Snowflakes crusted my window as I peered down into vast openness. Jagged silver mountains cut into nearby clouds. For years I’ve been fascinated with what, with who survives when green is gone and winter white rules. Curious, ready to explore, I landed ready for adventure. In just days I’d run 100 miles while pulling a 25-pound sledge loaded with survival equipment under a 48-hour time limit. My days prior would be spent travelling Alaska, learning how to succeed in The Last Frontier… in February.
In 1905 two brothers loaded a canoe, left Fairbanks, and rowed up the Chena River seeking natural hot springs as described by a government survey published a year earlier. It was an adventure to relive one of the men from his persistent rheumatism. What they found a month later is now the Chena Hot Springs Resort and Spa, my first stop.
Entering the gate of the resort is like entering a refuge in this remote, frozen landscape. Life bustles as I learn to plug my rental car into a heater, set to keep my engine warm. The confused assemblage of buildings sits hard and stoic, each frozen in a thin layer of ice, sun rays delightfully twinkling their edges.
The main attraction is, of course, the hot springs, a steaming pool of water naturally created as the earth pushes heated water up through its surface. I soak in the healing waters, giving my body a well-deserved break. But the resort isn’t solely about the springs; there are family activities, an ice museum and bar, tours of the greenhouse, growing a majority of the food served on the property, and there’s even a chance to peek into its groundbreaking geothermal plant. My perception was far from off. The Chena community isn’t just surviving; they’re thriving, using new technologies, eating locally before local was a trend, and using its resources efficiently.
Later that night, on top a nearby hillside, I set up my tripod, shiver in the frosty breeze and wait. And wait some more. Anticipating greatness. From beyond the next hill over, the tiniest of white streaks pushes its way into the sky. Was I seeing this right? For a moment still low, but then expanding further and further across Earth’s dome, meandering with charm. A second appears; a vivid green leaving its dust trail as it snakes from horizon to horizon. In a world too often stained with violent images, I stood in awe, paralyzed in reverence, eyes locked above, peacefully witnessing the Northern Lights; a sight so intrinsically sacred even a low whisper among friends felt disrespectful. “Are you seeing this?…”
Days later I was awe-struck again, not by nature but by mankind, or rather womankind. Karin Hendrickson, eight-time Iditarod competitor, instructs me on the ins and outs of running dogs. But it is not the tutorial I’m most interested in; it’s Karin. After volunteering twice as a handler, she left all she knew behind in Idaho and relocated to Alaska in 2003 to begin a new chapter, one following her new found passion. I follow Karin through her morning ritual and quickly realize dog racing isn’t a full-time job, it’s a life commitment. It’s all-consuming requiring drive, mental agility and endurance.
Weeks before the 2015 Iditarod, while out on a training run, Karin was struck by a truck. Loose, her dogs ran on as she lies in a ditch with three broken vertebrae. More concerned about the dogs than herself, she called a fellow musher who organized a team to find her furry crew. As Karin and I tour her kennel, I cannot help but think the events she’s describing happened a year ago. Just a year. She tells me of her painful, sleepless nights laying in bed, the exhausting recuperation, of the decision to fight on, learning not only to walk again but to compete in the next Iditarod; a 1,049 mile, 9 to 15-day journey through the Alaskan wilderness done while mushing a team of 21 dogs. Her race was just two weeks away; mine, just two days.
Dawn breaks at 9am as I take my first steps away from the comfort and warmth of a kennel on Big Lake and begin my 100-mile saga. As with any excursion, I prepare, double check all I need and then jump into the unknown. The first handful of miles breeze by with excitement and adrenaline, but slowly the gravity of the challenge slows me down. For miles, hours upon hours, and into a second day, I trek through Northern Anchorage’s frigid topography of frozen rivers, swamps and tight twisting trails without seeing another soul, but held company by the talk within. “Make smart choices,” “Just keep moving,” and one of my more light-hearted go-to’s: “Thank you Legs.”
During the race, I drifted back to those years spent as a kid, playing in the winter forest behind my childhood house. The snow was light, soft, gentle, illuminated by the rays of a weak January sun. The creek perfectly frozen over with the most beautiful, imperfect web of cracks. I remember joy shared with my best friend as we brushed snow aside, put our noses to the ice, glove-covered hands shielding the light around our eyes as we gazed trying to look deep within. My sledge rams the back of my ankles forcing me out of romance and back into my current reality…
Not many places in the world is there the treasure of such isolation, space and freedom to contemplate where we’ve been and where we’d like to go. But I focus on where I am. Now. Halfway through what’s nicknamed Dismal Swamp for the second time. The frozen calmness, the small band of light silhouetting purple and white mountains far on the horizon, the way ice forces down the backs of the trees of this Boreal forest, it’s more than eerie out here. It’s lonely, cold, and sad.
I sit with it. Rather I walk with it. The pull of my sledge painfully chokes my waist. But I push through, step by step, pacing myself. Karin flashes to mind reminding me of perseverance, of resilience. I know this is all temporary. Just as Dismal Swamp soon will team with colorful sailboats, rugged fly fishers and canoers rowing through a pleasant summer morning mist, I find myself beaming in a smile, singing lyrics of a favorite, slow beat, EDM song. “Hey survivor, don’t you be afraid, we are waiting for you, and soon you’ll be back again.” The tiniest of snowflakes begin to flutter as a tear escapes and I realize this world isn’t dismal at all. It’s wondrous; one to be explored, felt and celebrated. Darkness has again fallen. I can see the lights of the finish but the path to get there is still long and windy, still plenty of twists and turns to go. My continued euphoria runs me those last few miles. Unsure of where exactly the line of the finish is, I run toward my crew yelling in excitement. And in an instant, it’s over. I crossed. I crossed? Stumbling I look back and see a faint red paint stain marked across the snow, blown by the wind. This is the finish? But it can’t be… No crowd. No fanfare. No medal. Just my small film crew and some snowmobiles parked outside the same kennel I left 37 hours ago. While catching my breath a simple thought dawns: Maybe there never is a finish line.
I head inside the kennel to relax, begin to recover and eat some chips and rice. Don’t ask; just what I was craving! I joke, share a light laugh with my couple of friends and crew gathered. “Well, that was fun,” I remark with a spoonful of soy sauce with a couple grains of rice going into my mouth. In the satisfaction of the moment, I realize curiosity doesn’t stop. Once again, I embrace that small voice nagging within; the one leading us to some far off, unknown places in mind, body and spirit; the voice that makes us wonder and question. The voice that dares, challenges and tempts us. Sometimes we fly, other times we stumble. But all the while, curiosity demands more while continuing to push us forward. I look up to my friends and with a smile simply ask, “What’s next?”
Additional images: Karl Simone Photography