Snow covered the ground the next morning at Coldfoot along with low fog. We were encouraged by locals that it would lift and become a clear day and hopefully night. We hopped in the royal van and headed north again to the little village of Wiseman, Alaska on the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River.
Before the pipeline was built in 1970 along with the haul road, the only way to access Wiseman was by bush plane and a rustic runway. A narrow dirt road shooting off the access road to Wiseman leads to Nolan where the there was gold mining in the Hammond River. A 150-ounce gold nugget was found in this river! At $1900.00 per ounce, that would be worth $285,000 today!
Wiseman was established in 1905 and became a booming town in the quest for Gold in 1910. Today it has a population of 13 and is designated as an Alaskan Native Village even though there are no natives who live there. There are two places to lodge, a public phone via satellite, and numerous historic and privately-owned cabins. The Kalhabuk Memorial Chapel is a small, cozy cabin which still has services. The old post office still sits in town though it has sunk into the ground. There are three cabins owned by the tour company. Two are museums and one is the hangout for watching the Aurora Borealis. In the rest of the cabins are residents or those who have summer cabins here.
Part of our trip to Wiseman was to meet local Jack Reakoff who was born in Alaska and has lived most of his adult life in Wiseman. We met his wife Nicole in the early afternoon. Nicole owns and operates an arts and crafts store called the Twisted Willow. As they are both hunters, they use the complete animal. They eat all of the meat for food never buying meat from a store. Jack sells the pelts and furs while she creates unique crafts from the feathers, claws, teeth and bones.
Jack is a true ‘sourdough’ because not only has he spent 30 plus winters above the Arctic Circle, he also has a sourdough starter from the late 1800s that he protects with whatever warmth he can. I thought my sourdough starter was old and it’s from 1928!
We were blessed to visit them in the evening in their home and to enjoy more than a tour talk, but an actual visit comparing notes about log homes, wood stoves, and herbal remedies for everything, even COVID!
Their two-room log house is completely off-the-grid (obviously). Their cool pantry is under their kitchen accessed by a door in the floor. Their refrigerator is in a room attached to the house that stays very cold. They had multiple teapots on the wood stove – some for cooking and drinking, the others for washing even though laundry is done with nothing but cold water. Attached to the ceiling around the stove pipe was an iron-like shelf with holes. They had their boots drying up there, but it’s actually for drying meat.
Like most who live off-grid, they have power through propane or batteries which is a fun topic for my husband to discuss because of our 5th wheel. We sat on fur-lined chairs which kept us doubly warm in the already-warm house. When I had to use the toilet, I was given a head lamp and the general direction toward the outhouse. This is only moments after discussing a female wolf who had been wandering around looking for food! This outhouse was quite nice and decorated; the one later that night at the tour cabin had ice on the seat! Yes, it was about -9. BUT, I learned that even when it’s that cold, your body will perform its necessary duties.
Jack taught my husband how to use his camera to shoot good Aurora photos with long exposure times. Unfortunately, the predictions for the lights that night were not very good. The solar flares and the wind and too many other finer details didn’t line up for the night. Somewhat discouraged, they reminded us that we would probably see something, but not very strong.
We left Jack’s house and headed toward our tour cabin. It had propane heat which felt wonderful after using the frozen toilet seat.
A couple of barrels outside created a very warm fire while we waited for the Aurora to start. Inside, I heated our dinner of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches brought from the lodge. The time was 11:30 p.m.
For two hours, we alternated between the warm cabin and the hot barrels outside waiting for some action in the sky. The clear night revealed stars upon stars upon stars. The the Big Dipper, Little Dipper and North Star were directly above our heads. The Milky Way crossed the sky in brilliant white band. The earth’s weather conditions were perfect; we waited on the sun.
At first we had glimpses of something happening overhead. Remember, these are northern lights to those in the south, but in the Arctic they are overhead. My husband had his tri-pod and camera ready to go – extra battery in the warm cabin because frigid weather kills batteries. Soon, we had flare ups. Small, but something. Reds were prominent though most people see green. Our solar show from the Hand of God was not quite as dramatic as I had hoped for my first experience and being in the Arctic, but the colors manifested themselves and brightened the northern sky while we stood in the frigid cold of the Arctic. Yes, I am blessed to have done something few humans ever do. By 2 a.m. we were in our cozy beds trying to warm our feet and hands, but remembering the display of color in the land of the ‘midnight dark.’
