Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Chena Hot Springs

What sort of place would draw us all the way into the deep interior of Alaska in the middle of winter? Promises of seeing the aurora borealis headed the list. Soaking in natural hot springs in an outdoor pool sounded neat. Snowcat tours, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, sled dog kennel tours and rides, geothermal energy tours, greenhouse tours and ice museum tours balanced out the attractions. We figured it could be educational, relaxing and an adventure of sorts--and it was all of those. Chena Hot Springs is a neat and unique place. First for the general overview, then for the activities that kept us busy during our 3 day stay.

Chena Hot Springs has two busy seasons: mid-summer and winter from Christmas through March. In peak season there are about 60 employees; off-season about 40. Many of the employees are interns from Japan who stay for either 6 months or 18 months. The Japanese are the biggest patrons of this place. During our visit (which was early peak season; it was about half full), about half of the people there were Japanese, though we shared the hot tub with a family from Italy and heard a spattering of other foreign languages while we were there. Employees can live on site in employee housing and get two hot meals a day. There is a restaurant for the public in a very old log cabin (I loved the atmosphere of the restaurant, and the food was good too--and not much pricier than Homer) and the Aurora Cafe that sells microwave food and snacks. There are 3 types of rooms: basic (old), the Moose Lodge (much nicer and newer) and family suites. We stayed in the basic, which were buildings with 8 rooms per building, 4 down, 4 up. It was dirty, which was our biggest complaint of the place. There were no phones in the rooms, and while there was a cell phone tower on the premises, it was only for Verizon and ACS, so our iPhones didn't work. Internet access was available only in the Activities Building and cost $10 a day and was very slow.

There are at least 18 buildings that I counted, not including the dozen plus yurts that are only open in the summer in the campground/RV area. That includes a year-round greenhouse, the ice museum, the geothermal power plant, the main lodge, the pool/spa, guest lodging, and employee cabins. There are about 12-13 miles of trails which are groomed for skiing or snowshoeing in the winter and are for hiking or biking in the summer. Ski, snowshoe and other winter gear rentals were available in the Activity Center. A 3500 foot airfield abutted the Activity Center, and the kids wanted to go on a flightseeing tour more than anything else, though daytimes it was cloudy and I'm not sure they do those tours in the winter. We stayed pleasantly busy with activities. Some things were pricier than we cared to pay, and it could easily be an expensive vacation if one partook in all the various tours. Here were the things that we enjoyed:

Aurora viewing: We'd planned to take a snowcat tour to the top of the ridge that surrounds Chena Hot Springs to view the aurora borealis, but it was cloudy both nights at 10 p.m. when the tour begins, and the kids did not relish having to stay up at the yurt till 2 a.m. which is when the tour continues till. However, we did sign up to have someone knock on our door if the aurora was spotted, and the second night we were there the clouds cleared up. I went out at 11 and it looked like it might be the aurora out there, so I went and got Douglas and Aurora (Denver told us to get him only if it was really good). We watched for a little bit, then went in. At midnight a knock on our door confirmed that the aurora was out, so we bundled up again (Denver was asleep by then) and went out. Just above the ridge to the north green lights were shimmering and dancing. Aurora saw it and went right back in, but Douglas and I stayed out and watched it for an hour with about 15 other people on edge of the airfield. It wasn't a great show, but we were satisfied. It has been nearly 20 years since we saw the northern lights above Lake Superior in Michigan, and we named Aurora after the aurora borealis, so it was sweet to see them once again.

A little research has helped understand why the place is full of Japanese: "A child conceived under the aurora will have an auspicious future." See for pictures of aurora borealis and the brief explanation.

Ice Museum Tour: A husband and wife team created the entire ice museum. It is heated in the winter (I know--how ironic! But the very cold temperatures would damage delicate ice creations!) and cooled in the summer so it is the largest permanent ice museum in the world. This is only cost effective because of the use of geothermal energy. The ice is harvested from a nearby beaver pond and stored in huge blocks inside the museum. There are four rooms for rent, at $800 per night, there is a wedding area for those who want to get married in the ice museum, and there is an ice bar, complete with plates, benches and the bar. Appletinis are available to purchase to drink on the tour and you drink it out of an ice glass. I guess most people who stay the night in the ice hotel end up spending only part of the night there because of the cold (it is about 20 degrees), plus there are no bathrooms in there so if they want to shower they have to rent a regular room also. Pictures of the creations don't do justice to the amazing beauty and skill involved in these creations.

Greenhouse tour: Because of the geothermal energy it is relatively inexpensive to heat the greenhouse, and the electricity for the lights is generated in the geothermal power plant. The greenhouse puts out about 200 pounds of tomatoes a week in the winter; 600 pounds per week in the summer. It also pumps out the lettuce, cucumbers and herbs. It supplies the hospital in Fairbanks as well as other business, including their own restaurant, with their fresh veggies. All plants are grown hydroponically. The tomato plants last about 2 years. As they grow they move the tops, trimming off the dead leaves and tying the tops a little further down, so each row has a long, long stem wound around. They used to let tours walk through the greenhouses until an infestation wiped out their tomato crop last year as some pest came in on someones shoes. Now one can only look at it.

Geothermal energy tour: The resort gets most of its energy from geothermal sources. A 700 foot well draws up water that is 160 degrees. Since it takes boiling water at 212 degrees to create steam, they mix the hot water with R-134, a chemical mixture that lowers the boiling point. The steam created runs a turbine that is converted to electricity. They are in the process of drilling a 3000 foot well which they hope will have hotter water, over 212 degrees, and which would allow them to create even more energy. If they do so, they will supply the nearby Eileson Air Force Base (which is now off the grid, burning diesel fuel) with a renewable and cheap source of energy. The kids especially found this tour to be fascinating, and we asked many questions of our tour guide (who, ironically, was from Houghton, Michigan).

Hot Springs: The hot springs were discovered right around 1904 by explorers, and early settlers in Fairbanks would spend weeks traveling to visit the springs, which had reports of miracle healings. The main pool building had 2 indoor hot tubs and a large pool, both chlorinated, though with the hot spring water. A very large outdoor hot tub was also chlorinated. Kids under the age of 18 were only allowed in one of the chlorinated hot tubs or pools. Aurora and Denver would roll in the snow and then hop back in the hot tub outside. There were not many lights outside and not many people either so it seemed very private and comfortable. The Rock Lake was the only natural hot pool. It was chest deep in most places, with pea gravel lining the bottom and huge boulders arrayed around the outer edges. The water temperature varied; there was one section that was hotter than we could stand. People would lounge around on the rocks on the edges or sit on chairs in the water. It was a really neat atmosphere, and we actually managed to sit in it for an hour (well, half in--we did the rock lounging thing). Supposedly the high mineral content draws toxins out of the body, and also have a dehydrating effect so we were very thirsty after soaking.

Overall we enjoyed our time at Chena. We probably wouldn't make it a destination again, driving halfway across Alaska just to go there, but if we were in Fairbanks, we would go out for the day. And I think we all agreed we'd rather not go there in the summer when the bugs are bad and it is hot!

The Drive to the Interior (in Winter!)

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 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.