Keys to Freeze, Mile 7719: Life in a Town Where the Sun Don’t Shine

Just off the northernmost road in the United States there’s a village of fourteen hearty souls who live off the land, preparing for a frighteningly frigid winter and darkness that lasts all day.

Keys to Freeze, Mile 7719: Life in a Town Where the Sun Don’t Shine

We are but two hundred miles from our original 8,000-mile goal of Deadhorse, Alaska — the northernmost point reachable by road in the United States, and a town that seemed a world away when the Keys to Freeze crew first pedaled in South Florida. Since riding through Fairbanks, Alaska a week ago we’ve been moving strictly north along the Dalton Highway, the oil haul stretch immortalized by the reality TV show “Ice Road Truckers.” A 414-mile, partly paved, though mostly gravel road, the highway came into existence in 1974 to aid in the construction and maintenance of the Alaskan Pipeline. It is our final highway, the only road leading to our destination city, and the Arctic Ocean.

But in the foothills of the Brooks Mountain range off the Dalton Highway, there rests a tiny community called Wiseman, a village of only fourteen that existed well before oil was discovered just to the north of it. To live in Wiseman is to commit to a lifestyle damned by modern society. Here, surviving is thriving.

Established as a gold mining community along the Middle Koyukuk River in the early 1900s, Wiseman operates today as a final frontier village. Residents rely on subsistence farming, hunting, and trapping to survive. The winters are harsh, lonely months. For forty days the sun does not shine and the temperature stays below negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit. There is snow on the ground eight months of the year. While the summer sun creeps out from behind the mountains to circle the sky, never setting for forty days, there is daylight pressure to rapidly farm and harvest food for the winter, not to mention the need to hunt and preserve one’s kill. A lapse in preparations means abandoning Wiseman before summer ends, or risking death during the black winter.

Yet fourteen hearty folk have chosen Wiseman as their home, and among them is a man named Jack Reakoff who agreed to meet us on our way north. Reakoff is one of the longest-term residents of the village, and is considered the unofficial community historian. He agreed to play host to us, and talk about the place he’s called home for the better part of the last five decades.

The Reakoff home in Wiseman, Alaska
The Reakoff home in Wiseman, Alaska

So we ride three extra miles to Wiseman, bumping along a gravel road littered with potholes and large, unforgiving rocks.

Meeting Reakoff outside his cabin I am struck by his humble abode. It is a well-maintained, two-room building sitting a stone’s throw from the Middle Koyukuk River. I can hear its waters running over rocks as Reakoff introduces us to his two-year-old daughter Suvi who, initially shy, is soon singing us her “A-B-C’s.”

Reakoff welcomes us inside. Stepping around a mosquito screen and into their home I’m hit flush with the smell of moose meat stew. The kitchen serves as living room, dining room, central heating room with their wood stove, and playroom for Suvi. His cellar, with a temperature perpetually between 35 and 45 degrees, sits underneath the kitchen and is accessible by trapdoor. Inside the cellar are a variety of harvested, refrigerated vegetables and, surprisingly, cases of soy milk for Suvi. Reakoff and his wife also share a bedroom with their daughter.

We gather around Reakoff, now sitting at his dining table. The busts of two dall sheep on the wall stare at me where I sit on the floor. Taking a deep breath, the wise man of Wiseman tells us about his community.

“Social hour in Wiseman is Monday morning – mail day,” he begins, explaining that the postal service drives 275 miles to Fairbanks just that one day each week after collecting seven day’s worth of packages. “Slowest mail in America. By far.”

Reakoff continues: “Wiseman is a community association, but we have no pressing issues as a community!” (The last community meeting was eight years ago.) He then taps the table with a finger, and shrugs. “People who live here are very independent and self-reliant.”

One doesn’t move to Wiseman if they aren’t prepared to spend a large portion of their year focusing on their family’s survival, which is why most of the people who set foot in the village are actually tourists.

During the summer months Reakoff is a busy guide, greeting travelers headed to the Arctic Ocean who stop by for an hour-long tour through the historic village. The gig runs until September 10, after which point Reakoff prepares for winter by hunting, harvesting vegetables, chopping wood, and doing maintenance on old equipment.

Perhaps Reakoff’s most important items demanding upkeep are a small array of solar panels manufactured in the 1980s. They sit on Reakoff’s roof, functional relics serving as just another example within Wiseman of how the community continues to exist.

“The solar panels paid for themselves 28 years ago,” Reakoff says proudly. As he shows off his solar system, a phrase comes to mind: If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. If it’s broke, fix it. One’s survival just might depend on it.

But the sun-generated electricity powering the Reakoff home doesn’t help heat it. Reakoff spends three weeks in November chopping, splitting and piling wood for the coming winter. The rest of his fall is spent hunting moose, doll sheep and caribou. Bear is the fourth and least desirable meat of their diet, he says.

Reakoff turns to his sprawling backyard garden, where roots suck up cold groundwater from the river, for more foodstuffs. Ninety-five percent of their vegetable diet is grown on site, and with Fairbanks so far away, it is inconvenient – if not impossible – to travel from Wiseman there during the winter, for groceries or supplies.

He shows us around his property, a few acres populated with family buildings and community structures, each in various states of decay. The bones of Wiseman rest here under Reakoff’s watch. There’s an original settlement building from 1905 sinking into the ground. A small chapel founded by Reakoff’s mother sits fifty meters behind his home, still used every Sunday for worship. We see an outhouse with a pink door, and another outhouse that is unpainted. He shows us a former residence that is now used for cardboard box storage, which will presumably be used as fire starter.

Jack Reakoff and his daughter Suvi outside their home in Wiseman, Alaska
Jack Reakoff and his daughter Suvi outside their home in Wiseman, Alaska

Reakoff’s turf is devoted to history and survival, a celebration of what was and continues to be. He remembers leaving Wiseman as a youth and traveling to Anchorage. “I ran into fences and posted land everywhere,” he says. There are no fences in Wiseman, and just the one road leading in and out of town. “I live a stone’s throw from nature. Literally.”

There are other benefits to living in Wiseman, even in the winter. The quiet is immense, and there is no light pollution. There’s also the recurring presence of the Northern Lights, so famous for their shining magnetic green waves shimmering through the starry night sky.

As we camp that night in Reakoff’s backyard we are sleeping directly under the aurora — the magnetic belt that generates the Northern Lights’ glow. But with it still being the summer there is too much sunlight for them to appear.

We look up at the dusky sky anyway, wondering what the aurora might look like under a longer night, one that Reakoff and his family will soon endure for forty unrelenting days.

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Read more Keys to Freeze stories on Narratively as our daring cyclist friends make their way from the Florida Keys to Deadhorse, Alaska.