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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Chena Lodge (Day 2)

The original plan had been to do everything Chena had to offer in one day, including things like snowmobiling (snowmachine), dog mushing, Ice Museum tour, the hot springs, and ending with their Aurora tour. Unfortunately, due to having such a late night prior coupled with mom being sick, that didn't quite pan out. Instead, we slept in until almost 10am (Woohoo almost 7 hours! Score!) and got a ride from Enterprise to pick up our rental vehicle for the rest of the trip.

Pro tip: If you intend on traveling to a place that you know needs a big truck in the middle of winter, like say, Fairbanks, AK, pre-order their tiny car and get a free upgrade.

Not all the rental places only had trucks, but this Enterprise in Fairbanks was tiny-ass. As in, "we have 3 vehicles to choose from and they're all trucks", tiny-ass. So yeah, free upgrade to their Dodge RAM 4WD. In blood red; my favorite color.

Side note: Dodge RAMs have this really weird key fob. Turns out said key fob is the key to start the vehicle. Also turns out the actual key they give you that looks like a key is for the tailgate. Mom had to call and ask how to start the truck because originally they had started it for us. We laughed the rest of the trip at our stupidity. 

Anyway I'm getting way off course here. We decided to drive down to North Pole (Not the North Pole - the town will quickly correct you) to check out Santa Claus House. It was pretty neat, but I've never been a super Christmas-y person. I'm in it for the family get-togethers and gift giving; the whole decorating thing I find expensive and pointless [says the Spock inside me]. 

I did find a shot glass and a pretty ring there, though, so it was worth it for me. The part I liked even more was the ice sculpture drive-thru area next to the Reindeer farm (which was closed for the season, unfortunately!)  

After that quick jaunt to North Pole, we drove up to Chena around 3-ish, which is 40 miles away from Fairbanks. This is the point that I tell you that mom almost ran over a red squirrel and that was the only time I saw anything besides the bird on the whole trip.

We arrived at the Chena activity center and phased-warped to Japan. Seriously. There were more Japanese people than Americans. All the signage was in both English and Japanese. They had Japanese-only tours. It seemed strange that it was Japanese-specific. Why Japan? Turns out...

This was in their bathroom. With the heated toilet seat. My favorite feature of the whole lodge.

It's apparently not that far from Alaska?? 

Anyway, since we'd arrived so late, we didn't have time to do much, so I signed us up for the ice museum tour and the Aurora tour for later. 

The ice museum was kind of cool. Due to geothermal energy, they are able to keep the structure below 32 degrees all year long, even in the heat of summer, and with 30+ people inside at once.

They had an ice bar that served an apple martini in an ice glass that you could pre-purchase (mom and I did not partake), and 4 rooms each with an ice bed and other small items, plus sculptures throughout. Including a playable xylophone. 

After the ice museum tour we had some time to kill, so we checked out the hot springs and saw that they had laid out a nice long, covered ramp into the water to ease my fears of having to run half naked through the snow and jump in feet first before you froze to death. We were planning on coming back tomorrow to try it. In the meantime, we decided to have a nice meal in their lodge. I had their rib eye steak and it was pretty darn good. We also checked out their gift shop where I ended up buying David something he already had (figures).

Then it was tine to check in for our Aurora Tour! Check it out in my next post!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Aurora Adventure (Night 1)

Read part 1 here.

So, we reach Fairbanks about 9pm and Jason called in an order for some pizzas for dinner to pick up on the way back to his property at North Pole.

Just some background here: Auroras are very finicky. They're an unpredictable phenomena and even when NOAA gives us the deets on a solar flare heading our way and website claims that it will come out that night doesn't mean it will. And even if it does, it's still flighty - appearing for short bursts and disappearing and returning randomly throughout the night. There's also weather to consider, of course. I had a lot going against me when I booked the flight for basically the sole purpose of an Aurora sighting. It was a long shot, but luckily, it was one that paid off.

Now first of all, a comment on Alaska Aurora Adventures - the name of the tour company Jason and his wife run. Small groups are great for one thing. But this Aurora viewing house he has was wonderful. It had electricity, a flat screen TV, a wood stove to keep us warm, a nice kitchen, chairs, tables, a couple of couches, and a fully functional plumed bathroom. This may not seem luxurious to most - probably expected. However you'd be singing a different tune if you ever go on the Chena Lodge Aurora tour, which I'll tell you about in another post.

So we settled in the cabin and a few more people joined us, including two Australian men who I could just listen to talk all night long. Jason brings us outside at about 10pm to show us a few different locations to shoot some good photos on his property, and already the Aurora decided to show up a little bit. It was very faint at first but started to become stronger. I set my camera in a few locations to get some shots.

These pictures I am going to show you may look epic, and they are nice, but my lens wasn't focused the entire night, so if you blow them up to size, the stars are very blurry.

Another interesting thing to note about Auroras is that they are not as visible to the naked eye as they are on a lens with a 20-second exposure. This was also a very mild storm - probably a 2-3 on the scale, so with only your eyes it was still fairly faint and the lines moved slowly.

It then disappeared for a while and I had to take a nap at one of the tables as it was difficult to stay awake for so long. There was nothing to do in the cabin besides chat with people (which I don't do because introvert) and wait for it to come back. Jason's wife brought cookies which I completely missed out on while asleep, but then when the Aurora came back around 1am, I was ready.

This time it came back stronger. This is probably my favorite shot, however this one -

- Looking like a rainbow over Jason's house, is a close second.

You know, in all honesty, I don't think I was really awestruck by the whole thing like I expected to be. I was so concerned with 
1. Setting up my camera for the best possible shot
2. Not freezing to death

Considering what you see with the naked eye is a lot less impressive than the photos, it was difficult just to sit there and watch it. I wanted to capture it. I've always been that way - being so concerned with getting something on film that I miss the actual experience of it. But I don't regret it one bit.

