SHELL LAKE -- Take the TV show "Cheers," pull it out of a bar in Boston, make it real and rustic, slap it down at Shell Lake in the Alaska wilderness, fire Sam and the misfits but leave "Coach'' behind the counter, and you've got Shell Lake Lodge.
Say hello to Zoe Brinker, the Coach of a swath of remote Alaska north of Skwentna, an airstrip next to a community that barely qualifies as a "Census-designated place'' these days.
A one-woman dynamo, Brinker has hung on as the owner and operator of a log-cabin Bush lodge since 1978 because, well, she likes it -- and because there are just enough part-time residents at Shell Lake and visitors that she can survive.
"I don't make a lot of money,'' she confesses, "but it supports my lifestyle. I just love the wilderness.''
A lot of people love the wilderness. Many, if not most, who decide to run a lodge in the wilderness, especially the Alaska wilderness, find it a hard life. One has to be a jack-of-all trades to keep everything running, and a serious day laborer to tend bar while keeping the place supplied with firewood for heat, electricity from the generator, and food and drink.
Most people find this little overwhelming in middle age. Brinker is about to turn 75 and is coming off back surgery only a couple years ago. The latter, she adds, was a good thing.
"I guess I was born with a birth defect,'' she said. "I had trouble with my back the whole life.'' After surgery, it’s better now than it has ever been, though Brinker never let it slow her down.
"I find that if you move and you use your muscles and stuff, you can deal with a lot of stuff,'' she said. "I like to be up and active.''
Active is an understatement. Brinker is a petite, friendly, gray-haired dynamo and a local institution. Everyone who visits Shell meets Zoe sooner or later, and almost everyone who travels through the country knows Zoe.
Thankfully for the survival of the lodge, there have gotten to be a lot of those travelers in recent years:
• Mushers training for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on a trail that runs through the muskegs just west of the lodge;
• Snowmachiners touring the south side of the Alaska Range; and
• Fat-tire bikers competing in the Iditarod Trail Invitational race to McGrath on a route that runs right past Zoe's front door.
Because of the much-improved snowmachines of the 21st century, big changes have come to Shell Lake in the winters since Zoe arrived, but change is not always a bad thing.
"When I first opened in '78, the first snowmachiners that came in here took them 17 1/2 hours,'' she said. Now, there is a well-maintained winter trail between Shell Lake and the Skwentna Roadhouse, and bicyclists can pedal from one stop to the other in a fraction of that time. A snowmachine rider can easily make it in a couple hours.
There is enough winter traffic now to allow Zoe to operate much like an old-fashioned Alaska roadhouse. She likes that instead of trying to exist on seasonal hunting and fishing.
"It really isn't the best hunting here,'' she said. "We have good fishing,'' but that season is short. Winter has become the lodge's prime time.
"Late December, January, February, March, I do 24-hour business basically,'' she said.
As the years pass, one has to wonder how long that can continue. Brinker doesn't worry about it.
"Shell is a special lake,'' she said. "It has a feeling about. It seems to draw good people. It's a good neighborhood. This is where I'll probably be buried."
She fell in love with the place when she flew over it in the 1970s. She started building the lodge in 1975. She raised a family along the lake. She loved the place through more than three decades, a love that hasn’t faded.
"Before I came to Alaska,'' she said, "I lived all over the United States, big cities. They're nice places to visit.''
Shell, however, is home.
"I've just made so many wonderful friends,'' she said, "And I love dealing with Alaskans. They're just the nicest people in the world.''
If you're ever up north of Anchorage on the south slope of the Alaska Range, drop on in. The door is always open and behind the bar you'll find a grand old lady with some wonderful stories to tell.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com