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It’s been awhile since I’ve gotten to go on a lone road trip. I’ll
admit I was giddy heading out of Fairbanks down the George Parks Highway to
Denali—120 miles south. With a two-year old I don’t often (or ever) get to
blast the radio with my favorite hair bands consuming the sound waves. With
“Welcome to the Jungle” exploding the speakers, so commenced a day in the Park.
Views of the Tanana Valley sprawled on the left as I climbed the hills
outside Fairbanks. Climbing and dipping over the ridges lent views of fall’s
forthcoming colors. Splashes of yellow dotted the south-facing hillside and the
sky was bright blue. At 65 above it was perfect driving weather.
Once out of the hills you come upon the little town of Nenana, Alaska—a
small place with a big history. The hub of Interior Alaska transportation—until
the dawn of aviation—dog sleds and riverboats converged upon this small village
and fanned out upon braided trails and river routes. With enduring
traditions—like the Nenana Ice Classic—this stop along the highway is more than
just that. It’s a spoke of cultural preservation as a modernizing world
“progresses” around it.
At 12:30 pm I arrived just on time for Jeff King’s Husky Homestead
tour. Greeted by wagging tails I crouched down to poke my fingers through the fence
and scratch a dozen furry faces. Enclosed in an all-inclusive pen—it came with
authentic Alaska log cabin dog house and exercise wheel—two litters lounged and
napped atop one another. It is a family tradition in the King family that
Jeff’s daughters name the new pups. The girls have always chosen to name the new
litters in themes. These little boys and girls were of the Fabric—Cotton,
Rayon, Nylon, Burlap and Silk and Hat—Magic, Beanie, Fez, Ascot, Derby, Stetson
and Bonnet litters. They were all either full brother and sisters or at least
half-brother or sister—they all had the same dad—Suspect (you ol’ dog)!
For a small moment I had the pups to myself, but alas a bus with 16
eager visitors needed their puppy fix. I got to help welcome them with—a puppy!
That’s right! As part of the extremely important socialization program of dog
training, Husky Homestead ingeniously uses willing visitors to cuddle, snuggle
and smooch these fun-loving and gentle athletes.
After helping “train” these potential Iditarod winners an outdoors
demonstration shows the crowd how the dogs are harnessed, exercised, fed and
cared for. With a full yard of howls we went inside to learn about the man
behind the tour.
Jeff King is known as the world’s winningest dog musher. As a four-time
Iditarod winner, Jeff is one rugged athlete. He breeds winning dogs (not only
for his own team, but the competition’s, too), invents state of the art gear
(sleeping bag snow suit, anyone) and has mastered the art of racing—and all
with a humble spirit. As one whole wall of the theater is lined with his
trophies, he never once mentions his own victories. However, he’s never short
on stories of his four-legged champions.
In a quick shift of gears I headed back up (north) the highway for a
raft trip on the glacier-fed Nenana River with Denali Raft Adventures. With the
sun shining bright and views of the surrounding mountains in clear view, I was
pumped to get on the water.
Scheduled for what is called the Canyon Run I anticipated the need of a
dry suit as getting wet was a guarantee. At $1000 a piece there was a
short/informal, but serious training on how to get into these dry suits. I
couldn’t help feeling like I was being graded—I felt a ridiculous smile creep
across my face when the guide patted me on the back and said, “Good job!”
(Life’s about the small victories, right?)
With wet suits on and life vests
adjusted we boarded a repurposed school bus and headed to the water. “If you
enjoyed the ride, tip your guide” was hand-painted just above the rear view
mirror. I certainly enjoyed the comedic tone and efficiency thus far, but
wasn’t quite sure how one would nonchalantly pull bills out of a pocket now
fully enclosed—tucked, zippered and gasket-ed—to keep the elements at bay.
At the water’s edge our guide
performed a summary safety brief and into the raft we went. Perched at the
front of the raft I was next to a father and daughter from Indiana. There was
no doubt that all aboard had priceless views. Lacking a waterproof camera I was
reliant on memory to capture these 360 degree views. And that wasn’t easy—there
are only so many times one can describe something as “gorgeous,”
“breathtaking,” “pristine,” “awe-worthy,” “unreal.” A predicament I vocalized
to the group—how does one describe something as beautiful as this? To which the
young girl next to me replied, “There are no words. Period.”
As we negotiated white water runs
with names like “razor back” and “train wreck” and “coffee grinder” I was
surprised I hadn’t yet learned our guide’s name. “I’m Bacon!” I wasn’t quite
sure I heard right when he explained it. “Two-year olds can’t pronounce Jason
and it just kind of stuck.” I’m glad it did. How often do you get to rip
through white water in the middle of Alaska and hope that no one has to save
your bacon—except for maybe, well—Bacon! Needless to say, despite the killer
white water, it was only voluntarily that anyone ended up in the river.
Time passes quickly on the Nenana
River and it wasn’t long before we were pulling out of the water in Healy,
Alaska—a little coal-mining town just north of the Park. Back on the bus it was
a short drive back to Denali Raft Adventures with amazing late summer views of
the Alaska Range.
I walked through McKinley Village for a cup of coffee before heading back up the highway to Fairbanks. With a 16 ounce caramel latte firmly planted in the console I twisted up the volume dial and jammed to a little, "Nothing but a Good Time."
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