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Last Updated: July 12, 2010
Alaska Vacation Part 3
June 16-18 - Chena Hot Springs
After Denali National Park, we headed northeast to Chena Hot Springs Resort . This is a small yet comfortable place offering various activities, in particular hot springs to soak in. We stayed in a two-room "family suite," in a four-unit building overlooking the hot springs. The furniture and decor were homey, more like an apartment than a hotel suite. Following are some of the activities we did.
After passing through a showering room with strict signs about showering in English and Japanese, there are two options for the hot springs. The first is an indoor pool at about bathtub temperature intended for families. The second is an outdoor, adults-only "lake." It is probably man made, but they did a good job of making it appear natural. The temperature in the lake varied depending on your exact spot; it went from bathtub warm to a bit too hot for comfort. Anybody should be able to find a spot and temperature to suit them. The lake is surrounded by fenced off cooling lakes, because the water that comes out of the ground is 156 degrees. They have to cool it down before it is safe to soak in.
The ice museum is open at certain times of the day for tours. There are about a dozen different ice sculptures inside. When the tour guide came to the ice statue of Sarah Palin, the joke was that it was realistic in both size and temperature. The ice bar inside sold apple martinis in glasses made of ice for $15, which I did not splurge on.
The resort sits on a hotbed of geothermal energy. They offer free tours of their power plant, through which they harness the energy to power the resort with enough leftover to sell to the state of Alaska. If you're interested in how it works, their website explains it much better than I ever could. After the power plant, you're led to the greenhouse, where they grow their own herbs and vegetables used in the resort restaurant.
There was just one place to eat. I was worried that as a monopoly it might be bland and expensive, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Everything I tried there was outstanding in a homemade, fresh kind of way. The prices were also reasonable by Alaska standards.
There is a small lake where you can rent canoes. We did that for about an hour, but after so many times of just going back and forth, it got a little boring. My two older children went on a horseback ride, which they enjoyed. One morning, I went on about a five-mile hike up a muddy dirt road. There were various different hiking trails, but I had only time to do one. Things we did not do were the ATV rides and dog sled rides, which are on wheels in the summer.
Overall, I would say the Chena Hot Springs Resort is a good place to bring kids if you like a relaxing kind of place out in the woods. If you're looking for a high-energy Alaska adventure, you might find it too slow. They say the busiest season is winter, when lots of Japanese tourists come for the northern lights. I'd love to return for that.
June 18-20 - Fairbanks
After five days in small towns, I think we were all looking forward to some of the conveniences of Alaska's second largest city. We stayed at the Best Western Chena River Inn near the airport. It was quite nice, with a better-than-average continental breakfast and a small business center with a computer with Internet. They lose points for no swimming pool.
If you're passing through Fairbanks, you may as well stay a day or two, but I would not make it a priority on an Alaska vacation. Here are some of the things we did in Fairbanks.
Downtown Fairbanks is kind of a bust. It looks like it is suffering from the middle class flight to the suburbs that afflicts many US cities. It borders a very nice riverfront with plenty of park space. We had lunch at Soapy Smith's Old Tyme Restaurant. The walls were covered with the usual Alaska touristy decor of snowshoes, antlers and such. Halfway through our visit, the proprietor spoke to the patrons about the history of his family in Alaska politics and of the restaurant. He said he was the grandson of a former Alaska governor. Overall, the restaurant was a bit kitschy but still enjoyable and the food was not bad.
Worth going to if you're in downtown Fairbanks is the Morris Thomson Cultural & Visitor Center. There are racks and racks of tourist brochures of things to do and friendly staff to answer questions. I get the feeling they don't get much walk in traffic and are excited to talk to anybody. The very large and modern looking building also has dioramas of northern Alaska life through the four seasons. I was told the theater was showing a movie shortly about the tough and resilient women of Alaska. I lead the family in there to watch it, hoping my 12-year-old daughter would find it inspirational. However, they showed a film from I think the sixties of elderly Indians singing in their native language about hunting whales or something. This went on for several minutes before the boredom got the better of me and I led the exodus out prematurely. For such a nice building, they could stand to update their film selection.
Let me say without equivocation that Pioneer Park is a great place to bring the family. It is a combination of public park and modestly-priced theme attractions, like a train ride around the park, an airplane museum and a miniature golf course. There is a big collection of authentic log cabins that were relocated to the park. Some are used as small businesses while others are vacant. My son and I entered one that led to a 40-below-zero freezer, so tourists like us could feel like what it is like in Fairbanks in the winter. It was actually at 50-below that day. We tried it, and I have to say it wasn't that bad. I've experienced many days below 20 degrees in Baltimore, and I couldn't feel the difference between that and 50 below. Perhaps it was a psychological thing. I was expecting to be frozen stiff like an icicle within seconds, and when I wasn't, I wanted to say, "Hey, this is warm!" The woman who worked there was very nice and enjoyed talking about all things Alaska. She said, among many other things, that the darkness bothers the people in Fairbanks during the winter much more than the cold.
Along the edge of the park was the Alaska Salmon Bake. Going to Alaska and not doing a real Salmon Bake would be like going to Vegas and not hitting a buffet. The one in Denali excepted, Salmon Bakes are buffets but emphasize salmon cooked over an open flame and various homemade tasting kinds of things like baked beans and potato salad. The one in Pioneer Park is quite big and a little touristy but still very tasty and well worth doing. I'd recommend getting a bottle of wine with it. We liked it so much that we went there twice.
