When most people were looking to tropical beaches to escape this year’s crazy winter, Kari Madden was doing the exact opposite. She packed her bags for snowy Alaska where her cousin was about to compete in the Last Great Race on Earth, the Iditarod! Along the way, she also discovered a hidden winter wonderland: Winterlake Lodge.
When I first told people I was heading to Alaska at the end of February, they looked at me horror and exclaimed, “But it’s winter! Isn’t it even colder there than it is here!?” I explained that I was going for the biggest event of the year in Alaska–the Iditarod Dog Sled Race! It is a world famous race that follows a 1049-mile trail through the Alaskan wilderness, where the racers have only a sled and their team of 16 dogs to make it to the finish line in Nome, Alaska. My friends usually continued to look at me in disbelief as they tried to wrap their minds around what I just said.
To start the trip off perfectly, my dad and I were heading to Absolute Travel’s newest Getaways property, Winterlake Lodge, located 198 miles up the Iditarod Trail at the Finger Lake checkpoint. We were going to get a sneak preview of what the Iditarod racers would be experiencing a few days later with their dog teams!
As our ski plane took off from Anchorage, I got a sense of the vast expanse of wilderness that made up Alaska. It was breathtaking. Towering mountains spread across the entire horizon and snow-covered forests below us cleared only for the winding, icy riverbeds. Within seconds we had passed all signs of civilization, except for the occasional snowmobile trail that connected the sparse hunting cabins every 40 or so miles apart. “See that mountain in the distance? That’s Denali,” our pilot, Paul, grumbled into the headset, “and there’s the Iditarod Trail below us. Winterlake Lodge is just over this ridge.” And suddenly the trail disappeared into the trees once more as we soared up and over the snowy ridge. The Alaska Mountain Range towered in front of us, completely humbling our tiny plane. Paul glided us smoothly down onto the frozen Finger Lake where we were met by Carl & Ty on snow machines. They would be our guides for the next two days.
We had entered a true winter wonderland. Within the first few hours at the lodge, we were introduced to their adorable yet rambunctious sled dog team, we snowmobiled through nearby snow fields to get a better view of Denali, we followed the tracks of a lone coyote, we went snowshoeing to Red Lake and along part of the Iditarod Trail, we enjoyed an evening massage, we feasted on delectable Alaskan salmon and fine wine, and we soaked in the wooden hot tub lit by ice lanterns along the deck.
Since we were there a few days prior to the start of the Iditarod, we could see the preparations for the huge race beginning to unfold. The “doggy parking lot” was being constructed out of hay on the lake for the teams that would spend the night at the Finger Lake checkpoint. The kitchen staff was planning how they would provide meals to each of the 69 racers and hundreds of volunteers that would be coming by in just a few days. The excitement was already beginning to build, even way out here, almost 200 miles from the starting point of the race.
We quickly learned that another race was already underway—the UltraSport Race, or the Iditarod Trail Invitational—and racers were continuously coming through the lodge, each with incredible stories of their own. The UltraSport Race is the world’s largest winter ultra-marathon, where racers either bike, walk, or ski along the Iditarod Trail one week prior to the famous dog race that follows the same path. These insane athletes can choose to go 300 miles—the the “short” race—or 1000 miles, all the way to Nome. We were hearing stories of racers getting lost for hours, frostbitten toes that would likely be lost, gear that was soaked, ruined, and useless—all depicting the extreme determination to make it to the finish line.
The next day, my dad and I got to try our hand at dog mushing as well. Never would I have thought how much effort went into steering a sled, while also keeping track of the dozen dogs powering you along the trail! We learned how to harness up the dogs, which dogs liked to run next to each other, and the most important rule: never, ever let go of the sled! The dogs were so excited to start running that they were jumping into the air and pulling with all their might against the sled brakes we had dug into the snow. The dogs that were left behind were howling in protest.
The second Carl lifted the brake hook from the snow, he barely had time to yell “hike!” before the team was off and we were flying through the trees. I started out sitting in the sled to get an idea of how it all was done. Carl was throwing his body weight from one side to the other to keep the sled in the middle of the trail. And I couldn’t stop laughing. The dogs were so excited to be running! We came out of the forest onto the frozen lake, and it was now my turn. Carl and his dog team were great teachers, and pretty soon I was navigating the team through the winding trees myself. It was one of the coolest feelings!
Later that afternoon, we took the snow machines out along the actual Iditarod trail to get a sneak-peak at what the Iditarod Racers would be dealing with in just a few days. It was insane! The trail dipped and dived over snow banks, through narrow passes, and along frozen river banks. This year’s winter had been unusually warm and dry; where there was normally 12 feet of snow, there was now barely 6 inches. This meant that the trail was now exposed to things that were normally completely covered by snow, creating ten times as many obstacles as normal. At one point, they had to chop a tree down to create a natural bridge over a flowing creek that normally would be nonexistent this time of year. My heart was thumping going over it on a snow machine – I couldn’t even imagine on a dog sled!
Our evenings were spent relaxing by the fire, listening to first-hand accounts of what it was like to live and raise a family in the Alaskan wilderness, and enjoying internationally acclaimed meals – easily some of the best food I have ever had in my life, never mind that we were hundreds of miles from the nearest town!
I was quite bummed when the time came to leave Winterlake Lodge, as there were countless other activities to do and areas to explore. I was just getting the hang of dog mushing and snow machining! Carl, Ty, and his entire staff made us feel as if we were part of the family! Plus, a group of people were coming in next week to go heli-skiing…and I wanted to join them!
As we waved goodbye from the ski plane, I was amazed once again by the incredible view from the sky. The mountains, valleys, and rivers looked even more stunning than before. Paul turned the plane in a full 360 at one point just so I could get a better photo of Mt. McKinley, and then dipped the plane down over the riverbed to show us five moose hanging out below us.
Explore our journeys to Alaska’s pure wilderness and check back in for Kari’s next post for the rest of her Iditarod experience soon!