Read part one from Anchorage here.
Train travel is without question the most comfortable and sexiest form of long-distance travel.
Luckily for my travel preferences, this year just so happened to be the centennial celebration of the Alaska Railroad, launched in 1916 in time to fuel the gold rush. Today, it’s still a beauty of a rail line that travels between Fairbanks and Seward, a distance of 470 miles, with Denali National Park in between.
Stops are limited in the winter, but still well-worth the experience, especially if like me you’re going from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Though the train is mostly tourists and local skiers these days, it’s also popular with Alaskans who have built cabins off the road network. They’ll board, let the train engineer know which “whistle-stop” they need, and the train will come to a stop so they can hop off and start their trek to the cabin.
I saw the sun rise and set on that train, yet it hardly felt like a day went by over the nearly 12-hour ride. The experience was mesmerizing throughout (when I wasn’t busy napping off a Great Alaska hangover). I could’ve stared out the window for hours. In fact, I did. I never once got sick of those mountains, forests, and rivers. Who in their right mind could?
Luckily I had nothing else on my itinerary when arriving to Fairbanks, so I could collapse into bed.
Chena Hot Springs
I met Jerry Evans of Explore Fairbanks for breakfast before a mini-tour of the city and heading out to the Chena Hot Springs Resort, which is what you do when you’re near Fairbanks. During the drive, we recorded a podcast and I learned that he’s also a standup comedian. He’s opened for the likes of Louis C.K. (before Lucky Louie) and Jim Gaffigan.
At the Chena Hot Springs Resort, we started off with the first trail we could find and hiked up as far as we could before our ill-equipped footwear could no longer handle the piles of snow. Still, it made for yet another breath of fresh Alaskan air.
Speaking of that air, it certainly is noticeably colder in Fairbanks. Whereas we had 20’s in Anchorage, Fairbanks floated between -10 and 0. Even that’s considered warm based on averages and the time of year. Again, climate change is the culprit. An earlier acquaintance said it best.
“I’ve lived here my whole life. Nobody can tell me something’s not going on.”
Back to the air, it’s cold. Damned cold. So cold, you can feel your snot freeze when inhaling through your nose. I found it to be a fascinating sensation. I guess what I’m saying is, your city isn’t that cold until you’ve been accustomed to your snot freezing over upon every breath.
The whole point of heading out to Chena is for the aurora borealis or northern lights. They also have an outdoor hot spring where guests will amuse themselves by briefly dipping their head underwater and coming out to freeze their hair in any number of silly stylings. There’s also an ice museum with an impressive array of ice sculptures housed year-round in a giant igloo. I happened to be the lone American tourist among a throng of Chinese tourists, who by the way, were loving every moment of the experience as evidenced by their constantly clicking cameras.
People tend to mock the Chinese tourist for traveling in their groups, wearing matching colors so nobody gets lost. But they clearly are enjoying themselves. We should be so lucky to ever experience life as a Chinese tourist.
Then, it was decision time. You see, catching the aurora borealis requires departing at some point around 9 p.m. into a military-style tank of a vehicle to go out into the middle of nowhere until approximately 2:30 a.m. Natural phenomenon aren’t really my thing. I enjoy experiences, not sitting and waiting. Many do enjoy waiting for that rare bird to fly out or for the sky to show a burst of green. If that’s you, fantastic. Go for it.
But it’s not me. And it’s especially not me when the aurora borealis forecasts (yep, they exist) say it’s unlikely to be visible that night. So, I opted to call it a night and instead headed back to Fairbanks early the next day for dog sledding. Lucky me, my gamble seemed to have paid off when the next morning I was told I hadn’t missed anything. Most say you need at least three days that far north to guarantee an aurora sighting, which I duly noted for future reference.
I met with Jeff Deeter of Black Spruce Dog Sledding who Jerry described as one half of a “hip young couple.” I admit I didn’t know what to make of dog sledding. I’m not a rah-rah PETA type, but I do feel animals should be treated ethically. Were dog sledding dogs being treated ethically? I wondered.
I can’t speak for all dogs, but these dogs are assuredly in good hands.
After introducing me to some his dogs, Jeff began to assemble his team of eight for our ride. The males are stronger, but the females make for better leaders, so they generally should go in front, I learned.
“Just like in everyday life,” Jeff quipped.
The dogs could barely contain their excitement, barking and some even pounding on the ground with their paws like a bull ready to charge a matador. On Jeff’s call, the dogs went from a standstill to a healthy run.
Riding as a guest (i.e. not doing any of the work or directing) felt like an amusement park ride with the occasional hard bounce and sharp turn. Before long we settled into a nice trot as we meandered through the narrow trails in dense forest.
On cruise control, Jeff shared more of his dog sledding experiences, including riding with the temperature as low as -68. He’s also done the famous Iditarod and plans to again, but first will tackle the Yukon Quest next year, which many in the dog sledding business say is more difficult than its celebrity cousin. For those keeping score, the Yukon Quest is 1,000 miles between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon.
Jeff has clearly come a long way since starting as a handler at a kennel in 2003. Now he’s running his own business and hopes to expand with other activities and welcoming guests to spend the night at the property. The trails would make an obvious match with cycling, cross-country skiing, and hiking on top of the night tours and dog sledding they already offer.
As promised, Jeff gave me an opportunity to stand on the skis and give this dog sledding thing a whirl. To start, I was instructed to keep my right foot on the drag between the skis. This would keep our pace relatively slow and easier to control as a beginner. Then on my call, we were off.
We moved so slow to start that the snow piled up to my shin as I put most of my bodyweight on the drag. Eventually, however, Jeff gave me the go-ahead to lay off the drag and stand on the skis. I have to say, it was a blast. I still prefer human-powered adventure, but I certainly left understanding the appeal of dog sledding. There’s something romantic about the idea of heading out into the unknown with a team of man’s best friend, and there’s a clear sense of camaraderie between Jeff and his dogs.
Not So Bad
I started my trek back home that night, knowing everyone’s first question would be some iteration of, “How cold was it!?”
For me, the cold was a non-issue. Personally, I’d rather bundle up than melt. You can only take off so many clothes before you’re breaking the law (with the exception of some progressive European beaches, I suppose).
So I bundled up and saw Alaska in a way most in the lower 48 never will. I cycled on a river, drank good beer, marveled at the snowy landscapes, felt my snot freeze over, and spent an afternoon hanging out with a field full of giddy pups.
Yeah, Alaska in the winter isn’t so bad.
Disclaimer: I traveled as a guest of Travel Alaska. As always, all opinions are my own.