Arctic Spell

Shelter cabins in the Alaska Wilderness were once a lifeline for arctic travelers.


Imagine being alone

…in a million-acre frozen wilderness, under an infinite sky that pulses with light and color.


I did this watercolor of the Aurora on the tundra from imagination.


It’s winter in the year 1913. You’ve left Fort Yukon and are headed toward the Brooks Range, the northernmost divide between the Arctic Ocean and the rest of Alaska Territory.


For weeks, your only companions have been your sled dogs and the sharp-tempered, unforgiving arctic cold. Wrapped in furs, you’re warm enough to function, but comfort is just a long-faded memory.


You grip the handlebars tighter as the sled whooshes along, knowing you can’t let your attention wander for a second—at least until you’ve reached the shelter cabin. Once you’re safely set up inside with a fire and food and tucked into your bedroll, then you can relax. Then, you’ll have a moment or two before sleep when your thoughts will fly free. Then, you can let the arctic work its magic on your soul.


For now, you need to stay focused. You need to remember where you are—teetering on a thin line between life and death on top of the world. Don’t let the shivering green spirits in the sky distract you. Pay attention to the serious, heavy cold.



Alaskan wilderness trails were once sparsely dotted with tiny cabins that sheltered trappers, missionaries, mail-carriers, freighters or other travelers. They were not owned, but were shared by all. It was a culture of survival, necessary in the harsh Alaskan winter. Each person who stayed there left something behind for the next person: firewood, matches and perhaps a tin of food or a shot of whiskey.

I did the cabin illustration for an interpretive sign on the Steese Highway, for the Bureau of Land Management, at the location of a historic shelter cabin.



This is the first in a series of posts in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Preservation Act. The next post will be the story of two people who found love and adventure in Arctic Alaska, ultimately leading them to a life of activism and wilderness preservation. Without their persistence, we might not have Wilderness Areas today.

As always, I love to hear from you! Have you ever been in Alaska? On a dogsled? Winter-camping? What do you think of our Wilderness Preservation system? Leave a comment, subscribe to the blog, and join me on Facebook!



4 thoughts on “Arctic Spell

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Wilderness Act! | Denise Dahn, artist/writer

  2. Pingback: Life, Love and the Pursuit of Wilderness | Denise Dahn, artist/writer

  3. Dear Denise and Ralph,
    We were much impressed by your very interesting posting!! Will forward it to Susanna, my youngest sister. After the very first experience with dog sledding in Northern Norway she spent many a winter vacation mushing in Alaska: she really got bitten by the “Alaska bug”. Thus has quite a number of friends in this vast state. And visits them fairly regularly; now, more so in summer.

    As for myself: spent a wonderful summer vacation exploring the Inside Passage. Initially, Susanna and I had plans to visit her “winter family” in Dawson. Unfortunately, shortly before my departure Susanna couldn’t come, so I ventured out by myself: took the train from Whitehorse to Skagway where I spent a few days hiking around. Afterwards took the “mail boat” and got off @ Skagway, St. Petersburg, Wrangel, and Ketchikan to explore the “towns” and hike into the surroundings; then returned to Vancouver to fly home. What a wonderful experience it was!! The l-o-n-g days and evenings were a special treat. Didn’t sleep much due to the very short nights. In Wrangel took a charter flight into “the mountains”, which was very exciting, Could see the “Thumb”, a famous rock climbing destination. According to Krakauer it is as difficult a “rock” as the Eiger Nordwand, if not even more so.

    Well, we hope you will not have many difficult “climbs” in 2014.
    I always look very much forward to your interesting postings.

    Once again, the Frei-Trio was invited to share the joys of Heilig Abend with your mother, Barbara, Marco, and the lovely four-legged friend – – – around a real Christmas tree! We did sing. But missed your strong voices.
    Later on enjoyed some delicious salmon! Many Thanks for this exquisite treat!

    With Best Wishes for a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous 2014!
    John & Barbara

    We hope you had nice Christmas Days.
    And send you our Thanks for the wonderful treat!
    Best Wishes for a Happy, Healthy, and Successful 2014!
    John, Walter and Barbara

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *