Y’all have probably heard that old chestnut of a quote erroneously attributed to Mark Twain, about the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Well, there’s no better way to make San Francisco feel almost tropical than to spend a week or so near the Arctic Circle. This time last week, I was within 130 miles of the Arctic Circle, and had actually started to think the -17 degree cold wasn’t all that bad (although, I declined the opportunity to experience -40 degrees). Today, back home, I woke up thinking I was having a hot flash or a fever, but it turns out, it’s actually going to get up into the 70s this afternoon, and for SFO, that’s hot. So, while I revise my thoughts on what I’m going to wear to work to account for the balmy temperature, I thought I would cool it back down a little, at least, on here.
Understandably, much of the Alaskan culture, especially in the northern interior, revolves around ice. There’s a lot of it. It’s there most of the year. So, when life gives you ice lemons, just ask an Alaskan how to make some frozen lemonade, because they’ve mastered the art. Literally. Fairbanks is the home to the annual World Ice Art Championships. Ice sculptors come from all over the planet to compete for prizes for incredible works of art hewn from either single blocks or multiple blocks of ice. Teams of artists from the USA, Russia, China, Korea, Japan, Sweden, and even Mexico, build out an entire ice park, complete with a play area with ice slides and ice play houses for the kids, to create the venue for the contest that is the real reason they descend upon Fairbanks every February and March. Then, they get to work, creating the manifestations of their ice fantasies from giant blocks of ice out in the shade of the trees, so the sun won’t melt them too fast. Then, after the competition is over, the prizes have been handed out, and the public viewing period has ended…they take down the fences, abandon the ice park, and just let everything melt as Spring comes to Fairbanks. It seems a little sad to let those magnificent works just fade and disappear like that, but, I guess, it’s consistent with the Japanese aesthetic philosophy that the more impermanent something is, the greater its beauty. At least, that is what I told myself to keep from trying to steal the sculptures and stick them in a freezer to preserve them. I mean, look at these things!
Even the lottery is ice-based! The Nenana Ice Classic gives anyone in the state with $2.50 in their pocket a shot to win a big pot of cash by correctly guessing the exact date and time the ice on the Tanana River will break in the town of Nenana. They place a tripod with a clock on it on the ice in the river, and when the tripod falls through the ice, the clock stops and determines the winner. The pot got up to $350,000 in 2012. You can track it online, and vote up until April 5th, as long as you’re in the state. I forgot to enter, but my mental vote is for May 5th at 3:16 p.m. So….I’ll be watching. I just like to be right, even if I don’t have money on the game.
The odd thing was, it was under 10 degrees even in the hottest part of the day, but the local residents we encountered kept going on and on about how “warm” it was that week. Seriously, we saw people in shorts, short-sleeved t-shirts, and sandals. Right after I took that picture to the left of the bartender in shorts, the whole bar went bonkers yelling at some boob outside who was driving his car up the frozen river near Pike’s Landing, trying to stop him from falling through the ice that was thinning because of “how warm it had been that week.” Tscha, I guess “cold” is relative.
Of course, I eventually joined those wackadoos wandering around out in the frozen air half naked in a bathing suit. About 60 miles from Fairbanks, Chena Hot Springs is the place to pretend you are one of those Japanese snow monkeys. You can sit in those geothermically heated mineral waters in the middle of the night and watch the Aurora Borealis (if they come out for you, which they did not for me that particular night). It’s quite dreamy, simmering away like that in the bathtub hot lake, surrounded by snow. The problem is getting to and from the lake in the cold! The walkway is covered, but it is not heated or wind-proof, and that is one icy walk! You can’t run, because the path is literally icy and you will fall on your ass. I don’t know about you, but I grew up in San Diego, and they don’t teach kids to walk on ice there. It doesn’t come up much. But, notwithstanding the torture walk to and from the lake….it was totally worth it. The night skies, even sans Northern Lights, are brilliantly starry. It is so peaceful out there. Standing in the field all bundled up in snow gear, we could only last about 20 minutes or so before we had to go inside and thaw out. But, sitting in the hot springs, you can soak away in warmth and comfort for a good long time. If only they added a swim-up bar, it would be Nirvana! Believe me, a shot of liquid courage would make that mad dash across the ice back into the changing rooms a lot more bearable.