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Modern Pioneers Find Warm Welcome in Alaska

June 21, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

COLDFOOT, Alaska — If they could travel in a time capsule back to the Middle Ages, Cathy and Dick Mackey would be the gracious Lord and Lady of Coldfoot.

Their Arctic Acres Inn--restaurant, grocery store, radio-telephone and automotive service center for travelers--along Alaska's "top of the world" adventure road would have been a tiny fiefdom in medieval times. The seven other residents of Coldfoot work for them.

Truckers carrying vital supplies and equipment to Arctic oil fields at Prudhoe Bay were the first travelers along the Dalton Highway gravel road through Coldfoot. They pounded nails and lifted framework to help build accommodations here, and became like members of the Mackey family.

Guests now coming to Coldfoot in tour buses, private cars, RVs and even on bicycles also are adopted into the family.

Miners who are still prospecting along remote creeks and rivers can rest up in Coldfoot and pay for supplies with gold dust if they are short of cash.

Juggling Jobs

Cathy Mackey runs the post office in addition to being hostess at the inn and restaurant. Dick serves as trainer for 80 high-bred sled dogs, which compete in races.

He belongs to one of the most exclusive of all clubs--the winners of the grueling 1,100-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome. In 1978 he won the closest race in the history of the event, beating a four-time winner by one second in the final mad dash down Nome's Front Street.

Mackey is always available to introduce visitors to his dogs and the art of sled-dogging as well as to such Dalton Highway recreational options as rafting, fishing, panning for gold, bird watching, scenic and wildlife photography and hiking into the bordering Arctic National Park.

Cathy Mackey's care of the puppies tugs at a visitor's heart. This past year she had to care for 49 pups. It took up to five hours a day just to feed them.

"Our guests," she said, "not only develop attachments to dogs and puppies while they are here but often write to ask how a particular dog is doing in its training."

A Warm Welcome

The Mackeys' friendliness and enthusiasm for sharing Coldfoot and their own lives with visitors could change the name of this community to Warmheart. In half a dozen years they have transformed a long-forgotten gold-rush area into another kind of gold mine that awaits discovery under the summer's midnight sun.

Coldfoot is the most northerly destination along the Dalton Highway where travelers using their own transportation can find lodging and a restaurant.

Milepost 0 on the highway begins about 80 miles north of Fairbanks. Coldfoot is above the Arctic Circle at Milepost 173.6. Disaster Creek at Milepost 210.8 is the end of the road for travelers on their own. Truckers continue north another 150 miles with supplies for the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. This summer, for the first time, the highway above Disaster Creek will also be open to motor-coach tours.

For any trip along the Dalton Highway, Coldfoot can become a highlight, as it did for my wife Elfriede and me when we arrived here by motor coach at the end of May.

Boomtown Days

Gold was discovered in the Coldfoot area in 1899. That summer more than 2,000 hopeful miners descended on the area, most of them coming in boats up the Koyukuk River. Many left after the first winter, when the Arctic darkness was often 70 degrees below zero.

But enough miners remained in the area--and more joined them--to make Coldfoot a boomtown with three saloons, two stores and a hotel. Supplies came by sled dogs in the winter and barges in the summer. The barges were pulled by mules walking the banks of the Koyukuk.

After the gold-mining boom Coldfoot became a forgotten area until the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. When the 800-mile pipeline was completed southward to the port of Valdez a decade ago the gravel haul road was turned over to the state of Alaska. It was opened to public travel in 1981.

That was the summer the Mackeys arrived at what would later become Coldfoot--with a school bus converted into a kitchen, a tent and a dream.

Dick Mackey had come from New Hampshire to Alaska in 1959. He started working for the railroad, then went into construction as an iron worker. He also became intrigued with the sport of sled-dog racing. That led to his meeting with Cathy, who was an office manager for the Iditarod race organization.

Joke Turns Serious

Later, while working as a contractor along Dalton Highway, Mackey jokingly asked a state road superintendent where lunch was served. The joke led him to a successful bid for the Bureau of Land Management contract to create Coldfoot six years ago.

The Mackeys initially received permission to build the restaurant, service facilities and six rooms for overnight guests. The new Arctic Acres Inn has 26 rooms, all with private baths.

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