Bettles, AK

Bettles is, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. It’s 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle and like many outlying Alaskan towns, it’s only accessible by plane. It’s also situated directly under the auroral zone, making it one of the best places on Earth to see the Aurora Borealis.

[I got very lucky on my trip to Bettles. The northern lights put on quite a show for me and the handful of Japanese tourists who were also visiting the town. Sadly, taking photos of the display left me flummoxed.]

While the area has been inhabited by Native groups (including Koyukon, Athabascans, Kobuk, Selawik, and Nunamiut Eskimos) for centuries, the town got its name from a gold rush era trading post, established by Gordon Bettles. Today, Bettles has 12 inhabitants (mostly non-Native) and neighboring Evansville boasts a population of around 25 (mostly Native).

During my brief visit, I did all the things one is told to do on a trip to the arctic: I snowshoed, dog sledded, snowmachined, drove on an ice road, wore bunny boots, checked a trap line for dead things, ate a moose, saw the northern lights, waved to my parents from an FAA weather camera, ate a caribou, wondered at the lack of wildlife, and generally stood around in awe.

The strangest part of my trip was when the lodge caught on fire.

I had a few hours of near darkness to wait through before it was time to look for lights and was watching Lost with one of the proprietors. I noticed an acrid smell was filling the room, but I knew kerosene was the fuel of choice for heat in the area. I thought that must just be how winter smells to far-flung Alaskans.

A few minutes later, the other owner comes down the stairs yelling at us for not helping her. Apparently she’d fallen asleep, not realizing wind had blown something into a chimney pipe, and woke up to find the roof was on fire. I’m not sure how she put it out, or why she didn’t call us for help sooner.

I never saw the damage and didn’t hear any mention of it during the remainder of my stay. I’ve often wondered if she’d simply been confused by a nightmare.

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