Fairbanks Alaska…Day 5 Itinerary
It was our 5th day in Fairbanks and there had been grey skies and a lot of snow. My friend Annette and I came to Fairbanks with the goal of seeing the Aurora borealis, but so far, our mission was a bust.
We woke up kind of excited because we had rented a car the day before and we were going to go on a little adventure. The 17 inches of snow a couple of days prior had shut down all the tours and transportation in the area. The hotel shuttle had been running only to the airport and grocery store and cabs were expensive. We had checked out the town and driven to Chena Hot Springs the day before and were ready to hit the road and see some more.
We had a quick breakfast at the Pike’s Waterfront Lodge where we were staying. We piled on multitudes of layers and grabbed a few warm cookies and coffee from the lobby and set out.
It was around 11 a.m. and the sun was rising, filling the sky with streaks and color. We were headed for Gold Dredge 8 in Fox, which was about a 20 minute ride from where we were staying. I was watching a lot of Gold Rush and was excited to see one of the huge mining machines in person. The website said they were closed in the winter, but I didn’t need a tour or to pan for gold, I really just wanted to see a dredge.
To the Gold Dredge! Gold Dredge 8…Here We Come
Our preferred cab driver for the past couple days, a Sam Elliot looking cowboy named Tom had told us about this dredge. When we got there, we parked and looked in the direction of the snow covered trail.
“I don’t see it,” Annette peered out the window, “What is it supposed to look like?”
“I don’t see it either, it must be further back.” I remarked looking at the closed gate. “Maybe we could just walk little ways down the trail till we can see it, snap a picture and go.”
“I don’t think we’re supposed to go in there.” Annette was hesitant.
“Well I’ll walk up a little ways and see if I can see it.” I activated my battery power socks and battery scarf and jumped out.
“Wait for me…” Annette hurried behind me, activating her socks.
It’s a Bit of a Hike to Gold Dredge 8
We shimmied behind the gate… It looked as though others had done the same, being that there was a thin trail through the deep snow. The snow was up to just past my knees. It was not shoveled, just walked through, so there was a lot of high stepping and heavy breathing. We walked and walked…the car was growing distant. It was 5° but mostly just my face was cold, due to exertion and layers, the rest felt warm.
We rounded a bend in the path and large snow covered machine parts were nearby.
“I think we’re getting close.” I yelled to Annette who was in the lead by several yards.
” What on Earth have you gotten me into?” Annette shouted back.
The car was no longer visible and we had been trudging down the path for about 15 minutes. I laughed at how silly it was, dragging ourselves all the way down this path in 17″ of snow.
“Well we’ve gone this far, now we have to see it. Now it’s a mission.”
Gold Dredge 8 in the Distance
We plowed forward and finally around an old building we could see the dredge in the distance. I pushed forward as far as we could go without stepping into the somehow unfrozen pond.
It was huge, much larger than I had imagined. Gold Dredge 8 had been in operation from 1928 to 1959 and had once extracted millions of ounces of gold from Alaskan soil. It now stood as a historical monument, attracting summer tourists. We took pictures and were beginning to feel the frozen ground battling with our battery socks and the ground was quickly gaining momentum.
Ok Brrrr…That’s Enough Alaska Snow
It was time to walk back. Even though it’s a dry cold, with no wind, 5° is 5° and after about 25 minutes we were feeling it. We crunch, crunch, crunched our way back up the path.
“My legs are frozen, even with 3 pairs of pants.” I shivered.
“No joke,” Annette’s voice was muffled by her scarf. “I’m walking blind here trying to cover my face.”
“My eyeballs are freezing in the open position.” I adjusted my fuzzy hat, pulling it lower.
We hurried to the car, blasting the heat, huffing and puffing and swearing expletives at the cold.
“That was insane.” Annette exclaimed, rubbing her hands together.
“I thought we were going to have to just lay down and die right there in the middle of the path.” I laughed, trying to rub the feeling back into my numb legs. We sat, swearing and warming and exclaiming until we were properly thawed.
