Personal Journey: An unexpected Alaskan adventure

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Left to right, Celia, Paul, and author, Monica Gondek standing in Bettles, Alaska, 35 miles above the Arctic Circle at 11 p.m. in March ,2017, looking at the Northern Lights.

When our daughter Celia told us that in March  2017 she might be working in one of four distant locales (Guam, the Mariana Islands, Alaska, or Hawaii), we said we would meet her there for an adventure.  Of course, I dreamed of a warm climate, but she was chosen for Alaska.  We began to prepare for cold weather.

The trip turned out to be a surprising mix of relaxation, education, and inspiration, along with a rewarding dining experience.

In mid-March, my husband, Paul, and I flew to Anchorage, where Celia was working, and we spent three days exploring the city.  It is small enough to walk everywhere easily and has wonderful restaurants. The Anchorage Museum featured two fascinating exhibits: one on the native people of Alaska, and the other describing the convoluted relationship between the United States and Russia over “Seward’s Folly,” Alaska statehood, the Cold War, and the possibility of the Crimea-zation of Alaska.  Our daughter’s colleagues were kind and generous; they took us to the Alyeska ski resort, where we saw a moose munching on a tree branch by the side of the road.

From Anchorage, we all rode the Alaskan Railway to Fairbanks.  The twice-weekly winter service was delightfully calm and serves locals who live far from any towns as a “flag stop” train.  The views were spectacular:  frozen rivers, snowy peaks, deep gorges, and — the best view of all — Denali, North America’s highest peak.

Fairbanks had the feel of a small town.  We viewed the International Ice Sculpture Competition in minus-10-degree weather, but the beauty of the ice sculpture was worth the cold evening.  The city’s Visitors Center had wonderful exhibits about the Iditarod and the return of land to the native people of Alaska through the Alaska Native Settlement Act.

The next day, we flew in a nine-seat plane to Bettles, a tiny settlement 35 miles above the Arctic Circle. We found welcoming hosts, good food, great company, somewhat spartan accommodations, and beautiful scenery.  But besides taking a dog sled ride, experimenting with snowshoes, and trying to stay warm (it was minus-28 degrees one morning), we saw the Aurora Borealis for two evenings.  Nothing can describe the feeling of watching the dancing lights amid sparkling constellations on a cold winter evening with no one else around.  When the moon rose later, the snow sparkled just like the sky.  For a few moments, we felt like we were all alone in a beautiful world of light and color.

It was a trip we never imagined, but it was one of the best we have ever taken.  Alaska in the winter is beautiful.