I know I fell off the blogging train ages ago and never even attempted to scramble back on board. There is so much I want to write about, and so little time—how do other people do it? Have a life AND make time to actually blog about it? The struggle is real.
But I’m going to do this for Alaska because it’s worth it and I want to acknowledge that it’s changed me in some ways. I’m going to sit down with this big
mug of tea bowl of ice cream and I’m going to finally go through all the photos I took. Then I’m going to decipher the messy scrawls in my journal while my memory is still somewhat fresh and try to form coherent sentences out of them. I’m not going to be distracted. This is not going to end up in my “Saved Drafts” folder again. This blog post gets published tonight!
So, now… where to begin?
On Christmas Eve, Gani and I left Seattle for Fairbanks, Alaska. We had booked a dry cabin (a small home built without plumbing or a septic system) via Airbnb and were looking forward to spending some quality time together, a welcome break from our daily work/school routines.
The dry Cabin
Nestled in a peaceful little slice of winter wonderland, the cabin was private and cozy and exactly what we wanted.
Part of dry cabin living involves having to use an outhouse, a small outdoor structure with a bucket toilet. I’ve used outhouses before, of course, but never in sub-zero temperatures! The first few times Gani and I had to use it, we spent an embarrassing amount of time bundling up, rallying each other like we were preparing for battle, and reassuring ourselves that we were not going to get attacked by bears. #citykids #shame
(Happy to report that by the final leg of our stay, we were going to the outhouse in our PJs like it was no big deal.)
The interior of the cabin (so hyggelig!):
While we definitely enjoyed exploring Fairbanks and the outdoors in general, I also really appreciated the time we spent in the cabin—the lazy mornings and long uninterrupted conversations, singing and dancing to music, reading, cooking/eating, playing board games, etc. We even worked on a 1,000-piece puzzle and completed it before the end of our stay. I had forgotten how much fun those things were.
We worked out our activities based on when we were planning to go into town to take a shower.
Planning the logistics of each trip had to be done wisely because we were relying completely on Uber/Lyft or local taxis since we didn’t have a car. This took up a huge chunk of our expenditure budget but on the bright side, we had some of the most interesting conversations with the drivers we encountered. I remember thinking that if these drivers were a good representation of the general population, how cool all Alaskans had to be!
The few days that we found ourselves in “town” were spent exploring the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, geeking out in the Museum of the North, and cafe-hopping.
(Can you tell I love the soft hues of winter twilight?)
Our sweet Airbnb hosts even took us ice fishing, something we totally forgot to do when we were living in Minnesota.
The Aurora Borealis
Now let’s move on to the main reason why we were in Fairbanks: the northern lights. If you know me well, you’d know that I had dreamed of seeing the northern lights for a long, long time. I read a poem about it when I was a tween, and then looked it up in an encyclopedia and was enchanted by the pictures of beautiful, mysterious lights dancing in the night sky. I thought it was fascinating how something that sounded so “scientific” (solar winds! magnetic fields! ionization!) could result in what seemed, to me, to be pure magic.
Unfortunately, our trip happened to fall on a week that the lights were supposed to be pretty inactive (they were apparently very active the week before and after) so I tried not to make it a big deal and kept telling Gani that I wouldn’t be very upset if we didn’t manage to see anything. I reassured him—and myself—that we could always return another time, and that I was happy just to be there. Which was true. But then guess who showed up right in our backyard?
That’s right. Hello, Lady Aurora!
On our third night there, Gani woke me up at 1am. “I see something, I definitely see something,” he said excitedly as he looked out the bedroom window. That was all I needed to hear. I literally jumped out of bed and threw on my clothes (all 7 layers) as quickly as I could, grabbed my camera, and was out the door in a matter of seconds. When I looked up, I almost cried.
