Somebody has been really down on the idea of Fairbanks in the dead of winter.
“Really?! I’m only going to take my girlfriend to Alaska once, and it has to be for a New Years Eve wedding?! The darkest week of the year?!”(he’s been very grumpy about it)
I arrived expecting gloom and darkness, a scraggly dingy landscape with little to recommend it. That’s not what I found at all. Here are a few highlights from the last week of last year in Fairbanks.
Almost Forty Below & a Subaru
Our arrival was a bit of a shock, for sure, in a couple of ways. For starters, we were pulling up to Departures at SEA-TAC when I discovered that I had left my wool winter coat down in Puyallup with not enough time to go back. We already knew it would be -38F when we landed, but we weren’t worried, knowing we had a rental car waiting at the other end.
That is, we thought we had a rental waiting….
Our flight was a little delayed, got in at about 2:45am, and all the rental desks had closed by two. But the first person we had seen as we emerged from Arrivals was the father of the groom we had come to see, and he gladly offered a ride.
At -36F, the cold hits you like a fire hose as you leave the building, and your fingers are numb in under a minute if you’re foolhardy enough to think you don’t need your gloves to go out to the car….
The snow on the black spruce and birch trees was luminescent in the dark, reflecting every photon of light from headlights and streetlights so that you know it’s night, but it hardly feels dark. In some ways, it reminded me of lying outside in the Wadi Rum desert with the starlight so bright I couldn’t sleep.
Next morning, we went back to the rental counter at the airport, and there weren’t any vehicles available — not from our rental company nor any other. But we persisted, and ended up with the quintessential Fairbanks car. “When we hand the tourists the keys to a Subaru,” said the girl at the desk, “they ask us for something better. They don’t understand that Subaru is what we all drive in Fairbanks!”
He couldn’t stop bragging about his 2019 Subaru Outback for the whole week we drove it around the snowy streets of Fairbanks. And I’ve gotta say, it was pretty nice!
The Pipeline in the Valley
First, in the gently undulating , snow-laden black pine woods of the Goldstream Valley, we found the “dry cabin” where he grew up. The dry cabin is an Alaska phenomenon that my parents also once considered — what the Lower 48 calls “off the grid,” no water hookup, no sewage hookup, knocking down towers of poop in the outhouse at -40F….
I remembered, as we were out there, being in elementary school and sitting day after day with graph paper, designing my own dry cabin. How small of a space could house a family of six with bunk beds? Where would I put the woodstove for maximum effect? Periodically throughout my life, I’ve always returned to the idea of Alaska. Maybe it’s why the Peace Corps never really worried me, because I’d been imagining myself in such situations all my life. When I first applied to Peace Corps, back when you had little choice in where they sent you, I secretly wished that they would send me to a yurt in Mongolia at -50F.
Dry cabin culture and Fairbanks itself exist mostly because of two things: gold mining and the pipeline. (There are many oil pipelines, but like The River in York County, The Pipeline only means one thing in Alaska.) So after checking out the dry cabin neighborhood where he was born, we headed farther out into the valley to see The Pipeline itself.
Moose!! but no Aurora
There were lots of things he wanted me to see, but two were top priorities. Unfortunately, it was too overcast throughout the week we were in Fairbanks to see the aurora borealis — or the Alaska Range and Denali, for that matter, though we got a nice sundog one day from the lookout at UAF.
We did, however, see moose twice: once around midnight in the headlights as we turned a corner, and once in bright sunlight just outside the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fairbanks.
Hot Water and Frosted Curls
The first thing he said when we started thinking about this trip was, “Of course, we’ll go to Chena Hot Springs.” It was the thing we talked about the most before going. One day, he’d be playing it up as this fantastic opportunity to relax and really be on vacation. The next, he’d be playing it down as “not as fancy as you think; this is Fairbanks.” It was both.
The locker rooms were cramped, the cooler inside pool nothing to write home about, but as you started down the corrugated fiberglass corridor towards the outdoor rock pool, as the -20F air began to embrace you, as you slipped off your flip-flops to shuffle carefully into the water in the dark…. It’s a little otherworldly, weirdly divorced from the world as you glide through the water, occasionally seeking a shallow spot or rock to lift your torso out of the water to chill your core for a few minutes before sinking back into the thick, hot, velvety water. And all around, everywhere you look, everyone with a delicate fairy crown of ice crystals growing from your hair.
Plus, my skin was super satin smooth for days!
This was the most touristy thing we did, something he would never have done as a resident of Fairbanks, but for your girlfriend, sometimes you’ll sacrifice a little pride….
With a fancy wedding coming in the evening, we got up early on New Years Eve to see a man about some dogs out on the Chena Hot Springs Road at Just Short of Magic. The owner looked us over, added Army surplus bunny boots and a few layers to our attire, and we shuffled across the snow to our sled. I shook hands with our musher Matt and met the dogs, which were smaller than I expected, and surprisingly short haired for what I would have expected in the Alaskan winter climate, though they didn’t appear cold at all as they waited for us to pile into the sled.
Our host had compared dog sledding to sailing, and as our musher invited the dogs to start and we began to hiss across the snow, I could see his point. But where I might have sat and watched the snow laden spruce and birch slide by in silence, the big warm man at my back had a different idea.
He started asking our musher if he was a racer, and if he’d done the long distance races. “I’ve done the Iditarod twice, the Yukon Quest five times.” The Yukon Quest is also a 1,000-mile race, run a month earlier when it’s colder, darker and arguably harder.
“So, what was your best time?”
“I came in eleventh in my first Iditarod, and sixth last year. And I’ve won the Yukon Gold. But this is mostly a new team, so I won’t be doing the long races this year.” Matt Hall didn’t just win the Yukon Quest. He’s the first second generation musher to win, one of the youngest, and won a bunch of other accolades while doing so.
More than a little dumbfounded, he reached for another question to keep the conversation going. “So these dogs are in training? You drive them over here to take tourists as training?” We had seen another musher arrive in a pickup with a honeycomb of small kennels suspended above the bed.
“Some mushers do that, but my team are distance runners, so I mush them over in the morning, and back home again in the afternoon.”
“How far is that?”
“About thirty miles. It takes a couple hours.” You could practically hear the shrug in his voice.
When we got back, someone from Just Short of Magic asked, “Did he tell you he won the Yukon Quest?”
“Yeah, but only because we asked!”
Everywhere we went for the rest of the week, all the locals said, “You went dogsledding with Matt Hall? He mushes tourists?”
Just the lucky ones.