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This post was written after returning, but the thoughts were during my recent Alaska trip (to Alaska obviously). Snaps at the end.
It all started with a Seattle trip that I had planned in the last week of December. Out of nowhere, a friend had a random brainstorm that we should go to Alaska for new years’, and a few people agreed, including me. I didn’t even know if this was the best season to visit Alaska (answer : no) but since I wasn’t planning the trip, I just decided to go along with their plans and activities. Since we would be spending 5 days there without too many activities, I suggested including skiing in the itinerary (fresh from my recent ski trip to Lake Tahoe where I learnt to ski pretty well), a suggestion that was readily included. So the list of activities we had on the table were snowmobiling, dog sledging, skiing, ice skating, ice fishing (just watching; I am vegetarian so doesn’t make sense to fish), seeing some museums, zoos, art galaries; leaving the snowmobiling it was pretty much stuffed with all the things I could do elsewhere or things I didn’t really like to do. As a side note, I do not really enjoy site seeing. The ideal activities for me are the ones which do not seem wise on retrospection.
Thankfully, the trip did not go as planned. Not even close.
Let’s get started with the most obvious and the most asked question : Did I see Russia ?
The answer would be no. As my friends in Pakistan would say, just the fact that Sarah Palin said she could see Russia from Alaska is like Kasab saying he is a Pakistani. It does not stand trial in any court and so is obviously not true. Of course, I am not counting seeing Russia on Google earth.
The first couple of days in Seattle were spent in some marathon movie watching. Considering the snowfall outside was the worst in some 15 years, it was a wise and the only available move. I revised all the good movies that released this year (details here). Then it was time for Alaska.
A word about Alaska. It has all the things I would ever want : Mountains, rivers, national parks, the highest peak of North America (Mt. Mckinley), peaks to hike, wildlife, isolation from friends and people and of course, wireless internet. I could not ask for anything more.
We, a group of 5, left Seattle on the 28th and landed in Anchorage at night, just in time to go to bed; with the terrible news that the WiFi wasn’t going to be available at the hotel all through our stay (this was the critical trigger that forced me to rethink plans).
The first day started off with a visit to a zoo. Now anyone who has gone on a safari or driven around at night in national parks hoping to catch a glimpse of some animal (that happened once at Nagarhole, where we ran into a wild tusker) would never get excited at a zoo, unless you are a zoology student or get excited seeing animals in captivity. It just doesn’t campare.
The only exciting thing in the zoo was all of us getting frozen in the cold ! I forgot to mention, the temperature was only about -2 deg. Farenheit (approx. -18 deg. Celsius). The *only* is not meant to evoke laughter or sound sarcastic; it is just a sign of things to come. Twice during the hour long visit in the zoo we had to get back inside a coffee shop to bring our toes and fingers back to life. Not a good sign. Next thing we did was rushing to a nearby store to get all the warm clothing and dozens of warmers, which helped us throughout the trip.
By then I gathered some information about the Aurora Borealis, which was being spotted consistently at Fairbanks since a few days and I was really eager to experience them. Fairbanks is an 8-9 hour night drive from Anchorage with stops and safe driving. Considering the roads, weather and the temperature at Fairbanks, the group wasn’t too keen on it (I was very much). That night we decided to try our luck at a place called Artic Valley outside Anchorage to spot the Northern Lights. There was once we got excited about some formations in the sky which turned out to be the smoke from a factory. That was when I posted this.
Since the Aurora is something that can only be seen from Alaska and since Mt. Mckinley too was on the way to Fairbanks, the others agreed to give it a try the next day, after getting the confidence that they could sleep in the car and I would drive. The next day started with a visit to a frozen lake to see people ice fishing and a snowmobile tour.
I really enjoyed the 3-hour snowmobiling session where we took the machines to a glacier and returned back. One particularly speedy stretch where I touched speeds of over 60 mph in the extreme cold gave me red rashes on the nose, something I still carry around.
The snowmobiling session got over at 5 p.m. and we had to rush to Fairbanks since the Aurora activity peaked between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. A quick dinner (where I am sure I got on everyone’s nerves asking them to rush) and an auxiliary cable for the car stereo later, we set off. The aux cable is always critical when I drive because now I know the exact songs to play to get rid of my sleep.
The drive was largely uneventful apart from one bad skid on an ice patch and half a dozen moose in the middle of the road in Denali National Park. It was around 1.30 a.m. and we were still about 70 miles from Fairbanks when we saw something that initially looked like clouds but kept changing shapes. That was when we pulled over and saw the spectacle for the first time. The Aurora Borealis ! I failed miserably at taking snaps since I did not carry a tripod and wasn’t sure what the best settings were. It was breathtaking and I had goosebumps as I was watching with awe completely surrendering all rational thought to nature. To be fair, the goosebumps could also be due to the lonely spot, dark sky and the fact that the lights do look like dancing spirits. It was spooky and beautiful. Weird combination.
I did not feel bad at all for driving over 8 hours to get there ! After the spectacle was over, we proceeded to Fairbanks and checked into a hotel, which by the way had WiFi. Fairbanks is surrounded by hills and there you get a sudden drop in temperature when you enter the valley, to the point where the car temperature display went off. Seriously. The temperature at Fairbanks was -45 deg F (approx. -42 deg Celsius), which is fine if you stay indoors but it hurts to even breathe once you get out. The only good thing is that you cannot have a running nose there. A good guide for low temperatures can be found here.
While on wikipedia, I also discovered that Fairbanks and Pune were sister cities, which absolutely made no sense to me. There isn’t even anything in common to talk about !!
The next morning was the 31st. We drove to the downtown where the group was getting harassed by the extreme cold. That was when the group decided to back out of the plan to drive outside the city later that night to see the Aurora; something that I gladly welcomed for 2 reasons – I wasn’t sure it was safe for everyone to be out for so long in the extreme cold since they were already having problems and of course, I was getting to be alone.
After the New Years’ eve dinner, the group was suddenly infused with a renewed spirit to come along. We decided to drive to a resort about 30 miles outside Fairbanks where quite a few Aurora watchers gather daily. It has a lodge and a room for people to watch the lights comfortably. The lodge was completely filled with Japanese tourists (all of them wearing the exact same clothing for unknown reasons).
My new years was spent outside in the cold trying to get some good snaps of the Aurora, which I think I finally did (snaps link below). Special thanks to Varun C for helping me out with the settings of the camera.
We returned at 4 a.m. and crashed into bed. This was when I finally remembered to wish everyone.
The next morning, we discovered the car brakes had deteriorated badly, probably due to the cold, and the car rental at Fairbanks was closed for new years. So I took the opportunity to trick everyone into letting me drive back till Anchorage [;)].
It was just before dark when we reached the mountain range of Mt. Mckinley. We couldn’t get a clear view due to the overcast weather. That was the only disappointment of the trip. You have to be a hiker to know the excitement of seeing the highest peak of a continent. I hope to be back attempting Mt. Mckinley someday, but that day is not even close.
On the last leg of the drive, we saw an amazing sunset which was a fitting ending to the trip and the beauty of Alaska.
The best part of the trip apart from the Aurora was snowmobiling and of course, the 8 1/2 hour long drives to and from Fairbanks. You have to be really passionate about driving to enjoy such long drives on icy roads.
At the end, one thing was for sure. This wasn’t my last trip to Alaska.
(Snaps here. All of the Aurora snaps are as is from the camera, partly because I didn’t know how to process them !)