Not only did the lights show up, they partied long and hard above our heads. I can’t even begin to describe how I felt as I watched them dancing and swirling, like flames of a fire. We chased them across the tops of trees, yelping in delight, our eyes still heavy with sleep and overwhelmed by the sudden visual treat. My heart felt like it was bursting at the seams. At some point, I remember thinking, yes, I could give up so many things for this. I’d give up all my urban comforts in a heartbeat if I could feel this way more often, if I could feel as connected to nature as I did at that moment, if I could just hang on to that incredible sense of oneness…
How scary and exhilarating it was to be made so conscious of my place in the universe!
I wish I had gotten better photos but as you can imagine, I was genuinely starstruck so all I managed to capture was the final part of the show, just as the lights slowly retreated into the night:
Chena Hot Springs
Midweek, we headed up to Chena Hot Springs, as recommended by everyone we knew who had been to Fairbanks before. While the hot springs were indeed amazing and made me feel like a snow monkey in a Japanese onsen, I was honestly quite disappointed by how dirty and disorganized the locker rooms were, so that affected my overall experience.
This was probably the best spontaneous decision we made in Alaska. Two days before the end of our stay, we somehow managed to get the contact number of a couple of dog mushers who happened to be available to take us mushing the very next day. (Most were fully booked over the holiday season.) On the phone, they sounded just as excited as we were. I covered the mouthpiece and looked over at Gani. “Let’s do it,” I mouthed. He grinned and flashed a thumbs-up.
We hit it off immediately with Hélène, Benoit, and the adorable dogs in their care—Blitzen, Bastille, Doussié, Gilligan, Gitane, Tab, Vixen, Ouzo, Tia, Smokey, and Chunky. (Gani had fun memorizing all the dogs’ names and identifying every one of them. Because he
loves showing off finds things like that enjoyable.)
After learning how to harness the dogs and work the sled, we drove to a trail nearby. Hélène and I got on a single 4-dog sled, while Benoit and Gani took on double sleds pulled by 6 dogs. And then we were off, whizzing through snow-covered pines and birches, our faces frozen over in the wind, trying to avoid the occasional thwack by stray twigs, and marveling at the speed and strength of the dogs.
Hélène taught me some of the basic commands and how to slow the dogs down when they were going too fast downhill. Every time we went slightly uphill, though, I thought it was funny how they turned back to look at us, almost judgmentally, as if to say, “Hey, we’d appreciate some help here!” When I mentioned this to Hélène, she laughed and said that was probably what they were trying to say. She showed me how to stand on a runner with one leg and kick with the other to propel the sled forward. That was actually a lot more comfortable than sitting down, because moving around helped me warm myself up.
From Hélène, I also learnt about the Iditarod, a 1,600km (1,000 mi) dog sled race of epic proportions across wild, untamed Alaskan terrain. The Iditarod trail itself has a fascinating history—it was used during the Gold Rush Era, and then by sled dogs and mushers carrying medicine to Nome to combat a diphtheria outbreak in 1925. Hélène casually told me that her friend and neighbor, a certain Mary Shields was the first woman to complete the Iditarod in 1974. As if that wasn’t enough, Shields also later completed the Hope Race in 1991, which took her and her dogs across the frozen Bering Strait all the way to Russia. Who is this superwoman and why have I never heard of her? Just reading about her online gives me goosebumps.
See, the thing is, I didn’t expect to fall so hard for this place. I’m usually quite good at not over-romanticizing the places I travel to but Fairbanks stole my heart completely. Even with its bitter, skin-stinging winter, there is something so calming about the minimalistic color palette of its alpine landscape, the almost clockwork ritual of layering up before stepping outside, the way fresh snow squeaks and crunches beneath my boots, and the gorgeous winter light—oh, the light! I could go on and on about how spectacular it is, splashing across the snow in a dazzling duel of fire and ice.
I wrote in my journal:
This place stirs me up inside like no other place has in a while and it makes me feel so alive, so impassioned, and so inspired, even though I can’t really pinpoint what it is exactly that is making me feel this way. Maybe it’s the spirit of adventure hanging in the air, palpable and contagious. It fills me with such energy. Everything just feels so possible here.
Thank you, Alaska. May we meet again.