1st Day in Anchorage Alaska –
What Were We Thinking? Alaska in the Winter?
“Who goes to Alaska in the winter?” I asked myself.
” Crazy people, that’s who.” I responded. “And me…but I NEED to see the aurora.” Being from Chicago, I was already sick of the cold. I was seriously questioning my decision not to spend winter break somewhere warm, after boarding a plane to Anchorage the day after Christmas.
My friend Annette and I stepped out of the airport into the cold. We spent the night in Anchorage, visiting a couple breweries and walking to local shops. In the middle of browsing for moose shaped magnets, a wave of lightheadedness and nausea hit me at once. I hightailed it back to the hotel and was intermittently sick for the duration of the night. The 12 hour train ride to Fairbanks was looming ahead in the morning and I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it, the bouncing, the swaying, the crowds. The train only travels that route twice a week in the winter, so missing it was not an option. Fortunately, the sickness subsided by morning and we made a stop at the hotel restaurant’s continental breakfast. We found spots up at the old wooden bar with our plates. I took tentative bites.
“Where you guys from?” Asked the short sandy haired woman behind the bar.
“Chicago!” The woman exclaimed, “Wow…brave girls…It’s cooold there.”
“Um…don’t you live in Alaska?” I asked.
“Well yes, but Chicago is worse.”
Annette and I looked at each other shrugging slightly.
Anchorage Alaska Train Station-Early A.M.
The station was a couple blocks away and there were few cabs available that early. We dragged our suitcases, cameras and bags across the thickly packed unplowed streets, suitcase wheels twisting and dragging through ruts of snow. My heart was pounding, breath ragged from wrestling my twisting suitcase down the dark street weak from the long night before.
The Aurora Winter Train was to board at 8:30 am, before it was light, and would arrive in Fairbanks by 8 pm. The scenery for the first three hours consisted of nothing but the reflections of our faces in the window, being that the sunrise didn’t happen until 11:30 am. Finally, when light washed over the grey day, we noticed we were snaking through mountains, over gulches and alongside yet to be frozen lakes and rivers, all seemingly in various shades of grey and blue.
Look With Your Eyes Love…It’s Hurricane Gulch
The conductor stopped on the Hurricane Gulch bridge for us to get a better view. The 918 foot steel arch bridge is the longest and tallest bridge along the Alaska railroad. It’s 296 feet above Hurricane creek. We scrambled with the throngs of travelers to the open, non-window area between trains to get the best photos. A woman was in front of me on her tiptoes, arms outstretched with her camera in her hand. Her husband gently took her camera holding hand and lowered it down.
“Look with your eyes Love, look with your eyes,” he advised her in his British accent.
Lowering my own camera, I stared at the hulking mountains surrounding us, and down into the gulch, eyes filling with tears at the enormity and beauty of the scene before me.
“Look with your eyes love.” What a grounding reminder, when jockeying for position, clamoring for the best photograph, to stop and actually look, really stop and just witness and breath in the moment.
The Crazy Seuss House
Near Willow, we passed a tall, strangely stacked house that seemed as if it could have been built by Dr Seuss…aptly called the Seuss house. It has over 14 stories and sits 185 feet tall with views that reach 300 miles in all directions, including views of Denali.
The Unexpected Pickup
Later that afternoon, the conductor announced we needed to make an unexpected stop a couple miles up. A local children’s book author who had a house in the woods needed to get to town for supplies. Sure enough, as the train slowed, I could see a figure in red standing in the snow ahead, who then boarded the train.
Passing the Time on the Aurora Winter Train
There were a few quick moose sightings during our four and a half hours of daylight and endless miles of mountains.
“Bull moose up to our right in a quarter mile.” announced the conductor.
We trampled over each other to press against the glass and see the majestic creature retreating into the woods.
Typically Denali is visible on this route, unfortunately we had some rain and fog and were able to see only a wall of white in the distance. After dark we grabbed a lackluster snack and a Bloody Mary from the food car. With 4 hours of only dark, we began to get restless.
We Made It! Hello Fairbanks
Finally arriving in Fairbanks, fat flakes of snow were falling. We hailed a cab outside the train station to bring us to our hotel. The cab smelled of marijuana and a little chihuahua peered at us from the front seat. A flanneled guy in his 20’s got in and we instructed him where to bring us.
“Where you guys from?” He inquired.
“Chicago.” Annette offered.
“Oooof…it is COLD there!”
Annette and I caught eyes and laughed.
Exhausted, we finally checked into the Pikes Waterfront Lodge. The older woman in glasses gave us the lay of the land.
“There are fresh baked chocolate chip cookies available 24 hours a day, as well as coffee and hot cocoa.”
Holy moly, yes and yes.
“Also, we provide a wake up call if the northern lights should become visible. Would you like us to call you?”
“Heck yes!” we screamed, practically jumping out of our skin with excitement.
Happily added to the Aurora Borealis list, we dropped off our bags and headed across the parking lot to the hotel restaurant. We dragged our tired bodies in for a late dinner and a drink, ready to start our Alaska adventure.
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