It was midnight and I was in a dimly lit basement of a tiki bar designed like a pirate ship in San Francisco. I had a drink in my hand. It was a Friday night and the bar was too small for the number of people it housed.
Strangers were standing, touching each other’s shoulders drinking the bar’s famous rum cocktails. There was a mini waterfall in the corner ending in a small pool with couples sitting next to it. They were drinking beer, smiling and talking passionately while Pink Floyd played in the background.
I sat there thinking about my recent trip to Alaska. A week in Alaska was much better than the last 4 months at my new job in California. It was not that I hated my job, on the contrary, I loved it but there was something special, magical to say the least about Alaska.
I found myself thinking about John Muir who said that a young man should never go to Alaska because he will never be satisfied with any other place as long as he lives. There is indeed a lot of truth in that.
My Alaskan trip began with spending couple of days at Chena Hot Springs Resort which is one hour drive from Fairbanks.
1. Chena Hot Springs Resort
It was 2 am and the temperature was as low as -30 C/ -22F. Then again, I did not expect anything different in mid February. In the shivering cold, I somehow managed to plug the car into the electric socket so that the engine does not freeze. I made my way to the resort where I booked a room with a bed, study table, a chair and a window which went from floor to the ceiling. The wooden interiors gave it a rustic look. After throwing the luggage in one corner, I fell on the bed and instantly fell asleep.
Next morning, I woke up, walked up to the window to see the resort covered with snow. The sunrise made the snow glitter like gold. The snow was falling from the trees and the fog rose from the ground.
Heading out, one could see a few buildings scattered around the resort wrapped in snow hats and jackets. As I walked on the snow, I could hear the snow breaking under the feet.
There were reindeers, sheeps and mountain goats in a gated area running around in childlike excitement and feeding on the trees. This was the first time I saw a reindeer and honestly, I knew there are many more things which are going to happen for the first time. I was pumped.
After roaming around the resort till the sun was shining right above the head, I decided to have a hot toddy, waffles and pancakes at a restaurant in the resort. Later, I headed out to explore the wilderness near the resort using a Snowmobile.
The yellow snowmobile body, juxtaposed in the pristine white snow, was sitting on its long black skis with a big red button next to the steering wheel. As soon as I turned it on, the sound of the motor filled the otherwise quiet surroundings. I pushed on the accelerator and there was no looking back.
While riding my noisy snowmobile, I realized that there was something special about being in that Alaskan wilderness uncorrupted by humans. It’s you and the nature with majestic snow capped mountains, tall trees swaying in the cool breeze with small animals running around. The sunshine added an orange tinge to everything. There were no obligations, no rules, you can be you and no one will come to change that.
I felt free and continued riding my snowmobile swerving around the obstacles and was entertained by the breathtaking landscapes of Alaska.
2. Hot Springs
I was pulled out of my thoughts when the bartender called my name to give the rum cocktail I ordered, aptly named “The Painkiller”. The guy sitting next to me, got up hurriedly, bolted to the restroom but ended throwing up all over the table next to the bar. He was immediately thrown out of the place. Meanwhile, I sipped on my drink and tried to relive my best moment in Alaska.
Chena Hot Springs resort is famous for its natural hot springs and that was one of the main reasons for visiting the resort.
I got into my shorts, started walking on the heated floor from the men’s locker room to the hot springs.
As I was heading out, I was scared of freezing to death with temperature around -30C/ -22 F. But once I entered the hot springs, the warmth rose from the legs and relieved me of the chilling cold. The soft and silky hot water caressed the body and I felt exhilarated.
3. The Night Sky
The sun had set and there was snow as far the eyes could see. I sat in the hot spring with frozen hair marveling at the sky which was gradually filling up with stars. This was my peace and I felt calm. It was a very spiritual moment and as if that was not enthralling enough, out of nowhere the northern lights showed her bright green face moving like a snake. It covered the entire sky and a tear trickled down my face thinking to myself this is what it feels like to be alive.
Driving back to Fairbanks
After having delicious and soft pancakes with fruit filling, topped with maple syrup and whipped cream and cup of joe for breakfast, I started driving back to Fairbanks. There was a limited habitation on the way back with few scattered houses and machinery left to rust. The snow was hugging the road and the buildings were covered in polar white snow. Couple of people were making their way out of their snug homes on skis to check the mail.
I spotted Muskrats, Coyotes and Foxes, Ravens and Eagles. I made a few stops to play with the soft snow and almost froze my butt while making snow angels.
Tip: Don’t be stupid and carry a butt warmer.
4. Reindeers are better than people, or are they?
It would be a shame if one goes to Alaska and doesn’t spend enough time with the famous creatures of the north. That was the reason I visited the Running Reindeer Ranch.
We had a brief introduction with others who were part of the tour and Jane, who was supposed to take us around her ranch. After getting into warmer clothes, we headed out to meet around 7-8 pet reindeers. They were running around in their barbed area and were full of energy with antlers as big as me.
Feeling the cool alaskan wind on the face, we started to take a stroll along with the reindeers in the wide open area behind the house. There were snow covered tall pine trees. Jane told us about the reindeers, their lifestyle, biology and how it changes with seasons.
It is an intimate tour run by a family from their home which started when Jane decided to buy 2 pet reindeers for her daughter. With time, reindeers had offsprings which led to a big family in their backyard.
After playing and running around with these gamboling creatures for around an hour, we headed indoors. Jane continued to enlighten us about different types of antlers reindeers have. She also passed around real antlers to touch and feel. We were also served Oatmeal, Chocolate chip cookies, coffee and hot chocolate.
5. Dalton Highway and the Arctic Circle
The bar started to become more crowded and the air conditioning could not stop the body odor from filling the room but I decided to return to my happy place.
