The only way to get to Winterlake Lodge is by plane, dog-sled, or snow machine (aka- snowmobile). There are no roads to the lodge. Nestled in the foothills on the south side of the Alaskan range, it’s about an hour plane ride to the lodge from Anchorage.  Not only do staff & guests have to be flown in, but so does fuel, food, trash, construction materials… you get the idea.  Every plane that comes out or in is loaded with something. Our flight out was on a large Otter plane, with Steve, lodge co-owner Kirsten, myself, and all the supplies the plane could carry.  While Kirsten had done this flight over the past 20 years more times that she can count, I knew views like this would be rare for us.  Trips to town weren’t exactly easy to come by.  The snow covered scenery below was pristine.  What a world!

As soon as we landed, it was go time.  We were greeted by Carl, Kirsten’s husband and co-owner of the lodge.  Goods were unloaded into sleds, inbound items loaded onto the plane, and to the lodge we went.  Since Steve had winter work experience, he drove a snow machine while I rode in the sled, protecting the eggs.  But my place in the sled didn’t last long. As soon as our bags were dropped off in our cabin and groceries were put away, we went out for my first snow machine lesson.  Snow machines are important tools for winter trail work, as they break trail in the new snow, then pack down the trails to make them more solid for the sled dogs to run on.  In the days before modern machinery, breaking and packing trail was done by a lead person on snow shoes.  Oof!  That’s a lot of miles!

We quickly settled into winter life at the lodge.  In the first two weeks, it was mostly just Steve, Carl, and myself living and working at the lodge.  Kirsten left for town a few days after we arrived, but got weathered out of returning for a week.  The three of us spent our time taking care of the dogs, preparing trails, and shoveling snow.

Did I mention shoveling snow?  Because it’s not the shoveling snow you think of in Illinois.  You’re not just relocating the few inches of snow from the front door to the car and maybe the driveway.  No.  This is creating paths and steps to go *down* into the outhouses.  This is removing feet of snow from all lodge buildings to prevent ice formation as they get heated, and to remove the heavy weight from the structures.

This is unburying 16 dog houses so it’s easy for the pups to get in and out of their homes.  This is no regular snow shoveling.  And this process never stops during the winter.  Just when you think you’re making head way on clearing roofs, it snows again.  Like, a lot.  Then you start the process all over.  Dog sled trails, dog houses, outhouses, roofs, etc.

We were joined by the rest of the winter crew during the last week of January.  Though everyone had their own role in the company (dishwasher, housekeeper, guide, cook), everyone joined in on snow removal and wood splitting.  The tasks outlined above became much more efficient with 10 more bodies on the ground [and on the roofs].  Everyone worked very hard to make use of the limited hours of daylight each day before the first guests arrived.

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Our work was broken up with time off to make sure we enjoyed the beautiful environment we lived in.  We snow shoed on the Iditarod Trail, watched moose meander around, played commercial bingo during the Super Bowl, experimented with fire photography, and most importantly, played with doggos.  Every day was dog day.  Feed, water, scoop poop, shovel houses, trim nails, training runs, and so, so many kisses.

As our time at the lodge came to an end, it was almost time for the 47th Annual Iditarod Race!  Winterlake lodge is an official checkpoint for mushers at Mile 123 (out of ~1000 miles).  While it would have been rad to watch the race teams roll through the property on their journey to Nome, we opted to head back to Anchorage earlier in the week to make arrangements for our next adventures, as planning was simpler with phone service and internet.

A few days before the Iditarod race began, the organization held a Meet & Greet where most of the mushers come to a banquet hall to sign autographs for excited race fans.  The veteran racers had very long lines, while the amateurs had much shorter lines.  Steve & I teamed up to collect as many signatures as possible.  He’d wait in the long lines, while I hopped around the shorter lines, then I’d jump in to get the autograph when he got to the front.  The main point of attending this event was to get my dad’s favorite musher’s autograph, Jessie Holmes, who is on the Alaska reality show “Life Below Zero”.  While Steve was in line, he recognized another attendee as a star from another show “Last Frontier”.  My dad, being the lover of adventure reality shows that he is, would love this surprise encounter.  Needless to say, I’m still his favorite daughter after gifting him the autographs.

Our time in Anchorage wrapped up with almost purchasing a beaver pelt at the Fur Rendezvous and watching the Ceremonial Start to the Iditarod Race down main street.  I learned so much during our short winter in Alaska.  My confidence level of dog handling has gone up significantly, as have my roof shoveling techniques & skills.  But now it was time to give our buff shoveling arms & frostbit sides a rest and head to warmer waters to get our gills wet again.

I would also like to note, in less than 2 months at the lodge, Steve not only physically worked hard every day, but with the help of our chef friends in the kitchen, he kept to a strict keto food plan and lost 30lbs!  Very proud of his dedication to continual self-improvement.  He’ll be posting about his current food journey while on the Florida Trail, so stay tuned to see what happens on trail with no meat! 😮

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