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!

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