In the heart of Alaska, seren­ity springs eter­nal

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY KATE SIBER Spe­cial to The Washington Post

I was out­num­bered. Ten Alaskan huskies yelped, jumped and trem­bled with ex­cite­ment on a snowy hill 10 miles out­side Fair­banks, Alaska. My dog-sled in­struc­tor, Les­lie Good­win, sat in the bas­ket of my sled as I poured all my weight onto the foot brake. I couldn’t be­lieve that she trusted me to drive this thing.

“Let’s go!” she said and smiled up at me, amused by my un­ease. I gin­gerly slid my foot off the brake. With a jerk, the dogs sprang into a gal­lop, and I shrieked. But they quickly set­tled into a rhyth­mic trot, and the stab of adren­a­line soon melted into calm.

We floated through spruce forests and un­tracked mead­ows topped by a pale sky. I eased my grip on the han­dle and watched an un­bro­ken tableau of woods and fields un­furl be­low us. It was hard to be­lieve that we were just out­side Alaska’s sec­ond-largest city.

Once an early 20th-cen­tury trad­ing post that served gold min­ers, Fair­banks is now a flat, frozen col­lege town of 32,000. But it’s most no­table for what sur­rounds it: a 7,000-square-mile bor­ough of bo­real forests, peaks and glaciers. This part of Alaska is marked by harsh ex­tremes — vi­cious wind, up to 20 hours of dark­ness and tem­per­a­tures that reg­u­larly dive be­low zero. It’s not an ob­vi­ous des­ti­na­tion for mid­win­ter rest and re­lax­ation. Most of the few win­ter vis­i­tors come with a pur­pose: to see the aurora bo­re­alis. I’d come for more than that. I’d spent the pre­vi­ous week on a rau­cous, bour­bon-soaked ski trip with friends in Prince Wil­liam Sound and was in need of detox. I’d come seek­ing a sliver of peace, but I was also cu­ri­ous about the beauty of the in­te­rior. What I found sur­prised me. Af­ter three trips to Alaska, I re­al­ized that I’d never truly un­der­stood the spirit of the state un­til I vis­ited its re­mote north­ern reaches last win­ter, alone.

Rail­way zen

To get from An­chor­age to Fair­banks, most sen­si­ble peo­ple take a flight. I, how­ever, de­cided to take the train, a 12-hour roll through the deep freeze of cen­tral Alaska. I wanted to un­der­stand the scale of the state

by trav­el­ing through it, not over it, and it seemed lux­u­ri­ous to have noth­ing to do but watch the world go by.

From the sta­tion in down­town An­chor­age, we rat­tled past homes steam­ing with heat and the dis­tant peaks of the Chugach moun­tain range, ex­hal­ing puffs of wind­blown snow. The rail­road is still a trans­porta­tion cor­ri­dor for cer­tain snow­bound home­steads, such as Sherman and Chase, where res­i­dents waited by the tracks for sup­plies.

Soon, the set­tle­ments thinned into mead­ows, forests and moun­tains. Old tele­graph poles and the oc­ca­sional cabin stood in vary­ing states of de­cay. I spot­ted a moose and watched a black fox, stark against a white meadow, scare a flock of crows into flight. We headed through De­nali Na­tional Park and past the con­ti­nent’s tallest moun­tain, wrapped in clouds.

Only the oc­ca­sional gorge or peak in­ter­rupted the sooth­ing monotony of trees. The sheer scale of it could eas­ily in­spire bore­dom or un­ease, but for me, it was fas­ci­na­tion. The train rocked me into a med­i­ta­tive trance, and as the hours rolled by, I re­al­ized that this is the only way a trav­eler can be­gin to grasp a place so big and wild: by sim­ply watch­ing it. Suf­fused with seren­ity

The next morn­ing, I rented a car and set off for a small inn, the Lodge at Black Rapids, 130 miles south of Fair­banks. Frozen slush packed the roads and spin-drift ob­scured the yel­low lines, but I kept driv­ing. I passed a mil­i­tary base and two barely-there towns, each just a hand­ful of shiv­er­ing stores.

The Lodge at Black Rapids is in an un­likely spot, 40 miles from the near­est town, Delta Junc­tion, on the Richard­son High­way. Built next to a crum­bling 1902 road­house that once sup­plied whiskey and beds to gold rush­ers, the 10-room tim­ber-frame lodge caters to lo­cals in win­ter and tourists in sum­mer. But when I ar­rived, there was no one around. I opened the pon­der­ous wooden door and stepped into the brac­ing si­lence.

“Sh­h­hhh,” I heard from be­hind the gi­ant stone chim­ney in the cen­ter of the room. Be­hind it, the pro­pri­etor, An­nie Hop­per, sat cradling a 1-day-old in­fant. She smiled and spoke in whis­pers. The baby girl was the child of em­ploy­ees who live on the premises. Hop­per’s seren­ity seemed to suf­fuse the room, and I felt my shoul­ders loosen.

Run­ning the lodge is a la­bor of love for Hop­per, a gre­gar­i­ous so­cial worker from Fair­banks, and her hus­band, Michael, a quiet, bearded psy­chol­o­gist with an in­tense gaze. They built it with the help of friends, adding such cre­ative touches as a belvedere for watch­ing the north­ern lights. Both are in love with the land­scape and the quiet life. They spend a few days a week here, but hope to live here for good one day.

