My adventure begins long before I step foot into Alaska’s Winterlake Lodge, a remote property accessible only by ski plane. I arrive at Rust’s Flying Service in Anchorage and am greeted by Mr. Otis, a senior dog who’s been snoozing under a sign that reads, “Please notify pilot if you have bear spray.” A chummy employee milling about offers me a cup of coffee. I later ask a local if it’s easy for visitors to meet folks here; she informs me, “There’s Minnesota nice, then there’s Alaska nice,” and gives me her phone number. While I wait for the ski plane, Bella, my pilot’s dog, curls up on my lap.
It’s about an hour’s flight to Winterlake, and I’m in the front seat of a five-person Cessna 206. I have come from New Orleans and am woefully underdressed for the Alaska cold. I tighten my scarf and gaze out on Denali and Mount Foraker; it’s more excitement than I’ve experienced since Mardi Gras.
Upon my arrival at the lodge, owner Carl Dixon (whose wife, Kirsten, scooped me up from the airport just an hour earlier) zips up on a snowmobile, complete with a sled for my luggage. He offers to let me drive, and I happily oblige. Carl tells me that, for a first-timer, I do pretty well. And even though the journey is short, it is thrilling, especially for this Southerner.
Situated on 15 acres of craggy mountains and glaciers, Winterlake manages to seamlessly marry luxury with sustainability, all while upholding the spirit of Alaska. Six hand-built knotty pine cabins of varying sizes dot the property, each simple, cozy, and outfitted with a stove, a compost toilet, and Frette linens and robes. On the sustainability front, the Dixons practice power- and water-conserving measures, like shutting off the generator overnight after guests have gone to bed. It may sound a bit out-of-the-comfort-zone on paper, but I find the whole concept supremely peaceful.
It’s fortuitous that I’m visiting during the 47th running of the Iditarod race as the property lies along Mile 198 and serves as the third checkpoint. I rise before the sun, lace up my (borrowed) snow boots and catch an up-close glimpse of the then-second-place musher, Aliy Zirkle, who has buzzed into the lodge to rest her dogs. It’s immersive and exhilarating.
I get to experience an amateur version for myself the following day. Winterlake has a team of 18 Alaskan huskies and a mushing program that takes guests along six routes of varying distance and difficulty. After a lesson from Carl, I hop on the back of the sled and shout out a series of commands — “Gee, Rosie!” “Haw, Charlie!” — and plenty of praise for the pups. Even though I’m a marathon runner and a former dancer, this takes coordination I’ve never known. But soon I get the hang of it and can round out corners while feathering the break and whooshing side-to-side. It’s a rush that running has never provided, and I briefly have visions of entering next year’s race — that is, until my frozen fingers bring me back to reality.
Next thing I know, I’m flying down the mountain on a sled having flashbacks to my Missouri upbringing — tumbling to the bottom with sheer joy and slight terror. I buckle into a pair of snowshoes and trudge back up the hill, where the Winterlake staff waits with fur blankets, wood-fired salmon, mushroom flatbreads and hot beverages. Despite my exhaustion (and a mild pizza-induced coma), I hop on a fat-tire bike to pedal around the iced-over lake.
Led by Chef Manager Mandy Dixon, the cuisine here is an adventure in itself. Each evening kicks off with a wine and cheese pairing in the log-cabin bar followed by a decadent five-course meal. Sure, I’m feasting on gourmet dishes like salmon belly crudo and fermented rhubarb sorbet with salmonberry and cardamom, but I’m doing so casually clad in socks and (now-tight) ski pants. After dinner, I take a turn in the traditional wood-fired sauna, where it’s customary to alternate a good steam with a roll in the snow.
The excitement continues when Winterlake makes national news: Dillon, one of the lodge’s sled dogs, has gone missing. As if the Iditarod weren’t action enough already, the staff and guests are now on high alert. As it turns out, the energetic canine — who was given to the Dixons by musher DeeDee Jonrowe — has decided to run his own race for some 30 miles to the next checkpoint of Rainy Pass. He is found healthy and brought home.
During a yoga class on my last morning at Winterlake, I gaze out the window at the softly falling snow while the instructor stokes a fire. Even while surrounded by this kind of pinch-me beauty, I’m filled with sadness at the idea of leaving this magical place. But after lunch, Carl pops in to ask if I want to drive the snowmobile back to the plane and my sorrow dissipates — one final adventure awaits.