January 2004. We spent the last two nights at Chena Hot Springs, 60 miles North East of Fairbanks. The springs were discovered in 1905 and became a resort for bone weary gold prospectors. When we arrived the temperature was reasonable, about 20 below. The springs are easy to find by the steam rising from the valley floor. This valley is particularly cold because high mountains surround it. In midwinter when the sun is low in the sky it never reaches the valley floor. You can see sunlight on the mountains but direct sunlight stops hitting the springs in early November and does not warm the valley floor again until February. The other thing about Chena Hot Springs is that it is right in the middle of the best aurora watching on the planet. Because of this, winter is “in season”. The resort attracts Japanese tourists, who appear to put special meaning on the aurora and enjoy photographing it. At Chena Hot springs more signs are in Japanese than in English, although they are trying to establish themselves as an Alaska weekend getaway and are giving special prices to visiting Alaskans. It seems to me that this is a perfect place for Japanese tourists, plenty of aurora and communal bathing.
The Japanese tourists are cute dressed in their too big parkas, padded pants and bunny boots. They kind of waddle, looking little like Pillsbury Doughboys in bright red. Alaskans wear jeans or Carharts with layers of silk, polypro and wool underneath, and reasonable but warm jackets. I was in the bar when the Budweiser salesman came in. He took off his leather jacket. It just steamed on the barstool. He reported that his truck thermometer said it was minus 47. He looked at Suzi and me and said “Alaskans right? I could tell by the jeans.”
We took the snow cat to the top of one of the mountains to watch the Northern Lights. We are up about four hours from 10 PM to 2 AM. There is a heated yurt on the mountaintop for when we get cold. Suzi and I were wearing Alaska gear and the tourists were very worried about us. It was minus 25 on the top of the ridge, warmer there than in the valley. The tourists gave Suzi some of those thermal chemical pouches that provide heat. We were actually fairly comfortable and the Northern Lights were active. I found that my digital camera works better than Fox News TV cameras in temperatures below the posted minimum operating tolerance. I did have one mishap. The cold contracted an eyeglass lens and it fell out of the frame into the snow at around midnight. We couldn’t find it. I have a spare set of glasses, so it was not a great problem. The next day the snow cats took a group of tourists to the top to watch the sunset at 2 PM and, in the daylight, the driver found the lens.
Between outdoor aurora watching stints the tourists gathered around the stove in the yurt and sang songs in Japanese. One of the songs they sang was to the tune of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” We got back to the resort about 2:40 AM. The coffee shop is open until 3. Nightlife at Chena Hot Springs runs late, but the partying is all about the aurora.
The next night we stayed in the valley. The resort has a glass-fronted cabin about 75 feet above the valley floor that they call the auroratorium. It is heated geothermally but we found that we got better views from the airstrip next to the café with its warming tea.
The aurora is a good enough reason to visit. But I love the outdoor whirlpools and warm lake, all spring fed. The water comes from the springs at 142 degrees F and usually the lake is pretty warm but this weekend it was only 98 degrees. It is an experience swimming outside at minus thirty five, an experience Suzi passed on, but one I very much enjoyed. I swam laps, but slowly, because the steam lifting off the water made swimming like navigating a boat in a very thick fog. And then there are the frogs. Because of the hot water they are active all year in the lake.
The outdoor hot tub was also fun, again, Suzi passed. One woman leaned back and spread her hair out on the deck. It froze. When she got up her hair went strait back. This got several of the women occupied doing ice hairstyles. They ducked under water and then held out their hair, creating horns, tails and spiky punk styles. This gave the term “frosted hair” new meaning for me. Lots of people from Fairbanks come out on cold days for the novelty of an outdoor swim in extreme sub zero weather. It’s an Alaskan gold rush tradition.
A weird thing about winter swimming is going to and from the bathhouse. It is about 100 yards from the lodge. To go to the bathhouse I put on three pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, long johns, sweat pants, jeans, undershirt, turtleneck, shirt, sweater and jacket. I walk three hundred feet only to take it all off. I warm up in the indoor hot tub and walk outside, barefoot, dressed in only a wet bathing suit, 50 feet to the lake. I get nice and warm again and then walk back to the bath house, dry off, and put on three pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, long johns, sweat pants, jeans, undershirt, turtle neck, shirt, sweater and jacket to walk three hundred feet back to the lodge. It occurred to me that I could have walked the extra two hundred and fifty feet to the lodge without getting dressed. But I put it all on only to take it off, and then only to dress for dinner an hour later, which means putting exactly the same outfit on to walk to the dining hall. On my way out the door to the dining hall I heard a voice call. “Hold the door.”
A barefoot girl, dressed only in a wet bathing suit was making good time running the hundred yard dash from the bathhouse and crashed by me into the warm lodge, her mother behind carrying the girl’s long johns, undershirts, sweaters, jacket gloves and boots. Next time I’ll do the same thing. Well, I might wear shower clogs.
The cold does effect recreation. At twenty below dogs love to run, at fifty below they don’t. They will, as anyone who has followed the Idatarod or Yukon Quest can attest. So our planned dog sled trip through the Chena River trail system was scrubbed. They are not running the romantic horse drawn sleigh rides through the woods either. However, the Aurora, hot springs and ice hotel provided all the amusement we needed.
After sitting for two days my car did not want to start. The resort has limited power and does not allow guests to plug in (I can’t anyway, my little Southeast Alaska car has no block heater.) The resort has a generator truck with ten plugs for Fairbanks cars, all of which have block heaters. The resort also has a heat truck. They run flexible tubing from the truck under the car’s hood. The truck blows hot air into the engine compartment. Then they clamp electrodes to the battery and jolt the car to life. You give the front desk your car keys the night before check out, they start working on the cars around 8 AM and your car is nice and warm when you drive off. I was watching the heat truck trying to start one of the resort’s small front-end loaders. It failed. They took a fork-lift and carried to frozen vehicle to a heated airplane hanger. I wondered if my Subaru would meet the same fate. With the blast of heat it started fine.
I wrote this ten years ago. I have not been to Chena Hot Springs since then. Suzi and I are flying up to Anchorage to visit Kevin and Shannon, hopefully buying a car, and will be driving up to Chena to see what changes have happened in a decade. Then it is the drive down to Alaska Highway to Haines and the ferry home. I may not be posting daily for the next two weeks. Much of the time I will be “off the grid” between Chena, the Alaska Highway and the ferry. When I get back I should have some good new pictures.