Friday, September 9, 2016

Postcard from Alaska: Inside the Arctic Circle

Tuesday morning I put a teeshirt on under my hoodie sweatshirt and wore my faded red barn jacket as we headed out into the cold drizzle of dawn to catch our plane.  At home, a sweatshirt and this jacket keep me comfortable working outside in the winter, down to the 40s.  In the low 30s or high 20s, I switch to a heavier, fleece lined jacket.  I left that one at home because the weather forcast, at the time we packed, called for temperatures in the mid-60s.

A week after our arrival, a cold front moved in.  It dropped rain over Denali and Fairbanks.  When our small plane landed in Bettles, it was 42F with a stiff wind.

We ducked inside the lodge, had hot coffee, eggs and bacon -- and then bought more sweatshirts.  Brett pulled his over his teeshirt, under his lightweight wind breaker. I added my sweatshirt over the top of the other, struggled into the jacket, which now fit so tight that I looked like the Michelin tire man, and put up the hoods from both hoodie sweatshirts.  I was ready.

The rain had coated the mountains with snow, and they looked stunning.  The owner of the lodge gave us a tour of Bettles, population 12, located inside the Arctic Circle.  It is only accessible by plane in the summer.  In the winter, there is a road across the ice that connects the town with Fairbanks.

In the summer, when the tundra isn't frozen, the land is a soggy, sodden, squishy, marsh.  Bettles is 250 miles north of Fairbanks, with a single gravel runway, a pond for sea planes, a gas pump for planes, and the Arctic Circle National Park Visitor Center.  The community peaked at 65 residents a number of years ago and a large, beautiful school was built for the 16 or so kids that lived there.  There have not been any kids in town for many years now, and birch trees have reclaimed the playground.  We walked on the tundra, eating the wild blueberries and cranberries that ripen in the fall.

Walking on the tundra was strange, it felt like walking on a sponge, with our feet sinking with the tufts of plants, and then springing back as we walked on.  In the winter the sponge is frozen solid; in the summer it's like the sponge in your kitchen sink, while you're using it, full of water when squeezed.  Hiking is impossible; well, maybe not impossible, but certainly not easy.  The animals traverse the land by following the gravel bars left behind by glaciers.  They also have big wide feet; their very own snowshoes.

After our tour, we clambered into a raft for a three hour float down the river.

We pulled ashore at the original site of Bettles and explored the town.

There were a number of log cabins, originally built in 1890 when the town was founded.  Many of them were sinking into the tundra, with the windows at ground level and the front doors half buried.  It was hard to imagine life in these cabins, with no electricity, no plumbing and no running water.  In the winter the temperatures routinely reach -50F.  The record low is -73F.  For the two weeks on either side of the winter solstice, the sun never comes up over the horizon.  There is some pre-dawn, grey light for a few hours; but no sunshine.  It's a harsh, but beautiful, life.


  1. Wow! Sounds like such a cool experience. Amazing photos too. I think a "harsh, but beautiful life" describes it well. :)

  2. It sounds like a beautiful place to visit but I don't think it's a place I would want to live in year round. The cold and the dark certainly make it a harsh place to be. Can't imagine how it must have been without modern day services. Sounds like you're having a great trip.

    1. Yes, hard to imagine. The "old" village was inhabited as recently as the 1960s -- with no plumbing, or running water. I kept thinking, I was a kid in the 60s and I can't imagine living off the grid in such harsh conditions. Winter for seven months, summer for four. No real spring or fall -- just a few weeks where the ice is either freezing over or breaking up.

  3. Harsh with a capitol H. I could not live there, I admit it... but I so enjoyed your pictures!

  4. Wow, that's a once in a lifetime experience.

  5. An American in TokyoSeptember 11, 2016 at 5:38 PM

    Wow, I would love to visit there someday...but I could never live in those weather conditions! I admire the people who still live there! Strong people! =)


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