When it comes to the joys of connecting with nature, you can’t beat Alaska. There’s just a feeling up there, like you are always one step from adventure. And you need only look as far as your backyard to find the Call-of-the-Wild. At least, it did if you lived in the Goldstream Valley outside of Fairbanks. I had this house, well, cabin really, and a couple acres, and it came with a view that inspired poetry. It was rustic, warm and cozy, had a great open floor plan and upstairs loft, and I positively adored it. For about a year I had everything a body needed, except for one small thing. My house was completely without indoor plumbing.
Well, to be fair there was a forty gallon water tank upstairs that gravity fed to the kitchen sink, so it wasn’t completely plumb free. The situation came with a few issues of course, but I’m adaptable and took it all in stride. Besides, the view was worth a few sacrifices. Like hot water for instance. If I needed it, I boiled it. Want a shower? Catch rain water in a cistern and shower outside. It does amazing things for your hair, really it does. I almost hated it when winter arrived and I had to buy a shower card at the local general store where I did my laundry.
Okay, by now you’re thinking – no running water? But that means…an outhouse. That’s right! I had a nice one too. It sat a good distance from the cabin, all tucked in the trees with a lovely little path to its door. Wonder what happens in the middle of the night when you have to…ahem…answer the call? Well, you snug into the fuzzy slippers and scurry through the woods. Talk about adventure! One September day I saw a moose while visiting the privy. And don’t get me started on the northern lights. When it comes to potty business, it doesn’t get any cooler than that.
Now for those of you who think this is all a bit unusual I’m going to tell you that if you lived outside the city limits, an outhouse was not at all uncommon. At least it wasn’t in the mid-eighties. I assume it’s still common today. But back then it was so predominant that the neighboring community of Chatanika sponsored the annual Chatanika Days Outhouse Races. Oh, the fun of it all!
Picture this: It’s March, the ground is still frozen and covered with snow, and hundreds of people gather 30 miles north of Fairbanks to watch a mile long race featuring outhouses on skis.
Sound crazy? Well, this is a big wintertime event and let me tell you, people take it serious. It takes skill to build an outhouse aerodynamic enough to keep the speed and maneuver tricky curves, yet solid enough to hold its rider while four team members push, pull, or drag the jazzed up potty across the finish line.
This is excitement folks. Its science and mayhem, all rolled into an afternoon of pure unadulterated fun. And it starts at the Chatanika Lodge, a circa 1930’s roadhouse where folks warm up at the saloon by drinking hot toddies. Then you bundle up and snowmobile over to claim a spot by the road. My favorite was at the bottom of the hill where the big wipe-outs occur. Whoooeeee, I saw some fabulous topsy-turvy crashes that could rival Nascar!
But that’s not the best part. You really haven’t lived until you’ve laid eyes on a zany tricked-out outhouse. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the standard half-moon traditional to antique roadsters to things unrecognizable. The sky’s the limit and there’s only one catch, team costumes are required and usually tailored to the privy. There are definite crowd favorites that enter every year, like ‘Old Faithful’ the Lodge’s timeless and proven number. Then you have upstart newbies engineering marvels of supreme pottyness that boggle the imagination. One year I bet on this stunning Viking number and won enough money to buy a round of drinks for me and my friends at the saloon.
Still, in the end looks and design don’t matter, wipe-outs, fancy maneuvers, and outlandish costumes don’t matter. What counts is that you cross the finish line and have a good time doing it, that you give frozen residents and visitors a reason to cheer, and spend an invigorating day at a winter carnival filled with high-spirits and camaraderie.
The races are one of my fondest memories of Alaska. And I can’t bring them up without a nod to Chatanika. The town goes down in my list of favorite places too, winter or summer. It’s small, historical, and built around a 1928 gold mining camp. Right across the street from the Lodge sits a fabulous relic of those bygone days – a massive gold dredge just itching to be explored. It’s perched on the edge of a 60 or so acre pond that it dug itself and to get to it you have to climb over some pretty tricky tailing piles. I’ve heard of people finding gold nuggets while doing so. Alas, I was never that lucky.