I apologize that there are no photos of what we saw dancing in the sky. When I uploaded the photos, they appeared to be only black like this with the exception of some star spots.
The next morning we woke again to crisp, clear cold weather. We packed our things, unplugged our engine heater, said good-bye to the best Arctic tour guide, and headed south toward Fairbanks and home.
And now, ‘the rest of the story.’
About 20 miles north of Healy, Alaska, the home of Jeff King the Iditarod musher, and 110 miles south of Fairbanks, I noticed the car acting strange, so strange that I had to pull off the road where it just died. I had no speedometer, no tachometer, no electrical power whatsoever. My husband mentioned the night before that he worried about the battery, but was really more concerned about the alternator. So, we sat by the side of the road in our car at negative degrees with no power meaning no heat.
It took 30 minutes for our roadside service to even answer the phone so I began searching for the closest tow truck. Both of us had one bar of cell phone service where we were. I found the number for a tow truck and called Zach. He was in Fairbanks about 2 hours away, but offered to tow if and when he got there, but he couldn’t take us, only our car. I had hoped he could tow us to Healy since it was close and it had a NAPA auto store. How we would get there, who knew?
While waiting for Not So Good Sam to locate us on Google Earth, my husband called NAPA. They had an alternator for our Subaru, but for a manual not an automatic. No one was sure how it would work, but at least they had a part that might work. A second call to Zach only left me more frustrated as he said he would tow our car to Wasilla, close to Anchorage for $1800 where we could get it serviced on Monday or Tuesday – this was Saturday.
While we waited to hear back from our road service who now needed our longitude and latitude coordinates, several people including a state trooper stopped by to check on us. We were fine except the temperature was only +9 degrees and the opened hood blocked the sun. Eventually, we both changed into warmer clothes, heavier coats, and gloves while we continued to wait for some help from Not So Good Sam who has always been Not So Good. (Note: We also had blankets, food and water as well as flares, extra tires, and oil.)
After 2 ½ hours of sitting by the road with the hood up and wearing our arctic gear, a white truck passes by. Further down the road he turns around and pulls up to our car as if to offer us a jump. My husband got out of the car about the same time a shirtless thin young man got out of his truck and put on a camo shirt. There was something about this man and I knew that he was going to be part of our story.
According to my husband, he touched several parts around the engine and then asked if my husband had tried to start the vehicle. We had tried once with no juice whatsoever, but my husband came back in the car and vrooooooom, it started right up! Like it never even had a problem! The two of them shut the hood and the young man climbed back in the white truck drove off into one of the four winds of heaven. I knew at that moment we had divine intervention. This has happened to me other times in my life so I can recognize an angelic visit when it occurs.
My husband and I began driving toward Healy when my phone rang. It was Zach. He had finally received authorization to tow us back to Fairbanks from Not So Good Sam. We told him the car suddenly started and we were heading the opposite direction to Healy.
When we arrived at Healy, we discussed just driving on because the car seemed to be working perfectly, but as we started up the hill out of Healy, the car began sputtering and my husband turned around. We coasted down the hill and cruised into the NAPA at the bottom. The alternator part would work with a little effort and my husband installed it and we drove again down the Parks Highway toward Anchorage.
A final stop to see Denali hidden in the clouds and we continued safely and warmly to our friend’s home in Anchorage just in time for moose tacos and some excruciatingly decadent dessert. Through the Hand of Yeshua and His protective angels, we finished our trip south to the Kenai Peninsula holding only wonderful memories and feeling even warmer temperatures.
Yes, it was cold in the Arctic Circle, but it was also a tremendous decision to visit Tim and take a vacation. I still want to take a photo of my foot on the shores of the the Arctic Ocean and dip my toes into its frigid water. I still want to visit Utqiagvik, perhaps during their whaling festival. Until then, my non-existent bucket list will remain as it is – like water frozen in that bucket.
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