Artist’s work inspired by Alaska landscapes

EAGLE RIVER, Alaska – The Iditarod spans the Alaskan frontier untouched by most. It doesn’t take long before the small paw prints and sled tracks disappear in the falling snow. Some think the 1,049-mile race is inhumane, while others still believe in the tradition. For the mushers, the race is everything, and the stories they have to tell are priceless.

If you’re traveling to Denali National Park and Preserve or other parts of southern Alaska, you have the opportunity to hear about the experience directly from a man who completed the Iditarod twice.

IMG_2168 This Siberian Husky who is 13-years old ran in one Iditarod (Photos by Emily Eidelman).

Jon Van Zyle and his wife Jona open their home for tours and endless stories. My family and I had the opportunity to visit their home in Eagle River, just south of Denali National Park and Preserve toward Anchorage, and I recommend it to everyone.

The trip to the Van Zyle’s home is about a one-hour drive from Denali. It is not difficult to get to, as you only have one road to drive . Since you probably will not have a car within the park, though, you will have to have access to a rental car or a driver. We traveled with a driver, originally because we did not know it was such an easy drive. Without expecting it, he gave us tons of stories and background on the Iditarod which proved crucial before our visit to the home.

As we pulled up to the home, we could hear the Siberian huskies barking with excitement. The Van Zyles greeted us with warm smiles. The dogs had to stay on their leashes, but we got to play with them all, and each one was absolutely beautiful. The traditional Alaskan log cabin was built by Jon. It was adorned with trinkets from around the world and original canvases.

“I was born in Ohio, but I’ve always known Alaska as my home,” Jon said. “I’ve been painting to show the beauty of this place. The landscapes of Alaska, my sweet dogs and of course the Iditarod have served as my inspiration.”

The Iditarod was such an inspiration, in fact, that he was named the official artist of the race in 1979, a title which he still holds. Since then, he has been painting the official poster each year.

The dogs that the Van Zyles raise and train at their home in Eagle River, Alaska. IMG_2181

“I raced in the Iditarod twice,” Jon said. “It was cold. It was tough. Sometimes I look back and I can’t believe I even finished it! Even so, I loved every second of those long races. You know why? Because I could see how much my pups loved it. Their happiness was worth the near frostbite.”

As the Van Zyles explained to us, many Americans don’t believe in the healthiness of the Iditarod. They believe that the dogs are being forced to run. They are not being forced; rather, they are anxious to get going. The young huskies love to run and will keep running until they are completely drained, Jon said.

To combat the adversity, Jon uses art to share his experiences of the landscapes and wildlife seen throughout the race. As I looked at each painting, I could see the sincerity in Jon’s stories. The dogs really do love the race. They are eager to run for as long as the spring sun shines over Alaska. The open landscapes he paints call for human appreciation. Each painting is uniquely beautiful, and will without a doubt make you want to see all of Alaska.

If you are visiting Denali National Park and Preserve, I recommend the day trip to the Van Zyles home. You will have the opportunity to enjoy lunch and stories with the couple. They will teach you about the value of the race and what it’s like to live in Alaska. It will surely be an experience you won’t forget.

“We absolutely love having visitors over,” Jona said. “Opening our home is important to us because it expands the reach of our inspirations. If you choose to bring our artwork home, or even just share one of the stories we’ve told you today, you will be making a positive impact on Alaska.”


If You Go

  • Rent a car or hire a driver – the Van Zyle’s home is a bit of a drive from Denali National Park and Preserve. Since you won’t need a car inside the park, make sure you have access to one or can hire a driver for the trip. Renting a car costs between $110-170, depending on the size of the car. Hiring a driver costs almost double that.
  • Bring money or a checkbook – the Van Zyles offer multiple sizes and types of their original canvases, including prints and stone lithographs. They also have children’s books Jon illustrated available for purchase. There is no cost associated with visiting the home. The tour and lunch are free. Because of this, you may consider buying some of their artwork to compensate for their generosity.
  • Bring snacks for young ones – if you have picky eaters in your family, it is not a bad idea to bring a snack. , which may not be a favorite for the kids.

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