Adventuring in Alaska part 2
Day 6 – Anchorage to Fairbanks
This was the day that we felt how cold Alaska really could be. We flew from Anchorage to Fairbanks and the lowest temperature we recorded was -37°. Damn. I grew up in Pennsylvania so I’ve experienced cold, and even some negative numbers, but never quite as cold as this! This was as soon as you step outside your nose hairs freeze cold. The temperatures in some parts of Alaska are so extreme that cars come equipped with plugs that you plug into outlets in parking lots to keep the engine blocks from freezing over, wowzas!
When still in the Anchorage Airport we ran into the other party of 2 that would be joining us for the last leg of the trip, Heidi and Laura. They had run into some unfortunate delays and aggravations associated with holiday travel and were not only exhausted, but would still arrive after us by a couple of hours in Fairbanks. We were grabbing a new vehicle in Fairbanks and all driving to Chena Hot Springs together so we decided to load up our stuff first, grab a bite to eat, and then stock up on supplies for our next leg of the trip before swinging around to get them. First part of the challenge, the hatchback on our C-RV was actually frozen shut so we had to slide all of our suitcases and groceries in through the folded down backseat!
We did get the opportunity to stop at a cute little restaurant called Pike’s Waterfront Lodge that was right on the frozen Chena River and across from a rather large LOVE ALASKA sign that was just calling for us to go take pictures in front of. We finally finished eating, scooped up our friends, and then were on our way to Chena!!
The drive was a smidgen over an hour and although it wasn’t snowing, the roads definitely still had some icy patches and we saw even more people that slid off the side, yikes! Thanks to our amazingly safe driver Dawn on this whole journey!
Upon arriving at Chena, we were able to relax and unwind a bit before 3 of us started to get ready for our Aurora tour that night. We unfortunately got on the last tour so didn’t officially leave until 10:30pm. On top of it being -37°, add in that darn biting wind chill and it was like -53° below!!!! All the layers had to come out!
We arrived at the Activity Center so bundled up we had more of a waddle than a walk, but we were ready! They take you in these specialty military vehicles called susv’s that can actually float on water! Ours was pink and I was stoked! In the back it can fit 10 people and then at least one can go up front, which happened to be our friendly neighbor’s 75 year-old mother that she surprised with this trip for Christmas. We had at least 3 susv’s in our pod that was heading up the hill, which was several miles and about a 1200ft. climb to their yurts that sit on top of the mountain, enabling a better chance of seeing the Aurora. Chena has 2 giant yurts with tons of chairs, some space heaters, an actual wood-burning stove, and a setup for the guides to boil large pots of water so they can provide unlimited hot chocolate, ramen, spiced cider and anything else you can imagine eating or drinking by just adding hot water. They warn about the yellow snow up here but provide bathrooms, which were somewhat improvised, but had lighting and a heater.
As soon as we arrived the lights were putting on a faint show. The sky was aglow with green. We were able to enjoy it only momentarily before needing to head inside and get warmed up. And so went the night. Pop outside for a few minutes to check out the sky, come back in for 20 to get warmed up. The lights did start to dance for us at some point and it was magical to watch. I did not have the necessary photo equipment to capture anything unfortunately but Dawn was able to snap a somewhat decent shot with the iPhone 11 and a Northern Lights Photo app. What I was able to do was enjoy the moment and know that I was mentally checking off one of the coolest things I’ve ever had on my bucket list. Here’s to adventure. Here’s to Dave.
The last half hour of our time at the yurts was basically spent napping, just waiting for our 3am departure. Definitely one of the latest nights I’ve had in a looooong time. But oh, so worth it!
Day 7 – Hot Springs and more Aurora
The next day was warmer, -22°. Okay, time to do more stuff! One of the main attractions of the resort were the hot springs. They have a man-made lake where they pump the naturally hot water from nearby, some super-duper hot, some temperate, enabling you to go through a wonderful temperature journey throughout the whole body of water. We all decided that this was going to be one of our escapades for the day, and at -22°, it was going to be quite an experience even walking to the water. Once we had all of our stuff jam-packed in lockers we were off! Pitter-pattering down the hall and through the door that takes you to the outside, gasping in a collective deep breath whilst opening the door, preparing our minds and bodies for the cold air that was about to hit us. When we walked through the door everyone was so focused on just trying to get to the hot water that they started walking down the wrong hallway to the outside hot tub. Although we did want to check it all out, the hot springs were the priority now. Re-route, pronto! We hurried and scurried until the hallway finally took a sharp right and the water was already starting to lap at our feet, getting us a hint of what was to come. Screams and hollers were exorcized as we made our descent into the warm bath awaiting us. Yes!!! It was beyond the point of freezing outside, but the water was niiiiiice. Ahhhhhhh….