Museum of the North
This is a large, modern building on the campus of the University of Alaska. The modern architecture seems a little out of place in Fairbanks, but that's okay. The displays inside were top notch, with more than you could ever care to know about Alaska wildlife and native American artifacts. There is also a big theater with stadium seating showing three different movies in rotation. I watched one about life in Fairbanks and one about the northern lights. It is definitely on my "bucket list" to see the northern lights, and central Alaska is the perfect spot to catch them.
Alaska Pipe Line
Although we would later drive along the Alaska Pipeline for 360 miles, I was afraid I would never see it, because I was told it is laid underground south of Fairbanks. That turned out to somewhat incorrect, as the pipeline was visible along that road about 10% of the time. However, I didn't know that at the time, so I drove a bit north out of the center of the city to see a section of it I think they likely deliberately put above ground for tourists to take pictures by and buy stuff in the gift shop. If you're in Fairbanks anyway and have no other opportunities to see the pipeline, then it is worth a visit.
In my opinion, the Alaska Pipeline is one of America's greatest engineering success stories, so I was proud to see it for the first time. Across the highway was a big sign saying, "Canada my ass, it's Alaska's gas," a sentiment I read several times during my trip. It refers to dualing proposals to build a second pipeline for natural gas, a short one connecting to a Canadian pipeline or a longer one along the same route as the existing oil pipeline.
Midnight Sun 10K Fun Run
Somehow when I planned this trip back in March, I learned that there would be a Midnight Sun 10K Fun Run on June 19. This sounded intriguing, and I'm not a bad runner, so I signed up for it and planned the whole trip around being in Fairbanks on the day of the run.
Usually when somebody refers to the "midnight sun" they mean that the sun doesn't set. This can only happen at certain times of the year above the artic circle and below the antarctic circle. Fairbanks is still about 200 miles south of the artic circle, so even on the longest day of the year, the sun does set. Although as I explained in part 2 of my Alaska travelogue, it was still quite bright outside during the few hours between sunset and sunrise. As this newspaper clipping shows, on that day in Fairbanks, the sun set at 12:46 AM and rose at 2:57 AM, for 21 hours and 49 minutes of sunshine. It is still two days short of the "longest day of the year." So the title of the run was somewhat of a misnomer, but who cares?
I arrived at the starting line with plenty of time to spare (I'm usually early to things). For a city of about 100,000 population, there was quite a big turnout. The Fairbanks News Miner said about 4,000 people turned out, with 100 in costume. My favorite costumes were Thing 1 and Thing 2 from the Cat in the Hat book. As we waited, a local radio station did a live broadcast. Nobody seemed to mind when they told Sarah Palin jokes.
At 10:30 PM, the run started. The weather was perfect for a race. I'd been used to running in the Vegas heat, so running in the low seventies was just heavenly. The race mostly went through residential neighborhoods, and there was a huge turnout of spectators. That kind of energy made it much more fun and energized me to run faster.
As the run was drawing to an end, I felt I had been too conservative with my energy and should have kept a faster pace. I decided to blow what energy I had left and tried to pass as many people as possible the last half mile or so. When I finally crossed the finish line, I was so psyched up it was difficult to stop. I was reminded of the scene in the Friday Night Lights movie (which I highly recommend), when a player scored his first touchdown and didn't want to let go of the ball.
According to the official results, I finished in 23rd place out of 83 men aged 45-49, with a time of 53:45. Out of all the men, I finished 340 out of 1341. Overall, I beat 75% of the men and 93% of the women — not bad. They spelled my name incorrectly, by the way, making the frequently made mistake of adding a C between the S and H in Shack. Why does everybody do that? There is also a graph of the distribution of finish times. Interesting how there is a spike at 1 hour and 35 minutes. Maybe that is a cluster of people at a comfortable jogging speed. Anything faster and you're running, anything slower and you're walking.
After the race, I overheard the radio station disk jockeys doing the live broadcast say that governor Sean Parnell was at the gazebo. The race ended at Pioneer Park, which I had already been to twice, so I fortunately remembered where the gazebo was. I was very close to it when I heard this, so went by to meet the man who replaced Sarah. There were a few men in suits standing there, and I had no idea which one was the governor. I discretely asked a woman at the gazebo which one was the governor, and she politely introduced herself as the governor's wife and then introduced the governor himself. Both were quite friendly, especially the first lady of Alaska. She asked lots of questions about where I was visiting in Alaska and offered suggestions of things to do in Fairbanks. She seemed especially interested if I came all the way there for the run. I explained that I would have come to Alaska anyway, but I planned the whole trip around it. That was exciting. I've never met a sitting governor before. Once I met Pete Wilson, governor of California from 1991 to 1999, but at the time I met him in 1984, he was still a U.S. Senator.
My summary of Fairbanks is that the people are very nice, and it probably a pleasant place to live, especially in the summer. However, you don't get the grand scenery found in other parts of Alaska, as it is pretty flat. There is not a great deal for tourists to do, but it is also refreshing to break away from the throngs of visitors that overrun the more popular tourist spots. Finally, if you're going to be there on the weekend of the Fun Run, by all means, make sure you experience it.