Ev­ery day, An­nie takes an out­door ex­cur­sion, and she later rented me a pair of the lodge’s snow­shoes to climb the moun­tain out back. As I tromped up the slope be­neath mot­tled clouds, the 10-de­gree air felt like a tonic in my lungs. Ev­ery­where, the tracks of small mam­mals, stir­ring with the sug­ges­tion of spring, per­fo­rated the snow be­neath the wind-stunted black spruce trees. An­nie stopped to turn around and look at the val­ley be­low.

“This is our tele­vi­sion show,” she said. “I could sit here all day watch­ing the weather move through the val­ley.” We gazed over the wide glacial val­ley, the braided Delta River and the rows of peaks, some of which haven’t yet been named. The clouds lifted and de­scended in a mys­te­ri­ous chore­og­ra­phy, re­veal­ing the land­scape in al­lur­ing pieces. I mar­veled at the sim­plic­ity of sound: only the shear­ing of the breeze over the sur­face of the snow.

That evening, the other guests — a lo­cal cou­ple and a lo­cal fam­ily — and I gath­ered for a din­ner of buf­falo roast and drinks by the fire. The at­mos­phere was so warm and drowsy that I re­tired early, crav­ing sleep.

The power of quiet

There is a type of rest that hap­pens, for me, only in the ab­sence of elec­tron­ics and sound. I rose the next morn­ing as if I had awak­ened in a new cen­tury. I opened the shades to the sil­ver light of an over­cast day. Snowflakes drifted in the air, aim­less. The out­lines of the trees against the snow looked crisper than usual, as if I were look­ing through a sharper lens — or per­haps just a more spa­cious mind.

In my nor­mal life, I try to do as much as I pos­si­bly can, cram­ming each day with a numb­ing litany of tasks. It’s only nat­u­ral that when I travel, I do the same thing. I do and see as much as pos­si­ble — mu­se­ums, city streets, restau­rants, mon­u­ments, peo­ple.

But here, in the ab­sence of elec­tron­ics, a good cell­phone sig­nal and any­thing im­por­tant to do, I loos­ened my grip on my sched­ule. I stretched, read my book in a hug of an easy chair, and tromped up an­other moun­tain on snow­shoes, stop­ping to con­tem­plate the slant­ing light and the ev­i­dence of moose and fox.

In late March, Alaska is slowly emerg­ing from the dark dor­mancy of win­ter. The sun al­ready lingers un­til 9 o’clock, and twi­light stretches for hours. It felt al­most as if time were length­en­ing, dis­solv­ing the sense of ur­gency that per­pet­u­ally nags at me.

I be­gan to re­al­ize the power of quiet, and how some­times the best way to truly un­der­stand a place isn’t to go and do but rather to sit and be. In the qui­etest mo­ments of that day — as when I stopped to feel the prick of the wind on my face only for it to abate in a brief, per­fect moment of still­ness — I be­gan to un­der­stand, in my bones, the north, with its spec­tac­u­lar ex­tremes, wild­ness and long, sin­u­ous light, all of which chases some peo­ple away and for­ever se­duces oth­ers.

An en­dur­ing mys­tery

A cou­ple of days later, I drove to Chena Hot Springs. Sixty miles north­east of Fair­banks, it was orig­i­nally dis­cov­ered by gold min­ers in the early 20th cen­tury. Now, there’s a small, ca­sual re­sort with guest rooms, dog-mush­ing tours and ski rentals. But the place re­mains a pil­grim­age site for lo­cals in win­ter. Af­ter cross-coun­try ski­ing up a frozen riverbed, I changed into my swim­suit and slid into the min­eral pool, en­sconced by boul­ders. Clos­ing my eyes, I let the sun warm my face and the steam soften my hair.

There was al­most no one there ex­cept an el­derly Alaska Na­tive cou­ple, who said that they made the schlep ev­ery year from their home near An­chor­age. As they leaned back against a rock, I watched the calm wash over their faces, as if the water had the power to rinse away the stiff­ness of win­ter. I let my back soften and my arms float, watch­ing the spruce and birch trees for stir­ring wildlife.

I was fly­ing out of Alaska later that night, and sit­ting in the pool, I re­flected on my trip. I re­al­ized that I never had got­ten to see the north­ern lights, which re­port­edly travel through the sky like phan­toms on clear nights.

In a way, I was glad, not only be­cause it meant that I had a rea­son to come back. It also seemed fit­ting that this place, a mind­bend­ing mix of big land­scapes and del­i­cate beauty, would re­tain a shred of mys­tery.


Icy par­adise: Chena Hot Springs, north­east of Fair­banks, Alaska, is a pil­grim­age site for lo­cals in win­ter.


Win­ter won­der­land: Fair­banks is most no­table for what sur­rounds it: a 7,000-square-mile bor­ough of bo­real forests, peaks and glaciers.


Light show: Fair­banks at­trac­tions such as White Moun­tain Na­tional Recre­ation Area of­fer a view of the aurora bo­re­alis.


Cold com­fort: A view of the Chena River at sun­set.

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