Sarah E. Mason
Eleanor Wirts brings magic to Alaska's tour industry
Updated: Mar 26, 2019
It’s 40 below outside the Yurt on Eleanor Wirts property in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her Alaskan Huskies are raring to run. In the main house on the property guests suit up in heavy duty winter gear preparing for the ride of their life. As the dogs pull your sled through narrow corridors of giant snow covered Spruce you feel as though you’ve just entered Narnia. It’s just short of magic, which also happens to be the name of the dog mushing and Bed and Breakfast business Wirts has owned and operated in Fairbanks since 2013. In just six years Just Short of Magic has become one of the most successful dog mushing businesses in Alaska.
“I had a vision, wait vision’s such a cheesy word,” remarks Wirts. “My idea was for people to come, stay in our Yurt, in the morning have a warm home cooked breakfast then go dog mushing and at night view the Aurora. When I knew what I wanted to do with this, I wanted to make it happen right then, and I did.”
That determined resilience is a defining feature of Wirts. I’d call her visionary but she may accuse me of being cheesy.
Wirts’ road to success is as fascinating as she is. Homegrown in New England, she spent much of her youth in Vermont. She grew up an equestrian, owning her first horse at the age of 10 and later attending the prestigious Morven Park International Equestrian Institute ((MPIEI) in Leesburg, Virginia.
Wirts found her way back to Vermont temporarily to pursue a Master’s Degree in Secondary Education with an emphasis on Biology at the University of Vermont (UVM). In addition to her studies she taught high school science at Vermont Academy in Saxtons River. She also served as the school’s Equestrian coach. One day Wirts and some friends tried dog sledding. Instantly hooked by the thrill of driving a team, Wirts started assembling dogs. Soon the husky she owned was joined by 12 other dogs she had found at nearby shelters; thus, beginning her adventures in dug mushing.
As Wirts' interest in dog mushing grew beyond a hobby it became clear that Alaska was the optimal place for her to be. So she packed up her dogs and got a seasonal summer gig running dog sled tours on a glacier outside Juneau. In 2003 she landed a full-time gig as a teacher at Teller, a Native Alaskan village of about 250 people on the coast of the Bering Sea. Wirts taught primarily science at a school of 75 students grades K-12.
For three years Wirts lived with no running water. The conditions were excessively harsh. Food and groceries arrived only when the planes could get in which was once a month. She lived off the land fishing and skinning fox, seals, muskox to feed herself and her dogs. Despite the conditions, Wirts chose to stay year round with the indigenous residents when her colleagues would depart at the end of each semester.
“It was a destructive environment, one of toughest in the state,” commented Wirts. “Some of the cultural aspects were fabulous like native dancing, having a dog team, the wildlife. I developed strong ties to native culture. But as is true with many indigenous communities, they struggle with alcoholism and suicide. When you're immersed in this kind of environment you are impacted by it.”
Wirts left Teller in 2006 taking time to adjust to life outside the village. “It was like re-entry to America,” explained Wirts. “I hadn’t driven in a car at 60 mph, hadn’t shopped at a store. It was like returning to America after being in a foreign land.”
Wirts took a year off to adjust to life outside Teller then entered a Master’s program in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Perhaps her time in Teller had lasting influence as she commuted to school from her residence in a Yurt, with no electricity or running water. In 2010 she completed her studies receiving her 2nd Master’s Degree and immediately after she entered a PhD program. Wirts was accepted into the PhD in Native American Studies, Resilience and Adaptation Program (RAP) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She was one of only 10 interdisciplinary students. This prestigious program had recently been awarded a multi-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation (NFS).
After five years of studying, commuting from the Yurt and caring for her dogsled team she needed a break. "I just couldn't be there anymore,” realized Wirts. “My body would go into total shut down when I would drive to the University". Wirts decided to loan out 10 of her dogs to dog mushers in the Fairbanks area so she could return to Vermont to manage an organic fruit and livestock farm. Her stay was short-lived as It was clear that her heart wasn’t on the farm or in Vermont. Wirts missed raising and training her dogs and the exhilaration she felt driving a team. With no money, no home or no dogs, she headed back to Alaska.
By July 2012, Wirts had rounded up all her dogs and got a substitute teaching job in Fairbanks. A month later in August of 2012 she stumbled upon an article in an Alaska business magazine about a YMCA class for Women’s small business start-ups. The five-week class began in September and was held in Anchorage, a seven hour drive from Fairbanks.
“When I think about it I had a lot of resilience,” said Wirts. “I came back kinda with my tail between my legs, no place to live. But I jumped in and said okay, here’s what we’re doing."
And she did it. Not letting money, distance or time stop her, Wirts put the cost of the business class on her credit card and made the long trek back and forth every Wednesday to Anchorage. She started Just Short of Magic shortly after completing the class and set out to engage local hotels and business with a PowerPoint presentation showcasing her vision. Wirts was so passionate and clear about what she wanted to bring to Fairbanks that her energy and enthusiasm swept over the community. In a relatively short time she had one of the most successful dog mushing businesses in Fairbanks.
Today Just Short of Magic is a flourishing business operating seven days a week Fall, Winter and Spring. Dogsled tours run from November through March, including a dog mushing school where guests can learn how to harness a team and hook them up to the dog sled. In the Fall Wirts runs ATV tours and in Summer you can tour her kennels and spend time with her Alaskan Huskies, some of which are Iditarod Veteran dogs. All 40 of her dogs were born and raised on the property. The dogs are loved and cared for by Eleanor and her dedicated staff. Just Short of Magic holds the prestigious Jim & Mary Binkley Award for creativity, innovation, courage and entrepreneurialism for the benefit and enjoyment of visitors to Fairbanks.
When asked the secret to maintaining a 5-Star TripAdvisor rating for over 5 years Wirts said, "I'm super proud of what we've built. Guests can spend an unforgettable night in our Yurt B&B, view the aurora right outside their door, wake up and have a delicious home-cooked breakfast, play with the friendliest dogs they've ever met and experience the beauty of Alaska by dogsled."