This year we decided to break our 3-year tradition of going to Alyeska Resort downhill skiing and snowboarding and go somewhere new for a Christmas vacation. Most Alaskans think of warm and sunny places, but we'd have to force our kicking and screaming kids to go to Hawaii or somewhere 'hot' (over 70 degrees!), so Alaska was going to be our choice. I'd heard of Chena Hot Springs, 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks, and thought that would be a cool destination. No protests ensued, so I took that as assent from the kids.
I'll admit: I was very nervous about this trip. I'd heard that it is an 11 hour drive from Homer to Fairbanks in the summer (read: dry roads, long hours of daylight). We'd driven up that way 7 years ago when visiting Alaska before we moved here, but that was all a blur. Mapquest said it was 640 miles from Homer to Chena. I know the area north of Wasilla is remote--more remote than the Kenai Peninsula (which, by the way, I once thought was remote but now don't think so quite as much). Day 1 we planned to make it to Wasilla, the largest town (hotel) before Fairbanks. We ran errands all the way, stopping to drop off Christmas presents, get an oil change and shop.
Tuesday morning was the big day. We were on the road by 9:00 a.m. About 5 inches of snow had fallen overnight so the roads were covered. Heading north on the Parks Highway, we saw quite a few moose--momma with baby, two males with racks, and a dead moose on the side of the road, lit up by flares. There were lots and lots of plows out--more plows than cars. It was a road--like any other road. It was mostly pretty straight and mostly flat and it was covered with snow, and the further north we got it was covered more with ice than snow. In one awesome stretch of maybe 40 miles by Denali National Park, the roads were actually clear and there was very little snow. Once we passed that, though, it got icier and icier, and by time we passed the Tanana River at Nenana and started heading up, up, and up in the hills, we were into icy roads that looked more icy than those seen on the show Ice Road Truckers. Cars kept going 50-60 mph...and I was very grateful that Douglas was driving. It wasn't a thin sheet of ice--it was a solid sheet of ice, both lanes, for miles and miles. I have never seen ice like that before. There was little traffic so we just kept a steady speed and kept going. What else could we do?
The only other highlight of the trip was our bathroom break. There are so few gas stations once you leave Wasilla and no rest areas that are open so a bathroom break means going by the car on a pull-off. I was at the end of my rope and needed a restroom NOW and there was finally a pull-off. As luck would have it, the vehicle in front of us pulled off also, then a car came from the other direction (we hadn't seen a car come by for miles) AND a military helicopter flew right over us--all in the space of the one minute we were stopped. The forces were conspiring that I wouldn't get my bathroom break!
Once we passed Fairbanks and got onto Chena Hot Springs Road, we had adventure of a different sort: a one lane road. It had snowed quite a bit and the plows hadn't hit that road yet, so all traffic barreled down the middle of the road. Luckily, it was flat and straight and there was no wildlife to hit. It only got dicey when traffic came at us. Then we'd both slow down and pull off to the side into the deep unplowed area to pass each other, hoping we were still on the road. As we'd never driven this particular road before, we had no idea how wide the road really was. And of course it was pitch black. However, by 5 p.m. we made it to Chena, for a total of 14 hours of driving from Homer, between the two days.
The return trip was better: we left Chena during daylight hours (the sun doesn't rise at all for a couple months, but it still gets light out) and the road was plowed. We spent a night in Fairbanks so we could press homeward from there. We left Fairbanks at 9 a.m. Storm warnings and difficult driving conditions were reported on alaska511.com so I was just hopeful to get to Wasilla. Twelve and a half hours later we pulled into our driveway in Homer. I am no longer intimidated by that drive, and it is now in the realm of do-able. Not that I want to do it often, but if we need to, we can. We just drive. At one point of the drive I asked Douglas which he would rather have: the busy freeways of Michigan or the deserted but icy and snow-covered roads of the Parks Highway. He admitted he'd rather have the Alaska highways. I agree. The traffic is more stressful than the weather.