I really wish my lens had been focused though, because then I could go and take some of these to be printed and hung. Instead they will have to be appreciated in a small size on my computer!

Around 2am the tour was officially over, and we were driven back to our respective hotels. Mom wasn't feeling very well, as she's been fighting pneumonia for over a month and had been on a few rounds of antibiotics already to fend it off. The wood stove exasperated her symptoms as did the lack of sleep. We didn't get in our beds until after 3am, completely exhausted. The next day was going to prove to be a challenge!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Alaskan Adventure (Day 1)

All of this goodness is way too long for a single blog post. I'd probably bore half of you to death since it's more about me journaling than making it interesting for others to read (sorry, peeps! It's how I roll). 

I could almost say that if you ever intend to go to Fairbanks, AK for a vacation then read this blog, but I can't because apparently their winter has been so mild this year that 17 degrees midday in March is practically balmy. We did not have a "true Alaskan experience" thank God, because I probably wouldn't have survived. 

I say "we" because I invited my mom to go with me. Truth be told, I didn't know anyone that could afford to travel this trip alongside me, and mom had to decline at first because she couldn't really afford to go either, until the next day when dad won at the casino and handed her $500 in an envelope that said "Alaska" on it. (It's okay, go ahead and say "awwwwww!" I'll wait.)

Our flight departed Seattle after 7pm on Thursday March 3rd, and we rolled back the clock an hour once we landed in Fairbanks over 3 hours later. That airport was so tiny it was probably smaller than some mansions I've seen on TV. Our hotel was a mere two miles away, and taxis were waiting outside to drive people to their destinations. Apparently it's cheaper for hotels here to flat rate taxis to drive patrons to their hotel than to own a shuttle. My first ride in a taxi was in a city smaller than Puyallup. Go figure.

We stayed at the Best Western Chena River which was in a perfect part of town, and the rooms were quite nice, with continental breakfast, free wifi (Thank goodness since I didn't have any service outside the hotel!) and even an elevator to get us up to the 2nd floor.

Starting at 10am the next morning, we were already pre-booked for an Arctic Circle tour that our guide, Jason, was going to take us on using the old Dalton Highway; or as some of you might know it as the famous road from Ice Road Truckers.

Of course, with the mild winter they've had, the road wasn't nearly so dangerous, although there were plenty of icy spots. 

This is where I found out that Alaska is rather unsightly. My background consists of living in one of the greenest places in North America, with gorgeously huge forests of Fir trees in an endless expanse of lakes and waterfalls. They don't call Washington the Evergreen State for nothing. I've been in Eastern WA and it looks a lot like death. In fact, very similar to Alaska's interior, with more rolling hills than mountains, and 200 year old trees that are barely 6 feet tall and scrubby as hell thanks to the permafrost. Beauty means different things to different people, and some people find deserts and/or tundra gorgeous, but I just don't. I was expecting Alaska to be more like Washington; oh well! 

Although I have to admit, I did grab a few gorgeous shots.

Our first tour stop was the Alaskan Pipeline. I tried to be artistic with my shot.

Mapwise, we weren't driving very far in order to reach the Arctic Circle, but visitors constantly seem to forget that Alaska is bigger than the state of Texas. What does not seem far on a map took over 4 hours by road, and we weren't even going half way to the other end of Alaska.

This depressingly beautiful map will put it in perspective for you.

As will this equally depressing road sign. (Found where Dalton Highway starts, which is shortly after passing Livengood).

I took some pictures once we reached the Yukon River, and it became a running gag about whether people would realize I was taking a picture of a river, or just a place where the trees don't grow.

As expansive as Alaska is, I was actually rather surprised about how little pristine, untouched snow their was. Up at say, Mount Rainier National Park, you would see tons of untouched powder, and then occasional footprints. Here, it was all about snowmobile tracks (they call them snowmachines up there; probably because they don't need actual snowmachines) or marred by animal tracks everywhere. And to make matters worse, the only animal I saw besides birds on the whole trip was a squirrel mom almost ran over with our rental truck. Figures.

We had been traveling in a van with 6 young 20-something male Asians (whom some were from LA) and one older woman from Virginia named Judy, who had rode shotgun the entire way up to the AC (Arctic Circle), and our guide seemed to make her very nervous with his driving habits, including straddling the middle line because there was no ice there. He had a CB radio and kept in contact with the truckers on the road, which I found fascinating. We had a conversation on the way back (when I rode shotgun because Judy was too freaked out) about how most of the Alaskan shows on the air these days were probably 50% fake. The truckers on Dalton highway are actually very nice. Jason would say something to the effect of "Northbound oil tanker, I'm right behind you, let me know when it's safe to pass". In fact, one stunt that made Judy upset was passing on a double yellow because the trucker said it was safe. I was not scared of Jason's driving in the least, in fact I found him a respectable driver and was very informative about Alaska in general - he gave us several good tips including how to take good Aurora photos and how it wasn't necessary to go on a dog mushing tour for more than a half hour (I'll explain why in another post!)

When we reached the AC, celebrations were abound because it was a very long drive, and Jason had the Gray Jays literally eating out of his hand during lunch.

The air outside was probably 0 degrees with the wind chill. Even with all my new gear it was hard to stay out there for too long.

There wasn't anything to see besides the sign, really, and an outhouse to pee in. But, we got a certificate and it is still awesome 

to say that I had traveled to the Arctic Circle.

Wow. I actually didn't expect for this post to be so long... (sorry for the awful editing, sometimes blogger can be a pain in the ass!) I should probably save Friday night for another post! Join me next time as Jason drives us back to his place for a night of fun. *grin*