Almost immediately group members’ eyelashes started to form icicles on them, followed by hair and hats. While wandering around the whole area, which we couldn’t entirely see the length of when we were in there because of the steam coming off of it, we discovered some people creating some lovely ice sculptures on their heads. Magnificent!
All around us the rocks and trees were covered in snow. It was a magical winter wonderland for sure! We stayed in the springs for a decent amount of time exploring all the nooks and crannies and allowing all of our fingertips to look like prunes before attempting to emerge to the brisk air outside. Since we wanted to check out the different facilities in this spot we immediately ran back down that other hallway to the outdoor hot tub. There were a couple of other people in there, and it was nice, but not quite an experience like we just had. As soon as a handful of people piled in not 5 minutes later we were out!
After working up an appetite scurrying to and from the hot spring, we decided it was time to check out the restaurant on the property. We waited a pretty decent amount of time and were placed at a table way in the back by the kitchen and boy, was it hot! Taking off all the layers possible wasn’t even enough, it was almost uncomfortable. But we layered down and had some drinks and food that would hopefully stuff us for quite a while. Tonight’s agenda; round two of the Aurora Tour! The night before Laura and Heidi were too exhausted to join us because of their flight debacles so they snagged tickets for tonight and Dawn and I decided to join them. Luckily, we were placed on one of the earlier tours that was leaving at 9:30.
The time of our tour arrived and we were bundled up as usual, ready to head up the mountain once again to try our luck at seeing the Northern Lights. The forecast wasn’t as great, but we hoped we had picked the better choice out of the remaining nights that we had. We did the routine of pop outside and pop back in to warm up again and at one point we finally did see a faint wave of green across the sky, but unfortunately it was not as good as the night before and that was all we got. We did not let that ruin our night, or our chance to have fun, however. We noticed that there were some sleds inside the yurt so we decided to go outside and have a little sledding adventure, which ended up involving a little bit of sledding, a lot more pulling, and copious amounts of laughter. By the time we were done with our shenanigans it was about time to head back down the mountain and since we had befriended our driver over the course of the night he invited us to ride in the front on the way down, which was a pretty cool experience.
Day 8 – Snowmobiling and More Hot Springs
Luckily for us in this super Northern Hemisphere the sun didn’t arise until about 11 so sleeping in after the late nights we had was not a problem. But a new day meant new activities to be done. Laura and Dawn booked a snowmobile tour at noon so off they went on that adventure. When they returned everyone (besides me) decided to hit up the hot springs again. It was time for me to chill. I think it was a good choice, the crew came back discussing how boiling hot the water was and they couldn’t truly relax. Bummer.
Day 9 – Dogsledding and the Ice Museum
Our last day at Chena was action-packed! We decided to go dogsledding, despite the still horrid temperatures. This was something Cathy was not comfortable with, being an animal rights activist, but we went and asked plenty of questions about the treatment of the animals and learned a lot and I think I walked away feeling that the animals were pretty stoked about the experience. It was short, but definitely sweet.
Next on the agenda was the tour of the Ice Museum and Hotel. You pre-buy tickets for this and can add on a ticket for an Appletini poured into glasses made of ice. Of course we went all in. Once you buy the tickets you can go at any time they are giving tours, which are at about 2 hour intervals throughout the day. The temperature inside was a nice balmy 25° (it stays this temp. year-round) and so it was actually the warmest temperature we had felt the whole week!
We were ushered into the first chamber where we could watch as one of the artists was carving out the martini glasses that we were about to drink from. Sick! There were ice sculptures literally everywhere you turned and we all hustled into the main room with the bar and some epic pieces that our guide chatted about before opening the bar and giving the group free reign to walk around and take photos. It was a mad dash for people to get drinks and wander around to try to get the best shots without the hordes of people. Beyond the main room there was an igloo that had an ice xylophone inside (playable!) and then the hotel. It costs about $600 a night to stay at the ice hotel, price includes blankets, and also a room at the main resort as a backup, and record has it that no person has stayed past 2:30am. Hmph, I could beat that!
Before we had a chance to make cringe-faces at the super sweet Appletinis we were being told it was time to depart. What, what??!! This was a really cool experience but they definitely do not provide enough time to really enjoy it. We felt like we were being rushed to drink and take pictures and you can’t even take your drink around with you (it had to stay in the bar area). Highly recommend, but hopefully they lengthen the time in the future!
