Last winter, my 10-year-old son and I headed to a destination that had friends and family wondering if we'd lost our minds.
We went to Fairbanks. In February.
We hoped to see the Northern Lights, though we knew there were no guarantees. If you stay three nights in the area, locals say you have a 75 percent likelihood of witnessing the phenomenon, but cloud cover or snow falling can ruin your chances. We got lucky, and saw them twice on a three-night stay.
But while we went to see the aurora borealis, we ended up doing so much more. In Fairbanks, we visited an ice park, saw ice sculptures and toured the Museum of the North. At Chena Hot Springs Resort, about 60 miles from Fairbanks, we went dogsledding and snowmobiling, soaked in an outdoor hot tub surrounded by snow, and visited an ice museum and geothermal energy plant.
We don't get much snow in New York City, where we live, so the trip also cured our snow deficit. My son Nathaniel loved rolling down snowy hills and climbing up snowpacked river banks.
We'd been to Alaska once before — like most tourists, in the summer. We fell in love with the landscape and wildlife, and became obsessed with everything about the state. We read books, talked endlessly about our trip (him in school, me at work), showed off our photos, and quizzed anyone we met who'd been there.
Only about 250,000 tourists venture to Alaska between October and April (compared to some 1.7 million summer visitors). But most winter tourists are like us — 75 percent are making their second trip to the state, according to the most recent data from the Alaska Visitor Statistics Program.
My husband and teenage son declined to accompany us, although they had been on the summer trip. Husband said he had to work; teenager headed to a warm beach with a friend's family. I wondered if they were right to take a pass when I checked the weather in Fairbanks a few weeks before our trip: Temperatures in early February had set record lows in the minus 40s and 50s.
We bought special gloves, socks and face protectors, borrowed ski outerwear from relatives, and hoped it would warm up. It did, with temps in the 20s and 30s — above zero. We were fine outside for hours at a time.
We also experienced an unexpected cultural immersion. Charter flights from Tokyo bring thousands of Japanese visitors to Alaska each winter. Seeing the Northern Lights is “on their life list,” explained Chena spokeswoman Denise Ferree. It's also part of Japanese culture's “traditional reverence for and appreciation of the beauty of nature,” said Colin Lawrence, director of tourism for the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Watching these Japanese visitors waiting outside in the snow, sometimes for hours, all bundled up, for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the aurora borealis, was inspiring. Like a lot of Americans, patience is not my strong suit. But my son and I shared the Japanese tourists' exclamations of joy when we spotted the Northern Lights.
If all this gets you dreaming of your own magical visit to Alaska this winter, the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau can help: explorefairbanks.com, 800-327-5774. Meanwhile, here are highlights and practical information from our trip.
We landed in Fairbanks late afternoon, headed to our hotel for dinner and a nap (Alaska is four hours earlier than East Coast time). We set an alarm to be up for a 10 p.m. pickup to see the Northern Lights at the Aurora Borealis Lodge. Lodge owner Mok Kumagai picks guests up at hotels downtown, and takes them away from city lights to see the aurora. We stayed at his home until 2 a.m., napping in his loft before being awakened by exclamations of “Aurora!” from his Japanese guests when the light show began. Details at auroracabin.com or 907-389-2812, $75 a person; overnight accommodations, $169-$224.
DAYS 2 AND 3
We previewed Fairbanks' Ice Park, where the World Ice Art Championships take place. The park has slides and other playground structures made from ice, along with larger-than-life ice sculptures. Open Feb. 24-March 22, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; icealaska.com. The sculptors do their chiseling and carving Feb. 24-26, and March 1-6, with the creations finished and lighted on Feb. 27 and March 7.
Then we headed to Chena Hot Springs Resort, chenahotsprings.com or 907-451-8104 (nightly room rates start at $179 a night; packages available; van transportation from Fairbanks can be arranged 72 hours in advance for a fee). Our visit included dogsledding through snowy woods; visiting and playing with sled dogs and their puppies; our first-ever snowmobiling adventure, with a guide; dips in the hot tubs and hot lake, where the water is 165 degrees (children are not allowed in the lake but they can try the outdoor tub and indoor pool); and tours of the resort's Aurora Ice Museum and geothermal energy plant. The resort also offers horsedrawn sleigh rides, flightseeing and therapeutic massage.
Chena Hot Springs, which is open year-round, was discovered in 1905 by surveyors and enjoyed by goldminers of the era. Today the resort uses the springs' naturally hot water to generate all its own energy; indoor temperatures are toasty, and my son loved learning about the science behind the power plant on a tour.
The ice museum, from the outside, looks like a giant igloo. Inside are whimsical ice carvings of animals, chess pieces, and furniture. I had an “appletini” drink in a glass carved from ice, at a bar carved from ice. Colored lights infuse the place with psychedelic hues.
A few tips:You can rent parkas and boots from the resort if you lack cold weather gear. The resort is literally off the grid; there is no town nearby, so you'll be eating all your meals there. We found the food good and reasonably priced; yummy salads are made from lettuce grown onsite in a geothermally heated greenhouse.
The water from the springs is sulphuric, and some people don't like the odor. It didn't bother us; we were too taken with the novelty of sitting outside in our bathing suits, surrounded by snow. Internet service is only available in the activities center, so you won't be checking your e-mail every minute. We brought a laptop, DVDs and books, but we were so tired staying up to look for the Northern Lights that most of our downtime was spent napping.
Back in Fairbanks, my son had a blast climbing up and down the snowy banks of the Chena River. Then we headed out to the Museum of the North, at the University of Alaska campus (a $15-$20 taxi ride from downtown, or take the Airlink shuttle from the airport). My son was fascinated by displays on Alaska's animals, from prehistoric creatures like mammoths and mastodons, to bears and wolves. I liked the history of the goldminers, the frontier era and Native culture. Don't miss the museum's unique sound-light installation, called “The Place Where You Go To Listen.” Computers create sounds and images using real-time data from seismic stations and magnetometers that track earthquake and auroral activity, and the colors and sounds in the installation change with the position of the sun. Museum winter hours: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (holiday schedule, Dec. 26-Jan. 4, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily), admission $10, uaf.edu/museum.
Fairbanks' many restaurants include 25 offering Asian cuisine. We ate at Lemongrass, one of 10 local Thai eateries, before heading back east.
There was no snow when we got home; we put away our ski gloves. And the trip didn't cure our Alaska obsession. We're still reading books about Alaska (my son surprised his fifth-grade teacher by tackling Jack London), and we're dreaming of our next trip — to the Arctic Circle.