With her publishing company, Helen Hegener brings Alaska history (and more) to readers

This is part of Alaska Authors, an occasional series about authors and other literary figures with ties to the 49th state.

“I believe history belongs to everyone, and our history should be available to everyone,” Helen Hegener said, describing her core motivation. “I mean, I sell books about history, but I still believe very strongly that history should be accessible to everyone.”

For almost 20 years, Hegener has put that belief into action, making Alaska’s history accessible through her company, Northern Light Media. She has published over a dozen books written by herself and others, built webpages for many of them, released videos, and produced Alaska History Magazine from 2019 to 2021, turning her fascination with the state’s past into a full-time job.

“History has just always been my thing,” she said.

Hegener’s work delves into the building of the Alaska Railroad, the Depression-era establishment of the Matanuska Valley Colony, the state’s historic roadhouses, and, most prominently, sled dogs and the mushers who work with them. She’s arguably Alaska’s foremost chronicler of the sport’s history, having written books about the Iditarod, Yukon Quest, All Alaska Sweepstakes, and more. Often, she said, she writes a book just to satisfy her own curiosity. For instance, “I couldn’t find any information about the history of starting the Iditarod, so I thought, here we go, I’ll write it.”

That book, “The First Iditarod: Musher’s Tales from the 1973 Race,” relied heavily on oral histories Hegener gathered personally. Watching as entrants in the first race aged and passed away, she took it upon herself to meet with them while she could.

“I traveled from Tok to Nome to Fairbanks to Whitehorse and did these interviews in person. That became the bulk of the book,” she said. “It’s still of one of the books Iditarod people like the best because it’s original history in the mushers’ own words.”


Hegener followed a similar approach when she authored “Alaskan Roadhouses: Shelter, Food and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails,” documenting the businesses that provided travelers with food and lodging during the territorial era. “I got to travel all over the state,” she recalled, “talking to a lot of people and learning about all the old roadhouses and the networks and the trails.”

Hegener’s work draws from both her personal interests and life experience. She became aware of history at a very young age when her father, a computer systems analyst with the Army, was stationed in Europe and was exposed to the continent’s storied past.

“We played in the Roman Coliseum ruins when when we were kids,” she said.

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Hegener came to Alaska in 1965 when her dad finished his military career in Anchorage. After his retirement, he went to work for the Alaska Railroad, and Hegener took advantage of the free passes he was provided with. “My brother and I would get on the train and go somewhere,” she recalled.

Decades later, that experience inspired her to write “The Alaska Railroad 1902-1923: Blazing an Iron Trail Across The Last Frontier,” about the construction of this key piece of Alaska’s transportation infrastructure. “For that one, I relied on mostly online resources,” she said, adding that “back when the railroad was being built, they actually had a newsletter that they would publish. All of those old railroad newsletters are online. And I have a link to them from my railroad website.”

By the time Hegener launched Northern Light Media in 2007, she was already experienced with publishing. When her children were young, she said, “I got interested in alternative schools, home-schooling, church schools, and you name it. I eventually gathered so much information that I wrote a book about it called, ‘Alternatives in Education: Family Choices in Learning.’ That book led to interviews and radio shows. My husband and I eventually built our entire publishing business with books and a magazine about alternative education.”

The couple operated Hegener Publishing until splitting amicably in 2008. At that point, Hegener ceded her share of the company to her now-former husband, “because I wanted to write about Alaskan subjects.”

Hegener’s first project under Northern Light Media was a documentary DVD about champion musher Lance Mackey.

“I ended up following Lance on the Yukon Quest all the way to Dawson City and Whitehorse. And then we followed him on the Iditarod that year and he won,” she said. “I spent a lot of miles on the road with that guy.”

Her first Alaska book, “The Matanuska Colony Barns,” was about barns built as part of the agricultural settlement that was established in 1935.

“That was a really fun book to do,” she said. “I learned a lot about local history at that time. And through the barns, I got so interested in the history of the pioneers that I wrote another book about the colonists themselves.”

Hegener has investigated a number of topics but has written the most about mushing. Following Mackey led her to the commemorative 100th anniversary running of the All Alaska Sweepstakes, the world’s first long-distance sled dog race, which was founded in 1908 and left from Nome. Although it hadn’t been run in decades, the 2008 race offered a large purse and attracted many of the sport’s biggest names.

“People we knew asked if we could do a book about it,” she said.

Hegener has published books on the Yukon Quest and the 1991 Hope Sled Dog Race — which took place in Alaska and Siberia — and about mushing in the years between the Gold Rush and World War II. The most recent of those, “The History of Sled Dogs in North America,” goes beyond Alaska and highlights the widespread popularity of dog sled races across much of the United States and Canada in the prewar years.

“I was familiar with the mushers, but mostly up here in the North,” she said of the stories she uncovered. “What I wasn’t familiar with was the history Outside. I had no idea that mushing was as popular as it was back in the 1920s and 1930s.”

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Hegener has stepped completely outside of Alaska for her latest project. Soon to be published, “The History of Women’s Professional Bronc Riding: 1904 to 1940″ recounts the long-forgotten heyday of women rodeo stars.

“They were really popular in the 1920s and 1930s,” she said. “The ladies who rode bucking horses back in those days were so good that they got officially barred from the arena so they wouldn’t make the cowboys look bad. And now women’s bronco riding is not recognized by the (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association).”

In addition to her own work, Hegener has published books by longtime Alaska sportswriter Lew Freedman, and one by the late historian Gary Stein. His transcript about James Taylor White, a physician who made repeated voyages to Alaska between 1889 and 1901 with the Revenue Cutter Service (predecessor to the Coast Guard), is “a wonderful book and it’s a phenomenal history of Alaska that would have been lost if not for Dr. Stein,” she said.

With more projects in the pipeline, Hegener said Northern Light Media will continue adding titles to its catalog. “I feel like this information should be out there,” Hegener said of the history she shares. “I’ll be publishing books probably until I can’t see the keyboard anymore.”

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at