Chena Hot Springs and the Aurora Borealis
Trip Start Jan 02, 2013
70Trip End Mar 17, 2013
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I got up ridiculously early after barely sleeping because I was afraid I'd sleep through my wake-up call, checked out of my hotel in Seattle, went to the airport and caught a plane to Fairbanks, AK. I picked up a rental SUV and drove to Chena Hot Springs, my home for the next six nights. My reason for being there was to see the aurora borealis and this is supposed to be one of the best places and best times to see it.
My first disappointment was that there is no internet access at the hotel. There were a bunch of things I was planning on doing online while I was waiting for the aurora but, unfortunately, I couldn't do any of them.
My second disappointment was that I had to schlep my bags about 100 steps over a snow-covered sidewalk from my car to the building my room was in and then up a flight of stairs. My wheeled bag wouldn't roll over the snow so I had to carry everything and, unfortunately, everything is a lot of stuff.
You can put your name on a list and if the Northern Lights make an appearance they will wake you. I counted on them to do that the first night. I was not contacted. I later found out that the lights did come out that night. The same thing happened the second night. And the third.
On the fourth night I took their Aurora Viewing Snow Coach Tour to the top of a peak about three miles from the main part of the facility, which they sell for $75. You have to sign up by 7:00pm but the coach doesn't leave until 9:15 and you're on the mountain until 2:00am so it's hard to predict what the weather is going to be like when you're up there. It wound up being overcast the entire time we were on top of the mountain so we didn't see anything.
I took the Aurora Viewing Snow Coach Tour again on the fifth night. I did much better with the weather. It was a clear night. After we had been up there for a couple hours the aurora came out. It came and went over the next two hours. Since it was the first time I've seen them it's hard for me to say how they rated but, from what others told me, it was just an OK display.
Trying to take pictures in the cold, dark night is really demanding. Since I just got this camera and I'm not yet familiar with all of the controls I was not up to the demands. It was really frustrating struggling to find tiny buttons in the dark with numb fingers. In spite of the problems, I did manage to get some pictures that I think I'll be happy with when I get to see them on the computer. On the positive side, it wasn't particularly cold by Fairbanks standards. It was probably around -10F, which is a lot warmer than typical, from what I was told.
On my last night, it was very overcast and snowing at 7:00pm, the last time to sign up for the Snow Coach, so I decided I'd stay at the hotel. I had heard that the Japanese guests take turns watching for them and go get the other people when they come out. Realizing that the hotel probably wouldn't come get me, I paid attention to the comings and goings of the Japanese people in my building. When I heard a lot of activity I headed over to the room in the Activity Center that is kept dark in order to watch the aurora. Sure enough, they were out, again, and, again, I had not been notified. The lights weren't as good as they had been the previous night but it was still good to get another opportunity to see them.
There's not a lot to do at Chena Hot Springs but I did do some of the other activities. I went on their Geothermal Energy & Greenhouse Tour. They use the hot springs to generate power. I have a friend who was involved with their system when he worked at DOE so I was particularly interested in learning about it so I can discuss it with my friend. Some of the power they generate is used to light two greenhouses, which are also heated by the hot springs. I liked the tour and the guy who lead it was one of the more knowledgeable people I spoke to there.
I also went on the Aurora Ice Museum Tour. The Aurora Ice Museum is sort of a combination ice bar and ice hotel with interesting ice sculptures inside. They charge $15 for a brief tour and another $15 if you want an Appletini at the bar while you're there. If you want to stay in one of the four rooms in the building it costs $600, which includes a nearby heated room in the hotel in case you need a bathroom or want to get warm. They have an unusual system that uses the hot water to cool the building so they can keep everything frozen throughout the year. The tour was also interesting but I thought it was overpriced.
I also went for a dip in the outdoor hot spring. It felt good in the water but getting in and out was a bit uncomfortable.
The hotel batting zero for four when it came to informing me of the aurora wasn't the only problem. My toilet leaked. When the person came to fix it on my third day I told him the TV remote wasn't working. He changed the batteries to no avail. Someone came back on the fourth day with a working remote. The water had been off all morning so I asked him when it would be back on. I was told it would be another 10 or 15 minutes. It turned out to be another three or four hours. The water and the remote both quit working again on the last day.
There was also a lack of information. For instance, it was impossible to get a weather forecast. When you asked whether the aurora had been out the previous night you got inconsistent answers. They have something called the Aurorium, which is a small building a short distance from the hotel that's a bit further up the hill and gives you a better view than the room in the Activity Center. I tried to find the Aurorium one night and couldn't. I asked a couple people at the pool. They didn't know where it was either and didn't offer to do anything to help. Most of the guests seemed as frustrated by this as I was.
In many ways they did a terrible job but I don't know of any better place in the U.S. to see the Northern Lights.