Quin's Progress

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Have an Ice Day!

Denali a.k.a. Mount McKinley

Denali a.k.a. Mount McKinley

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.

ice champsUnderstandably, 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.  P1010945Teams 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.  chinese iceThen, 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!mexican ice champtentaclessamuraiP1010966P1010962

Nenana Ice Classic Tripod

Nenana Ice Classic Tripod

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.

Look closely...that bartendress is wearing shorts!

Look closely…that bartendress is wearing shorts!

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.

Chena Hot Springs

Chena Hot Springs

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.

The winter train from Anchorage to Fairbanks.Yes, there was a bar on board!

The winter train from Anchorage to Fairbanks.
Yes, there was a bar on board!


Aurora Bourbonalis

photoAccording to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, if you spend four nights in Fairbanks in March, you are 90 percent likely to see the Northern Lights.  Based on that data, I planned to spend six nights in and around Fairbanks, figuring that boosted the chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis to a sure 135 percent.  And we did see them!  On our first night in Fairbanks, as we were walking back to the hotel from warming our veins with a nightly bourbon toddy at the Pike’s Landing bar, there they were, languidly rolling and twisting across the dark, starry sky, like thready wisps of that jade green smoke that Jeannie’s evil, brunette twin sister turned into when she wanted to get inside Jeannie’s bottle or Major Nelson’s pocket.  We couldn’t believe our luck to see them on our first night in town!  It was spectacular.  After about twenty minutes, they softly dissolved into the atmosphere, and we realized the bourbon had worn off and our toes were frozen like fish sticks, so we went back to the hotel and thanked our lucky stars that we had taken that walk.

Maker's Mark Wireless

Maker’s Mark Wireless

But, I couldn’t sleep.  I got up again at about 1:30 in the morning, bundled up and went back outside, with my cute little cell phone flask in my pocket.  There wasn’t much to see at first, but I could just make out the slightest feathery green glow on the horizon.  I watched it for a while, out there on the edge of the Chena River, all by myself.  Slowly, it grew.  And grew.  And before I knew it, it had split into about four wide ribbons of green and violet light that overtook the entire sky, swirling and dancing directly above me like a neon belly dancer, reaching her brightly glowing arms down as if to invite me to play.  My rational mind knows that the Aurora occur fifty to sixty miles above the earth, but in that moment, I was so sure I could touch them, that I jumped up and down in the snow with my arms stretched up to the sky, laughing ecstatically.  I was quite literally and absolutely dazzled.  So gobsmacked, I was, that it never occurred to me to go get my camera.  Just as well, as I couldn’t have mustered the disrespect to turn my back on that display even if I had wanted to, and I’m sure no still photo I could have taken would have done those lights justice, kinetic as they are.  The Aurora danced with me for about ten minutes and then twirled off into space, leaving me staring greedily at the black sky.  I stood there for another half an hour, freezing, but the only thing I saw was a guy in a short-sleeved t-shirt and no jacket who brought the trash out of the hotel to the dumpster.

Every night after that, for the remaining six days we had to kill in Fairbanks, I went out into the subzero temperatures at around 1 a.m., armed with my flask, camera equipment and recently acquired night photography skills, and begged the Aurora to come back out and play.  But they never did.