Hidden Gems: Guide Marisa on Discovering Denali National Park in Winter

Hidden Gems: Guide Marisa on Discovering Denali National Park in Winter
By Candice on January 26, 2018

When you work in the tourism industry in Alaska, there is something about the onset of Winter that is extraordinarily welcoming after the hustle and bustle of the Summer guiding season. Right around labor day, the air gets crisp and cold when you leave for trips in the morning, and the evenings become blessed with actual darkness--and stars!--that you haven’t seen in four months. It is a huge breath of fresh air, combined with a sigh of relief, that days of hibernation are upon Alaska. Having this concept in mind, one can imagine the shock I had when Salmon Berry Tours (SBT) hired me as a full time Winter guide in 2012.

Growing up in Alaska, I have always had favorite Winter activities like snowshoeing, skiing, snowmobiling, Iditarod activities, etc. Despite knowing all these activities were available, it was beyond me what we could possibly offer, as a state, for Winter tourism. Low and behold, Salmon Berry came into the picture! At that time, SBT was one of the few companies that was almost single-handedly pursuing Winter tourism, and slowly coercing partner companies from Summer to open in the Winter to enrich the SBT tour experience. I never imagined, 6 years later, the collection of unique tours and genuinely Alaskan trips I have had, as a guide, because of SBT.

Nearly every season Salmon Berry adds a new product into their repertoire of tours, including Winter! The past few years, I have gotten to partake in the trial runs and development of several of these trips. Last year when Candice and Mandy (the SBT owners) told me that Denali was getting added to the docket for Iditarod packages, I couldn’t wait to jump on the opportunity to explore Alaska’s most accessible National Park during its off season. Though the Denali add on made this package quite a bit longer than the standard SBT Iditarod activities, it gave our clients numerous authentic and local experiences that were unparalleled by other Winter activities that they would have been able to do on their own.

In addition to having the new Denali element, this package still included all of my Iditarod favorites like attending Fur Rondy winter festival in Anchorage, the official start of the Iditarod in Willow (or Fairbanks!), doing kennel visits and dog sledding, and chasing the Northern Lights in the arctic. Even with these signature Salmon Berry Tours experiences, I still couldn’t wait to go to Denali--one of the busiest places in Alaska during the Summer--when no one else was there! Being able to snowshoe and make first tracks in the snow was an amazing personal accomplishment for me! I’m not sure if our guests realized how unique an opportunity it is to be the first and only people for the day in this area of Alaska. That would never happen in the Summer! We also got to experience the lifestyle of Denali/Healy through the incredible cuisine of award winning 229 Parks Restaurant & Tavern, and visit locals homes to see off-the-grid living in Alaska. The warm welcome of this community to our proposition of Winter tourism was so well received and appreciated.

In regards to the Iditarod aspect of this elongated package, I loved the different layers of experiences that this tour gave our clients. Not only did we get our SBT exclusive look into Dallas Seavey’s kennel, we also got to see the champion kennel of Jeff King, as well as the unique working kennel of Denali National Park (again, when no one else is around!). This gave our clients so much sled dog time! It also showed the different ways that mushers can become champions, and the different ways that kennels operate and can contribute to their community. There was also the add-on option to do a fly out to an Iditarod checkpoint, which was an awesome experience that I would highly recommend! Being able to see the mushers in action and away from the crowds was something that was new and different--even for me. Being involved with tours for the Iditarod for 5 years now, I felt like I had been part of many different elements for the inner workings of this event. However, being at a checkpoint was truly mind blowing! Our clients were so shocked at how relaxed and welcoming the locals were, as well as the mushers. I have always told my clients about how the small villages in Alaska thrive off of the Iditarod coming through their town. However, I had never witnessed the genuine excitement surrounding these Iditarod celebrities being welcomed into town--the school kids coming out to the trail with their posters, the local volunteers making sandwiches and handing them out to sleep deprived mushers. It was incredible! Being able to say that you were at a remote checkpoint for the Iditarod trail, as well as going to an Alaskan village, are both things that the majority of visitors to Alaska will never get to experience, let alone during the Winter season. Only SBT could incorporate these elements into a well manicured and adventurous--yet a little luxurious--trip!

Every guest on this package gets a log-in for the Iditarod Insider, and during the trip I loved doing race analysis and keeping up with our favorite mushers along the way. This really tied the whole trip together, and kept us Iditarod focused throughout all of our adventures.

All around, I was pleasantly surprised with every aspect of this newly developed Winter in Denali Iditarod Package. The true colors of these communities showed so vividly for this trip! Yet again, SBT has brought a product to the Alaska Winter Tourism market that no one else has. I am so excited to meet our clients for Iditarod 2018--hope to see all of you there!