Tales from Within the Wild
The Dixon family has spent a lifetime pioneering luxury travel in the most remote corners of Alaska. Here they share the most memorable moments of their journey.
It seems fitting that Carl and Kirsten Dixon were married in a log cabin amid a snowstorm to the tune of river songs. The couple behind Within the Wild, a collection of high-end adventure lodges, met at the Alaska Native Medical Center where Kirsten worked in the ICU and Carl worked in the ENT department. They shared a passion for the outdoors and adventure and as soon as their first daughter, Carly was born, sold everything they owned and in 1983 moved to the Yetna River to start a fishing lodge.
“In the beginning, it was all about embarking on an adventure,” says Kirsten. “We knew we wanted to live closer to nature and really didn’t know what we were doing but it worked to our youthful advantage. We were stubborn young people who wouldn’t ever consider failing. Nothing was ever too hard in those early days.”
The couple welcomed a second daughter, Mandy, into the world in 1984 as they welcomed hunters and fishermen to Riversong Lodge. Back then, there was no running water. “It took 50 pumps to fill a bucket with water that I’d heat on the stove and then hang for people to take showers,” recalls Kirsten. “We really learned to MacGyver systems for survival.”
In the 1980s, Alaskan tourism was largely consumptive. Guests were mostly men dressed in camo who drank Budweiser and came to fish and hunt, says Kirsten. She and Carl had a vision of a more sustainable tourism model and in 1994 purchased Winterlake Lodge, an active hunting lodge just south of Denali National Park situated along the Iditarod Trail. “The original owners could never get their head around the fact that someone would pay to see a bear and not kill it,” says Carl. “We wanted to expose our daughters to a different attitude.” The couple started marketing the lodge as a destination for multi-sport activities and wildlife viewing and Kirsten indulged her love of cooking and soon earned a reputation as serving some of the best food in the state.
“We had a lot of European guests at Riversong and some were restaurateurs so I started to learn from them,” she says. When guests invited Kirsten to France, she accepted and attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. “You would drive around these French villages and discover tiny, rustic restaurants where the chef prepared outrageously good food,” she says. “That is what I aspired to then and still do. I love serving really good food to travelers. In the early days at Winterlake people would knock on the door in the winter and ask if they could stay the night or buy dinner. They had no expectations and you’d feed them and watch the joy good food can bring people. There is such beauty in moments like that.”
Kirsten’s commitment to French hospitality and quality cuisine and Carl’s commitment to preservation and conservation in the natural world have come to define the Within the Wild brand. In 2009, the couple purchased a second lodge, Tutka Bay, in Kachemak Bay near Homer where Kirsten now has a culinary school and her daughter Mandy helps oversee the culinary programming.
Mandy, who also owns La Baleine Café in Homer, has fond memories of her Alaskan childhood.
She and Carly were homeschooled and Carl would take a boat or snowmobile to retrieve the schoolwork from the mail, 18 miles away. “We ran around barefoot covered in mud,” she says. “I was truly a wild child. I was always in the garden or woods. I learned to drive a boat before I could drive a car. Instead of gym class we would chop firewood, shovel snow or mush dogs.” Dog mushing legend Joe Reddington gifted a 10-year-old Mandy six dogs and running them became part of her daily P.E. routine until she crashed her sled into an airplane. “I broke off part of the airplane wing and that quickly ended my mushing career,” she jokes.
Mandy left Alaska to attend culinary school in Pasadena, Calif. but it didn’t take long for her to realize how special Alaska and its cuisine was. “There’s truly nowhere like it in the world,” she says. “And Homer is coming into its own. It used to be a good ole’ boy fishing community but every day I discover a new sea salt company, meadery, craft brewery, honey company.” This April, Mandy and Kirsten will release Living Within the Wild: Personal Stories & Beloved Recipes from Alaska which serves as a love letter to Alaskan terroir as well as a journal of their favorite family memories.
Carl jokes the lodges now have the same number of chefs as guides. Just as Mandy and Kirsten have brought the culinary programs to award-winning standards, Carl has constantly innovated the adventure offerings at both lodges and recently introduced a high glacier camp at Winterlake Lodge where guests can visit the sled dogs in summer season. Within the Wild has become known for its food and activities, but Carl insists the Alaskan wilderness is what leaves guests in awe. “I remember Carl took me up to the Johnson Glacier in the helicopter and there was a lone wolf standing there in the snow,” says Kirsten. “I felt like I was in the most faraway place in that moment. We really can take guests to places no human has ever been before. That’s a powerful feeling.”
Inspired to make your own journey to Alaska? Take a look at our sample itinerary: Adventures on the Kenai Peninsula