Dalton Highway which takes you to the Arctic Circle is one of the most dangerous roads in the world. High winds, icy conditions in winters turn it into Slip and Slide for vehicles. One is not supposed to take a rental car on that highway. Hence, I decided to go on an organized tour on the Dalton highway to the Arctic Circle.
The tour left Fairbanks in the morning and soon, the wilderness dipped in snow surrounded us with trees as white as angels bidding us their welcome. The mountains as far as the eyes could see were embracing the cloudy grey sky. There was no sign of habitation.
Looking outside the bus window, a thought came to my mind which I read sometime back that snowflake is the one of the most fragile creations. But it can create such awe-inspiring beauty if they stick together. I wish humans could do the same.
Along the way, we saw few trucks supporting the Trans-Alaskan pipeline.
We made few stops to witness the major attractions of the tour. One of them was the Trans Alaskan pipeline which meandered for 800 miles across the wilderness of Alaska. This made it the world’s one of the largest pipeline system. It was built to transfer oil and is a true testament to what human beings can do. They are capable of building such a masterpiece in freezing temperatures and an isolated terrain by sticking and working together.
Next, we made a stop at Yukon river camp for our lunch. We traversed the completely frozen Yukon river which is the longest river in Alaska. There were small snow-capped hills on both sides of the frozen river. The half visible sun was shining dimly behind one of the hills adding an orange tinge to the snow.
There was a bridge connecting the hills going over the frozen sheet of ice.
I stood on the frozen river staring at the white winterland and realizing that we need just one color, just one color to add beauty to everything around us. After soaking every bit of it while shivering from cold, I headed back to the bus.
Finally, we crossed the Arctic circle and made our final stop at the famous Arctic circle sign for pictures before turning back.
6. The love for Alaskan Huskies
It is not everyday you get to pet and play with more than 50 Alaskan huskies. There was a time when I was so afraid of dogs that I could not be in the same room as them. But here I was playing, petting and hugging Alaskan huskies. I smiled, thinking that I sure have come a long way as far as getting over my fears are concerned.
I reached Just Short of Magic around noon, an hour before the dog sledding tour so that I can play with Alaskan huskies and layer up for the tour.
This is me getting into million layers before heading out in the cold for a meet-and-greet with the huskies.
After getting settled in the dog sled, off we went.
The dogs were faster than I imagined as they made their way through spruce and birch woods. The trail was covered with snow and the trees, partly covered in white snow, rose up on the side like ghosts. The sun was hiding behind the clouds and the whining wind made me shiver from cold. From my hands to eyelashes, everything was frozen. But none of it bothered these alaskan huskies in the old boreal forest.
After knocking another thing off my bucket list, I got back and was served much needed hot chocolate. I wished to stay there and just keep on playing with the huskies. Unfortunately, it was time for me to leave but it was an experience I am going to remember and cherish for a long time.
I left Alaska with a bag full of memories and experiences which will stay with me forever. I realized that Alaska is a place like none other. Maybe that is the reason it has attracted people fed up with conventionality for a long time.
With that I headed out, started to walk on the empty streets of San Francisco with the hope that people will stick together just like snowflakes to achieve great things. Also, a plan to go back to Alaska in the summers was already on my mind..
Chena Hot Springs Resort : It is a resort around 56 miles northeast of Fairbanks famous for its hot springs. It also has other activities, tours in winters like Northern lights and Sunset tour, Snowmobile tour, Dog sledding tour, etc.. There is also an Aurora Ice Museum at the resort. I stayed at the resort for 2 nights and it was around $270 per night. There are also day tours from Fairbanks to the resort to make use of different resort activities.
Fairbanks : I stayed at Billie’s Backpackers hostel in Fairbanks in a shared dorm for around $30 per night. The hostel was very homey and quiet and I do not have any complaints and I will totally recommend it.
Dog Sledding tour: Just Short of Magic [http://justshortofmagic.com/dog-sled-tours/] was a truly magical experience with knowledgeable guides and super cute Alaskan huskies. We were treated nicely and were provided hot chocolate and clothes to survive in the -30C temperature. We played, petted and fed huskies before and after the tour. This is the place to go for Dog Sledding in Fairbanks.
Snowmobile tour: Chena Hot springs resort have a snowmobile tour [https://chenahotsprings.com/winteractivities1/] where you take a snowmobile and go to explore the wilderness near the resort. It was a fun experience and I do not have any complaints. The price was $65 for a 45 minute tour.
Aurora Ice Museum: It is an ice museum[https://chenahotsprings.com/icemuseum/] at Chena Hot Springs with -7C temperature, opened year around featuring amazing ice sculptures. The price for the tour is $15 and there is also an option to buy an appletini in an ice carved glass for an extra $15.
Arctic Circle tour: Since you can not take a rental car on the Dalton Highway, the only way to get to the Arctic circle is going on a tour. We went with Northern Alaska Tour company [http://www.northernalaska.com/] and the overall experience was good. The tour contains traveling the Dalton highway, viewing the Trans Alaska pipeline, witnessing and walking on the Yukon river (in winters) and finally crossing the arctic circle. The price for the tour per adult is around $220 and is a whole day activity. There are other variations which can be looked up on their website. I did not like the way our guide was telling us about the famous trans-alaskan pipeline and about Alaska in general. Overall I was very happy with the tour where I got to witness the amazing beauty of wild Alaska.
Running Reindeer Ranch tour: It is a very personal tour [http://runningreindeer.com/] run by a family from their home. You get to know about the amazing reindeers of the arctic. You can play with reindeers while taking a stroll behind their house. The price for an adult starts at $55 and I will totally recommend this tour.