Since we took the 5pm tour afterwards it was prime time for dinner and about every single person on that tour had the same idea so we all bombarded the restaurant. We decided that it was going to be a long wait so we put our name down and went back to our room for a bit to relax and have a drink before dinner. When we came back they kept on saying that our table was up soon and then when they finally called us up they looked confused because someone had written us down as party of 2, we were 5. They apologized and promised that we would get priority and have the best table in the house when we would finally get seated. A total of an hour and a half after putting our names down we were seated in the same back room, even closer to the kitchen, already sweating before even taking a seat. Meanwhile there was a table of the same size in the front room where they were about to seat a group that had come up not 20 minutes ago, da heck?! Laura decided to say something and the manager came over and was not accommodating and told us eventually that he would move us over but to know in the future that they seat in the order of people they put on the list. Huh? An hour and a half wait to be put back in the sauna?? The experience we had with the staff at the rest of the resort was amazing, the restaurant, not soo much.
It was our last night at Chena and we wanted to try one final shot at viewing the Aurora. The forecast actually looked better and we had hiked up earlier in the day to check out the Aurorium that the resort had up on the hill in anticipation that we might go up there later. It was a short walk past the hot springs and up a hill where a window encased cabin sat with an outhouse right out back. It wasn’t quite as high up as when you buy tickets for the tour, but if the Aurora is strong, there are chances you can see it from here without dropping a dime. We didn’t end up seeing anything with our naked eye but there was a couple that was taking pictures with long exposure that caught a pretty nice display. It’s crazy that a camera can catch what our own eyes cannot! Also part of it being our last night in Chena, Dawn, Laura and I had a little tribute to Dave up a slope right by the Aurorium. After our tribute we all slid down the snowbank getting snow in-between the layers of pants and freezing our butts off! It was time to go down. But not before another romp in the snow by the steam of the hot springs. It felt like playing on the moon. Out of this freaking world.
Day 10 – Chena back to Fairbanks and NYE!
Even though check out was at 11 we could still enjoy the hot springs up until 3pm the day of our departure so after we packed, we headed off for one last soak. The temperature had increased significantly and was now around 8°, which meant no more icicles. Luckily for all of us the temperature of the water had also improved from the day before and was once again relaxing to lounge around in.
We finally bid Chena Hot Springs adieu and started heading back to Fairbanks, where we would all be flying out the following day. But tonight, tonight was New Years Eve! One more chance to celebrate life and this amazing trip with astounding individuals! Not everyone was down to go explore the town, however, so it was a partial party. Dawn, Cathy, and I went out to a place called Jazz Bistro on 4th that was highly rated online. The food was pretty good, but the service was soooo slow. After dinner we headed to the Big I, which was having a Roaring 20’s party. It was $5 cover to get in and a cash bar (I don’t think we ran into many bars that took cards in Alaska!) and was crowded and looking like it was going to get even more so. The crowd was entertaining, the service wasn’t bad, and the dj actually sounded great. We were staying! Laura eventually did meet us out and we had a raucous rallying of bringing in 2020. We drank, we danced, and we shut the place down. We all stumbled down the street and over the bridge to our hotel where we awaited our final night of slumber in Alaska.
Day 11 – Traveling back to civilization
The last day was mainly a travel day. After checking out of the hotel we did have a little bit of time to spare so we drove to North Pole, AK to check out the quaint little shops there. However, it being New Year’s Day, even the North Pole was closed. Santa needs some time off, you know? Even though the shop wasn’t open we were able to take some cool pics and visited the Antler Academy and watched some reindeer hang out. Rudolph looked tired.
On the way back to the airport we figured we’d stop back at our old stomping grounds, Pike’s, to grab a final drink and sandwich at a non-airport price. This was our last hurrah of all being together before starting the long journey of getting back home. I did not sleep much on the returning leg but I definitely had a smile on my face thinking back on one of the most epic trips I’ve ever been on. This is a trip that Dave had envisioned and dreamt about, but unfortunately he got too sick to ever go on. Dave was not just an adventure buddy, but an inspiration to me. He lived a life overflowing with experiences and explorations, sometimes even having first descents. He loved the outdoors; canyoneering, rock climbing, hiking, and backpacking any spare second he could. But he also loved love. When his memory wasn’t cooperating as well as he liked he put a sign up on his wall that said ‘love is my religion’ to remind him everyday of what was important. Gandhi said “where there is love, there is life,” and I believe Dave lived a life full of love, not only for the outdoors, but for those around him. Even though he is gone he will continue to be an inspiration to me to choose adventure and love those around me. Always. Here’s to adventure, to the outdoors, to love, to Dave.