Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Where Was Jim This Weekend? Road Trip!

OK, we didn’t actually go to Mordor.

We went to Chena Hot Springs, about 60 miles or so northeast of Fairbanks.

It was sort of a spur of the moment thing.

What? I hear you say in that tsk tsk tone you reserve for when I’ve done something stupid. You drove nine hours to see some hot water, then turned around and drove nine hours home? Across the arctic tundra? Through a snow storm? At thirty below?

Are you mad?

Could be, Doc, could be.

For about as long as I can remember, my wife has wanted to see the Ice Museum at Chena. Every year we talk about going up there…and never do. Saturday we were discussing what we were going to do this weekend. I and my son had Monday off, my wife didn’t – but she does have a bunch of vacation time saved up.

Take Monday off and let’s go do something, I suggested.

Ice Museum? She said.

Why the hell not, I replied.

We packed the truck with survival equipment, a couple changes of clothes, our cameras, food for a couple of days – and got up early Sunday morning and took off, by the time the sun was up we were a third of the way to Nenana.

Chena Hot Springs 028

Road conditions were about what you’d expect in northern Alaska this time of year:Chena Hot Springs 029

It took us about seven hours to reach Fairbanks – note: this was a spur of the moment road trip, which is why I didn’t get a chance to meet up with any of the Fairbanks contingent of the Stonekettle Station Loyal Readers Association. Apologies, next time for sure.

We fueled up and headed north out of Fairbanks for Chena. Total time inside the Fairbanks city limits? Ten minutes.

Along the way we stopped in at Skunk Place Kennels, home to famous Alaskan sled dog mushers Aliy Zirkle and Alan Moore – who are wonderful people and our friends.

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And finally, a couple hours after dark we arrived at Chena.

We didn’t know if they’d have a room (that was part of the adventure, no reservations, ass backward into the unknown – yes, that’s exactly how we travel. You don’t plan road trips). Turns out they did have plenty of rooms – and at half price to boot, January being the seriously off season.

We had a terrific dinner in the main lodge and then put on our arctic gear and took a guided tour of the Ice Museum.

It’s pretty, uh, cool.

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The entire place (except for the roof) is carved from giant blocks of ice. Walls, bar, sculptures, chandeliers, furniture, guest rooms, everything. It’s lit with embedded colored lights like some kind of frozen fairyland.

It’s beautiful and well worth the drive.

We had an appletini at the bar, made with Russian vodka that was just this side of liquid nitrogen temperatures and served in a martini glass carved from ice - we ran into the ice sculptor at breakfast the next morning and I learned that those glasses are not cast, but are turned on a lathe.

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I also learned that appletini’s are not my drink. Gah.

The caribou fur over the icy bar stool was pretty nice though.

The ice sculptures are amazing. No, really amazing. Seriously.

These jousting knights and their chargers are life-sized, exquisitely detailed, and made without any structural support other than the ice itself. It is an astounding sculpture.

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A number of the men admired the artistic merits of this piece:

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There were lots of amazing things including these ice globes:

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Chena Hot Springs 129 Chena Hot Springs 130 Chena Hot Springs 131

Did you catch up above where I used the phrase guest rooms? Yes, you can spend the night in the Ice Museum, they have a number of nice accommodations:

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For about $600 you can bundle up in your complimentary parka and roll up in caribou fur on a big damned block of ice that purports to be a bed. Each room comes fully equipped with modern facilities…

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(…and you think your toilet seat is chilly in the middle of the night)

We took a pass on the whole spending the night in the ice hotel thing. I hurt bad enough in the morning without sleeping on a block of ice. They’d probably need the jaws-of-life to get me out of that bed in the morning. It’s been a number of years since I went through arctic survival school and I have no desire to do it again, sleeping on an ice cube at thirty below is more adventure than I need these days.

After the chill of the Ice Palace we spent the rest of the night soaking in the hot springs. And let me tell you something, if you’ve never sprinted barefoot across –20 cement, unclothed except for your bathing suit, on your way from the locker rooms to the hot springs, well you’re just plain missing out. And the trip back is even more exciting – let’s just say that your suit tends to freeze to parts of your anatomy that you’d rather it didn’t and leave it at that. OK? The hot spring was pretty damned nice though.

The next morning we got up early and ate breakfast at the lodge. It was just us and the ice sculptor in the whole place and we had an interesting conversation with her. Very nice lady. Very, very talented sculptor (her and her husband are permanent staff and are solely responsible for creating and maintaining the museum. They compete in ice carving contests the world over).

Then we hit the road and nine hours later we were home again. Along the way we saw some pretty neat stuff - like this, for example, just outside Denali National Park:

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and of course, there was that aforementioned glimpse into Mordor…

All in all, a pretty damned fine road trip indeed.

Note: Chena Hot Springs is an interesting place and we wished we would have had more time there – next year we’re going back and spending a couple of days there. The owner has turned the place into a model of alternative and geothermal power generation. People come from all over the world to study the power systems and green houses and the place has been the subject of numerous TV specials. Google Chena Hot Springs or follow the link above to learn more.


  1. Glad you had fun, and I forgive you for not visiting. :)

    However, if you'd at least asked for a Fairbanks restaurant recommendation, I could've provided you with some.

    Nice job describing the hot springs. Bernie is supposed to be upgrading the pool house, I hope he does. Look forward to catching you next trip!

  2. Thanks for taking all the pics and sharing the winter beauty of Alaska.

    Admit is though, sun rise is still pretty late in the day:)

  3. I am a fan at a distance of the Harbin Snow and Ice Festivals in what used to be called Manchuria, and I wonder if these people go there. They certainly have the requisite quality.

    (Maybe that Chinese comment is an invitation.)

    What happens to all that beautiful stuff when it warms up?

  4. Very nice. We have a snow castle here in Yellowknife, but yours is much fancier.

  5. Whoops. That last comment was from me. Michael is my son. I guess I forgot to sign out of his account last night.

  6. (Maybe that Chinese comment is an invitation.)

    Nope. It was spam, and it's now gone. Persistent bastard, that spammer.

    What happens to all that beautiful stuff when it warms up?

    It's actually encased in a refrigerated shell and is preserved all year long. Though a couple years back the plant failed in the middle of summer and the whole place melted.

  7. "Stonekettle Station Loyal Readers Association". Does the SSLRA have a Facebook page?

    Ice Museum: Did they have samples of the ice at Vally Forge and other historical mementos?

    derco: Der Company

  8. I knew it! I figured you were close when all the hair stood up on the back of the cats. ;)

    Yep - it's a pretty cool place to visit, for sure - last time I was there I got to watch them making the glasses - standing a column of ice on a turntable and machining the 'glass' out with a die grinder. Didn't get a chance to see the power plant, but definitely will get back there. The greenhouse is something to see as well. Bummer you didn't have more time.

    Next time swing by and we'll swap the appletinis for something less... appletini...

    diricat - when your cat gets so big you can sell ad space to Goodyear...

  9. Wow, Jim, your photos are amazing. It looks beautiful, but cold. Really cold. Really really cold. I hope the hot springs are as good next year.

    nonanu - Something Mork yells at strategic moments.

  10. Ooh... trains!

    Dr. Phil

    whobet -- Whobet that Jim would go running across -20 concrete in a wet bathing suit? For fun?

  11. Wow. I've always wanted to visit Alaska and now even more so.

  12. Wow, that is amazing. As I'm not likely to ever get your way this time of year, double thanks for sharing your trip!

    May have to use those knights as wallpaper for a bit.

  13. @Wendy -- that's a great idea, using the knights as a wallpaper.


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