Updated: Nov 3, 2020
This adventure was never planned, I was thinking Christmas in Hawaii, or riding around in some camper in New Zealand. What tossed the whole thing in motion was a good mix of procrastination, and the complete madness that determines how much plane tickets are based on some strange lunar algorithm. Basically we wanted to go to Asia before Christmas, but the price of plane tickets plummeted after Christmas day. So it was decided to stay in the States for the holidays. We wanted a white Christmas, and like any decent idea it just kept growing until it became the most outrageous manifestation of the original concept. I discovered that there was place called the North Pole outside of Fairbanks, Alaska, I also found a pretty amazing looking train that went from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Not too surprising that tickets to Alaska in the middle of the cold dark winter were decently priced.
We didn’t have any warm clothes, so we went to REI in Las Vegas and bought the warmest gear they had. (note that REI has a very loose return policy, which was fully taken advantage of)
Plenty of people gave us concerned looks when we said we were going to Fairbanks for Christmas. Several times we were reminded that it was the “wrong time of year to go”.
The nine hour train ride appropriately dubbed the Polar Express that cut through the frozen Alaskan wilderness from Anchorage to Fairbanks was something out of a Christmas book. There was even a little kid in his pajamas convinced he was on the actual Polar Express from the children’s book going to see Santa in the North Pole. The sun rose at 11am and set at 3pm so for a large portion of the ride the sky was painted with a picturesque glow of pinks and oranges that couldn’t decide between day and night.
Arriving in Fairbanks in -4 degrees below zero and driving a rental on icy roads I couldn’t help having the fleeting thought that I was supposed to be surfing in Maui right now.
The cold icy roads brought back thoughts of my cold days in Michigan. The mostly sludgy gray mush of winter that I grew up with came back to memory, and I started to wonder if this was such a good idea. But, like life the mediocre middle of things is often boring and there is magnificence to be found at the extremes. Miles away from the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter the extremes of the north were surely upon us.
Every tree that reached to the sky became encapsulated in a frozen sheath of snow and ice. The browns and greens that they once were became part of the collective white. Perfect, and preserved in winter’s trap. Strolling around Fairbanks was like strolling around the inside of well thought out snow globe.
Most people (and by people I mean Japanese tourists) don’t come here for the surreal landscape of winter. They come searching for secret that only the most northern of skies hold.
The Auroras exceeded all my expectations. I remember once when I was in college we took a road trip up to the upper peninsula of Michigan and we saw this green very distant sheen in the sky. After that I thought I knew what the northern lights looked like. I was wrong. To really experience it is to be right under it. Being right under an aurora is not like looking up at a faint gassy cloud on the horizon as I had remembered from Michigan. Being under it, and surrounded by it is an unearthly experience. The waves dance between an irradiated green and hints of pink. What was most impressive is how it moved. Like a green storm in the black sky it was as if some alien world was trying to rip through the sky. Nature in large brilliant motion is always an impressive sight.
It should be noted that Japanese, in a quintessential Japanese move come to see the Auroras because there is a rumor they believe that it’s good for fertility to conceive under the lights.
Alaska also allowed us to continue our adventures on Airbnb. I’m coming to love Airbnb. Often for less than a hotel it’s possible to stay in either someone’s house, cabin, yurt, or yacht. And the experience is most always enhanced because people really care about you, they often go out of their way to remind you of the real ethos of hospitality. In a random, and lucky find we came across an ad by a woman named Eleanor who runs a dog sledding camp, and recently started renting her wood stove heated yurt on Airbnb. We booked the yurt for two nights, making sure to book a 30 minute dog sled tour during our stay as well. The wood stove more than held its own against the -20 degree temp on the outside, and the cozy layout on the inside made the whole experience very pleasant. What I was most surprised by however was how amazing it was to live inside a round open space with high ceilings. Eleanor did tell us that she thought there was much stronger energy living in a space like this than a normal house, and one night when I went over to her house with its small hallways and 7 foot ceilings it instantly felt claustrophobic. So for one entire evening we sat inside in the yurt drinking plum wine designing a compound of interlinking yurts to live in.
The yurt was next to the 30 most friendly sled dogs. We played with them, feed them, they woke us up like howling roosters every morning, and they eventually pulled us through the woods on a short but exciting ride that follows one of the trails for the Yukon Quest dog race.
On christmas day we went to the “North Pole”, which is really just a small town outside of Fairbanks, but don’t tell the kid on the train that. North Pole, Alaska is a town trapped in a perpetual year round Christmas. The Christmas theme is hammed up at every candy caned themed street light. The crescendo happens every year around Christmas at “Santa’s house” with ice sculpture competitions and a whole ice themed park to run around and freeze in. The whole north pole was a bit cheesy, and although it was the driving theme for coming up here, it was certainly not the hight point.
In another stroke of good Airbnb luck we stayed with woman named Nicole on Christmas Eve, and Christmas day. She was alone without any family in the area and was happy to have us. I was a bit hesitant about staying with some family through Airbnb on Christmas day, so this worked out perfect. She had an amazing home that overlooked the whole of the alaskan plane on top of a ridge. For christmas dinner she pulled out some frozen salmon she had caught in the Copper River over the summer. It was a win all around.
In summary I highly recommend coming to Fairbanks in the heart of winter. As one of the highest cities that still somewhat resembles a city it’s a great place to see the northern lights, and just generally fully emerge yourself in the full power and beauty of winter if just for a short time. For what it’s worth I wanted to push it further and drive that rented Subaru to the Arctic circle, but the rental company made me sign a legal agreement that I wouldn’t. Something about needing all kinds of spare parts, and survival gear. Next time…