Due to unsafe river conditions in Willow, our Susitina River Women’s Retreat was rerouted at the last minute to the Denali Highway. Co-trip leader Wendy Battino of Live Your Adventure Coaching picked up our lovely clients A & C in Anchorage. The dog truck, S and I met the rest of the crew at Sheep Mountain Lodge for a day of gear check, setting intentions, and getting to know each other and their new teammates: the dogs! We departed the next morning bound for Paxson, the eastern side of the Denali Highway, a remote dirt road that was originally built to access mining claims in the middle Alaska Range, and later extended to access the then newly created Denali National Park and Preserve. The Denali Highway is unmaintained in the winter (i.e not plowed) and from November - April utilized primarily by mushers and snowmachines to access remote backcountry terrain and the beautiful hand built lodges that exist along the route. Many Iditarod teams get their training miles in on the 135 mile long Denali Highway.
While I packed the dog sleds, Wendy did some coaching, walking over the river and setting intentions for our journey. Our goal was the Maclaren River Lodge, 44 miles from Paxson. We broke the trip into two legs and carried a tipi, wood stove, and firewood for our halfway camp. The first day had low cloud cover. Most of the mountains were hidden from view. We traveled through a white, rolling landscape until night started to fall. We picked a protected campsite along a line of glacially formed lakes and set up the tipi. We fired up the wood stove and fluffed up our sleeping bags as hot water began to steam. After a hot Heather’ Choice dinner for humans and beef and kibble for the dogs, we slept. Everyone sleeps well on a full belly after a day outside on a dog sled!
A light snow fell the next morning as we sat around the wood stove with coffee and oatmeal. Sleeping bags were stuffed back into their sacks, thick pads deflated and rolled tight for travel, and the sled dogs were snacked. Naughty dogs who chew got their harnesses put back on, the tipi rolled up and packed in S’s sled, and we were off! Day two we mushed into the Tangle Lakes region, an archeologically significant site. In addition to being a teacher, and a life coach, Wendy is also an archeologist, so it was fascinating to hear her stories of the early people who used to live and travel in the region. Soon after departure the sun peeked through the clouds, lighting up the ridges with sparkles. It had snowed a couple inches overnight but the snow was light and fluffy and we plowed through it without issue. Crisp white ptarmigan startled in the bushes, exciting the dogs. We had lunch on the bank of a lake and watched a lone skier approach from the Maclaren side, skating though the snow, puling a sled behind herself. What. a. badass. (And probably fueled by Packaroons).
As we approached Maclaren Summit the skies began to part. The mountains of the Alaska Range began to reveal themselves to us, rising up from the valley we were mushing along and emerging in the distance, sun reflecting off far away slopes. Ptarmigan tracks criss crossed along the banks of the trail. As we reached the summit the Maclaren River Valley fell away before us, the river traversing the breadth of the landscape. We traversed the summit to the valley floor, reaching Maclaren River Lodge as the sun begin to set, alpenglow lighting up the peaks surrounding the lodge.
We stayed in their new cabin duplexes, freshly built and still smelling of pine. Large beds and hot water sure are a luxury on the trail! The owners and staff of Maclaren River Lodge were fantastic hosts. The lodge kindly provided us with hot water to make breakfast and supper for the dogs, who were picketed in a sheltered spot down by the river. We had a day of rest at the lodge. We sledded down steep hills, journaled, had individual and group coaching sessions. Bleu cheese and bacon cheeseburgers were savored.
The next day we set out on our journey back to the trailhead. As we neared the top of Maclaren Summit the wind began to pick up. Large drifts of snow formed. We rounded the corner and into the wind. Strong gusts whipped snow across the trail. It was a bona fide wind storm. The dogs charged into the wind and down the trail. Snow plastered their sides but they gave it no regard. We women put our hoods up and concentrated on keeping the sleds upright. When I stopped to check on dogs they banged their harnesses and wagged their tails like they didn’t even notice it was windy out. Good dogs. Many had mushed through a worse wind storm in the “Blow Hole” a windy section outside of Nome during the 2016 Iditarod so I guess this storm didn’t faze them much. It was windy, but not cold. As soon as we rounded the next bend in the trail we entered a more protected valley and the wind abated somewhat.
The clouds were higher today than on our journey in — we spent a lot of time looking around at the peaks that had been hidden. It was like a whole different place! We stopped for lunch overlooking the Landmark Gap, a stunning feature of the mountain landscape that looks like a mammoth could step right out of. We set up camp amongst gravel moraines left behind by the last ice age. We still had a lot of firewood left, so in the interest of lightening our load, we enjoyed a long evening gathered around the wood stove, reading animal cards and talking about the dogs and what lessons we had learned from them during our time together. It was very powerful to camp in a region where we practiced the same routines women had practiced there for thousands of years — collecting firewood, cooking, making water. We savored our camp meals, each person trying a new flavor of Heather’s Choice. African Peanut Stew emerged as the trip favorite.
The next day, camp packed back into the sleds, we set off for our last day of dog sledding. The sun played hide and seek with us as we reflected on our journey. The landscape hidden in the clouds on our way in was revealed to us. We ran through flocks of ptarmigan and ascended a pass to a scenic wayside where we paused for a snack and to read about the history and geology of the region. As we descended back down to our starting point, the Wrangell St.Elias mountains emerged out of the clouds in front of us. What a treat!
When we reached the truck we snacked the dogs and had a dance party as we packed the trucks. Our next stop was back to Sheep Mountain Lodge and their hot tub!
Unfortunately the slots for the hot tub were all booked up by the time we arrived to the lodge, but fortune smiled upon us and upon checking a second time, the very last slot had opened up! After dinner we grabbed our towels and headed to the hot tub room where we laughed, opened all the windows to let the cool air wash over us as we basked in the steam and cheered each other and our journey.
How lucky Wendy and I were to have such brave and inspiring women join us on this retreat!
Will you join us next year?
We are headed back to the Susitna River. We will take two days to mush to Northwoods Lodge, a hand built luxury lodge complete with private rooms, sauna and yes, hot tub. Outfitting, transportation from Anchorage to Talkeetna via train, mushing lessons, hot tub soaking, sauna lounging, luxurious meals, individual and group coaching all included.
Photos from our 2019 Harness Your Power Women's Retreat are featured below.
Not pictured: honey mustard glazed sockeye salmon, twinkle lights illuminating the tipi nestled in the tundra, laughs reverberating over the land, walking in the footsteps of the ancients, spirit cards, close-ups of 5 powerful and adventurous ladies, compass coaching, lodge salads carried in by snowmobile, dogs dancing for their dinner, the luxury of a shower in the wilderness. What a trip we had!