What a day. The past 48 hours have been insane. At the time of typing this I’m sitting in Talkeetna Alaska, 5 hours south of Fairbanks, 2.5 hours north of Anchorage, sipping hot chocolate. Where did I leave off? Oh, the hot springs. I’ll pick up there then.
(A little something extra: if you want to feel what I felt while taking these pictures, listen to this song while looking at them. At least it’s the track I was playing on repeat while writing this. It really capture the mood I’m in.)
So yes, the hot springs. My new German friends and I, along with Kirk, a guy from Florida who just moved to Fairbanks, crammed into my little rental car and drove to the Chena Hot Springs about an hour east of Fairbanks. Our goal was to walk around a bit, see the ice sculpture museum, soak in the geothermal springs, and hopefully see the northern lights. Funny side fact, apparently there is a Japanese superstition that a child conceived under the northern lights will be born with extraordinary intellect. As such, Chena Hot Springs is a prime location for Japanese tourists, so much so that many of the signs are in Japanese and many of the staff are bilingual in English and Japanese.
When we arrived at the springs it was freezing. Well hell, everything was always freezing, but today it was a chill -12 degrees Fahrenheit. Nonetheless we donned our coats and went for a short 40 minute hike around the countryside.
(You can click on all the pics to see larger versions)
After that we came back, took a break in the lounge and waited for the next tour of the ice museum to kickoff. When we got in there it was pretty neat. The stuff that they carve out of pure ice is pretty amazing! The ice museum itself felt colder than outside, though it was actually a bit warmer. They have to keep it chilled to keep the sculptures from melting. They even have ice beds you can sleep on if you’d like, though you’ll need plenty of blankets.
After the tour we grabbed a bite to eat and then went swimming in the hot springs. I thought my top half would freeze the moment I was in the water, but the air all around was warm. The only chilly bit was getting in and out. Being a geothermal spa there was some trace gasses that gave the water a strange smell, and every now and then you had to catch your breath, but it was really beautiful in there. Unfortunately no lights while we were swimming.
After we dried off we had dinner and headed back to the hostel after it became clear the forecast for the lights looked bleak.
I was pretty tired and about to go to bed when I got a call from a guy I met on reddit who was a pretty big northern lights photographer. He told me that the lights were out right that moment, but that I’d have to go 20 miles out of town to see them. I rushed inside, told everyone, grabbed my gear, and we all piled in to my car again to go see them. My reddit contact then asked if we could pick him up so he could come. We were already packed, but I said sure anyways. He gave us his address and we drove to his house…or at least what we thought was his house. We ended up banging on the door of the wrong house. After about 10 minutes in the driveway I saw a light on with someone inside getting dressed and a little dog barking. It was at that point I got a text “Hey, where are you, I’m outside in my driveway.” We went to the wrong house. I quickly got back in the car and drove further down the street and found him. He piled in and off we went.
And finally, it happened. The whole point of me coming up here.
We drove to a little place called Cleary Summit, about 20 miles north of Fairbanks up on a hill. From there it was pretty dark and we could get good pictures of the lights. My new photography friend even had a nice DSLR camera that he let me use to take some pictures. (My camera worked too, but his was in a higher price range and so the pics were sharper)
After about half an hour of taking pictures everyone was freezing and wanted to go home. We piled back in the car and drove back into town. The next day was a little uneventful. The Germans and I drove around to some shops, got breakfast at The Cookie Jar, a bakery/restaurant, and then went to the Museum of the North where I saw this bear:
That night I was staying at some people’s home as a couchsurfer. (It’s a network where people host travelers for a night or so). Unfortunately two of my German friends were leaving town the next morning and so I gave them a hug and bid farewell. I drove over to my adopted family’s house for that night around dinner time. The couple taking me in were a school teacher and a school administrator. They were very nice and had an excited dog that loved to play. They had a nice room all set up for me and cooked me dinner.
Later that night my friend called again and said the lights were out. This time it would be just the two of us so we could stay longer and get some better shots. We went out to the same place as before, but drove a little further up the mountain to a ski resort that was closed. The display was technically pretty low, but breathtaking nonetheless.
It was amazing. I can’t really describe it. The light pulsated and moved like clouds across the sky. They actually look more grey in real life, since it’s hard to see color at night, but you can still see the faint green. The color really comes out on camera though. Along with the northern lights, the stars were breathtaking as well. Even with the naked eye I could see so many that I couldn’t see in South Carolina. There isn’t nearly the same amount of light pollution here as there is back home. Around 4am we headed back into town and I back to my new place for the night.
The couple I was staying with had to be at work by 7. They offered for me to stay and sleep as late as I wanted, but I felt weird about the idea of staying in someone’s home while they were gone. Instead I got up at 6 with them, and left at the same time they did. My plan for the day was to drive to Talkneeta. For some reason I thought it was 2-3 hours away. I figured I would get there before lunch, take a nap, then go about my day. Turns out it was 5 hours. Oh well. I got up anyways, with only 1.5 hours of sleep and started the drive. I actually wasn’t that tired. I was too excited to be tired. The landscape on the way over was amazing!
(Departing before light, off on a journey across the Alaskan mountains)
While driving down the highway I saw something big move out of the corner of my eye. I hit the breaks, turned the car around (there was nobody else on the road) and went back to the small road where I thought I saw something. Turns out I did.
After getting photo op with some moose (who shortly after this ran away) I continued on my journey.
Eventually I arrived at Denali National Park. Unfortunately the park is closed this time of year, but I was still able to drive into it for a few miles.
I was stopping pretty frequently along my way to take pictures, so my 5 hour trip ended up taking around 7 hours. I pulled into Talkeetna mid afternoon and checked into my new hostel, the Roadhouse.
I was thinking I might have the entire room to myself, but another bed was booked by a rugged survivalist named Josh. I wish I had a picture, but I can’t think of a non-creepy way to get one. He’s tall, skinny, mid 30’s, mid-length unkempt beard, lazy eye, and smells like the creek that he apparently fell through the ice and into. (At least he said he fell through the ice) He seems like a nice enough guy, though at first glance people might think he’s an axe murderer. Apparently he lives out off the land around town here, building bridges out of fallen trees for his four-wheeler. He loves to talk about four-wheelers, or at least his quest to fix his broken one. Right now I think he’s asleep as I type this. I’ll have to quietly sneak back into my room afterwards.
Once I got to Talkeetna I went down to the river to have a look. It’s really beautiful and the ice on the beach are like shards of glass.
Here’s the place at night:
Oddly enough, I come 3500 miles away from South Carolina and what do I find in the inn? A Clemson flag.
Ok, that’s it for tonight. I’m going to get some sleep. Tomorrow (today) I’m going to explore around Talkeetna a bit more, drive back, and have a beer with the lady I met on the plane on Saturday.