The best neighborhood bar in Alaska nestles in the spruce trees on the shore of a 4-mile-long lake, near 400-feet high in the foothills of the Alaska Range about 80 miles northwest of the state’s largest city.
The bartender who “sure would help a lot,” to steal a line from the old TV, mega-hit Cheers, is named Zoe Brinker. For decades now, her Shell Lake Lodge has served as a gathering place for locals from tens of miles of round and a support center for those traveling in an area that by normal U.S. standards is beyond remote.
To get here, the easy way is to fly north from Anchorage for about an hour in a small, single-engine airplane and land on a frozen lake. But it’s more fun – if you are physically up to it – to undertake a 110-mile snowmachine adventure form Big Lake north of Anchorage up the frozen Yentna River and on into the Shell Hills.
How long that will take depends on how fast you ride. It could be a couple hours or less, or a day or more. Whatever the speed, you’re sure to arrive to a warm greeting.
For the service Brinker has provided the fastest of riders for decades, the Iron Dog snowmachine race plans to recognize her as its Volunteer of the Year at the annual banquet Tuesday, but participants in the world’s longest, toughest snowmachine race are just a few among the many Brinker has welcomed to her wilderness world since the late 1970s.
Sometimes neighbor Michael Schoder calls Brinker “a true, Alaska pioneer who has lived life in the Alaska ‘bush’ for nearly 50 years, raising three children out there. She is kind, helping and supportive of those who live there or might be passing through. Her business…is a cornerstone of the local area and known by most who travel west of Skwentna on the (Iditarod) trail.”
Schoder, who has owned a cabin at Shell Lake since the 1980s, slightly understates.
Brinker is quite simply an institution. Everyone going north on the most regularly used Iditarod route out of Skwentna knows the Shell Lake Lodge. It’s impossible to miss. The Iditarod Trail runs smack past Brinker’s door.
In the winter, the only time of year the trail is in use, who knows who you might find stopped at Brinker’s lodge to grab a bite of food, a beer or just to warm up. She welcomes everybody – wandering snowmobilers, fat-tired cyclists in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, Iron Dog contenders on training runs into the Alaska Range, would-be entrants in the Iron Dog or the Invitational exploring the area for the first time, or simple misfits off on some poorly planned Alaska adventure.
At one time or another, Brinker has offered shelter to them all and helped in organizing the rescues of more than a few who got in over their heads. Often, she has been like the mom no one notices.
“The lodge was warm but not toasty,” cyclist Jill Homer writes in “Ghost Trails: Journey Through a Lifetime.” “I felt uncomfortably cold sitting around in my wet clothes. I stripped my outermost layers and laid them next to the woodstove as a soft-spoken woman brought me coffee even though I had not asked for it.”
That would be Brinker.
“I took a long, savoring sip as she told me about the racers who had already been through that morning and the weather they expected to see during the day,” Homer continued. “Her words faded into the background as I slipped into comfort food oblivion. Hot, caffeinated and calorie free, the coffee was the most delicious thing I had consumed since my Diet Pepsi the day before.”
Since the late 1970s, said the Iron Dog’s Keith Manternach, Brinker has been inviting people into her business and treating them like it was their home.
“Every year since the very beginning (in 1984), Zoe has always been there to help,” he said. “She has operated a checkpoint as well as providing comfort for every checker, trail breaker and fan who travels the Iron Dog (Iditarod) trail.”
A petite, quiet woman, Brinker is easy to overlook, but she has played a giant’s role in the wild Alaska foothills for a long time. Many wonder what will happen if ever she decides to retire, and there is no avoiding the fact age is hunting her now.
The kids are grown and long gone. They love Shell Lake, but do not share their mothers passion for the hard life of running a rural lodge. This not your easily maintained B&B.
The nearest “community,” it if can be called that, is a Skwentna some 20 miles south along the Iditarod National Historic Trail. A human outpost that sprang up around a remote U.S. Army radar station in the 1950s, Skwentna grew to 111 residents as of the 2000 census.
The school closed that same year and Skwentna has been fading ever since. Downgraded from a community to a “census designated place” covering a broad area surrounding the Skwentna airstrip, it is these days reported to have 37 residents living in its 450-square-mile area, or less than one-person per 12 square miles.
But for the airstrip left behind by the Army, some summer fishing, and the busy season of winter when the Iron Dog, the Invitational and finally the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race storm north, Skwentna might have faded away altogether.
The U.S. Census Bureau classifies any area with fewer than 500 people per square mile as rural. There is no classification for areas with less than a tenth-of-a-person per square mile.
If there were, it might simply be called “wild.” Skwentna is pretty wild and north of there the country only gets more so.
Back to the future
Brinker lives in a truly wild kingdom, and she likes it that way. She has no desire to leave despite the remoteness. The lodge, one of the few along the Iditarod Trail, is her passion.
“I don’t make a lot of money, but it supports my lifestyle,” she admitted several years ago. Then about to turn 75 and now closing in on 80, she has doubts about being able to live in the urban world.
Her kids worry about her a bit, but she doesn’t.
“I like to be up and active,” she said. “I find that if you move and you use your muscles and stuff, you can deal with a lot of stuff.
“Late December, January, February, March, I do 24-hour business basically.”
Winter 2018, as a century ago, is the season of the Iditarod trail. With the lakes and swamps frozen, the summer impediments to travel are gone and people start moving along the trail.
Back in the day, people went north and south to and from the gold mines of the Interior and on all the way to the gold-mining community of Nome on the Bering Sea. Now the travel is for recreation or sport – the Iron Dog kicks off an annual string of competitions when it heads up the trail Friday – and technology has changed the way people move along the trail.
Historically, the Iditarod attracted people on foot or the runners of dogsleds.
“An assortment of travelers used the trail,” the very first plan for the Iditarod National Historic Trail noted. “The majority were prospectors, trappers, or Natives who traveled – often without dogs or with one or two to help pull a sledload of supplies–to isolated cabins. A surprising number walked along the Trail. The hero of the Trail, however, was the dogsled team and driver.
“The relative ease of travel along the trails during this period was made possible by the maintenance provided by the Alaska Road Commission and by the many roadhouses which once lined the Trail and its branches. During stampedes to a new gold strike, numerous impromptu roadhouses vied for traveler patronage, but after business settled to a routine, roadhouses were naturally thinned to locations roughly a day’s journey
apart–approximately 20 miles.”
The dogsled drivers, a throwback to another time, remain the heroes of the trail, but most travelers these days use much newer technology, snowmachines primarily but with a smattering of fat bikes.
And the near-civiliziation lodges have in many ways returned the Iditarod to yesteryear.
For those traveling north on the Iditarod Trail, there is the Yentna Station Roadhouse at mile 60, the Skwentna Roadhouse at Mile 90, Shell Lake Lodge at Mile 110, the Winter Lake Lodge at Mile 130, and Rainy Pass Lodge at Mile 160, and then there is nothing but a couple public-use cabins for almost 140 miles up and over the Alaska Range to the Athabascan village of Nikolai.
There are no lodges beyond Rainy Pass in the range because there is nowhere near the travel on the trail today to support a business. As it is, Shell Lake hangs on at the edge of the range for weekend outings for most snowmachine riders, and Rainy Pass and Winter Lake cater to different, up-market clientele in order to survive.
Shell Lake Lodge, the Skwentna Roadhouse and Yentna Station are the real throwbacks to the old days, and interesting interestingly enough all are pretty much run by women -Brinker at Shell, Cindi Herman at Skwentna, and Jean Gabryszak at Yentna with some help from husband, Dan.