The Hike into Uncharted Territory to the Alaska Pipeline
A little way up the road was the Alaskan Oil Pipeline. The pipeline runs 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to the Gulf of Alaska. It was visible from the road. We slowed at what looked to be a parking area but it did not seem to be plowed and we were not going to risk it. Annette pulled over on the opposite side of the street and parked.
“I’m not getting out again, are you?”
“Ugh, yes.” I responded. “I’ll be right back.”
I yanked my gloves and hat back on and hopped out into the brisk air. After scanning the highway, I ran across and took a step into the deep snow at the side of the road. I gave a yelp as my leg unexpectedly sank to about 5 inches above my knee. I looked up to gauge how far I still needed to go.
Sighing, I brought my other leg up and over and hoisted it in front of me. I was extreme high-stepping through the thigh high snow, breathing hard. The cold was permeating my legs and feet, despite my battery powered socks. I stopped repeatedly to breath down my scarf…my eyes and nose burning with cold.
After about 8 minutes of dragging one leg after the other, out of the snow and forward, I emerged onto a shoveled area near the pipeline. I sighed with relief, looking back at the treacherous trail I had come and catching my breath.
The Alaska Pipeline Up Close
I snapped a few shots of the silver extending pipeline from different angles, underneath and to the side. I was preparing for the trek back to the car when a woman approached me from the side. I was surprised to see somebody else out here and asked her to take my photo.
I thanked her and then heard voices behind me as about 20 other people approached the pipeline. They were getting out of a tour bus in a large rectangular plowed parking lot, about 50 yards up from the unplowed lot we had passed on the road.
“Ooooooohhh…that was awkward.” I laughed to myself as I walked quickly and easily through the well cleared lot and across the street, down to the car.
“God bless America it’s cold!” I shouted, slamming the door. “Good news,” I continued…” If you still wanna see the pipeline, there’s a big clear parking lot right there.” I pointed.
Annette shook her head and laughed, ” No I’m good…you’re crazy.”
A Drink, Dinner and Sunday Night Football
We stopped for dinner and a drink at a local place that had football on. We were surprised at the majority of Green Bay Packer fans. It was New Year’s Day and we joined the local good ol boys for a drink.
The game ended and we headed back to the hotel. We plugged in our car and went inside to grab cookies and cocoa. Back in our room, we raced to peel off the inches of layers of outerwear and jammied up to lay in our beds and watch a movie.
The Cab Driving Cowboy Saves the Day
It was around 11:30 p.m. and we were sipping cocoa and staring at the tv when my phone rang.
“It’s a 907 number,” I announced. “I don’t know who it is…Oh shoot, 907 is Alaska…ugh…I’ll just answer.”
“Hello?” I said tentatively.
“Hey this is Tom, your cab driver.” I heard.
“Why is the cowboy cab driver calling?” My mind flashed. I gave the ‘What the heck’ face to Annette, who was sitting up looking at me.
“I’m not trying to be a weirdo or anything, calling you girls up. I’m driving about 4 miles west of Pike’s and the lights are just starting to flicker. You should be able to see it on the river side of the lodge.”
“Lights!?” I screamed into the phone…”Do you mean the Northern lights! Are you talking about the Aurora borealis?” I shouted.
Annette launched herself from the bed and was flinging clothes through the air.
“Yes the Aurora,” our Sam Elliot looking cab driver laughed. ” It looks to be just starting.”
“Thank you..thank you!” I shrieked and hung up, sailing across the room.
Aurora Borealis Alaska Forecast is High!
I flung my coat on over my jammie pants…slammed my hat on my head…jammed my feet into my boots, grabbed my camera, gloves and room key and raced out the door, Annette hot on my heels. There was a door that led to the side of the building down the long hall. Annette and I barreled down the hall, whipping scarves over our heads and hands into gloves as we flop, flop, flopped down the hall, my unzipped boots flapping across the floor.
We pushed through the double doors and flung ourselves out into the frigid night air. Our eyes frantically scanned the sky, heads on a swivel as we shivered and zipped up.
The Fairbanks Northern Lights We’d Been Waiting For…
“Over there!” I shrieked pointing and jumping up and down. “There it is! It’s really freaking happening!”
Bold green light streaked across the sky like an out of control etch a sketch. My eyes filled with tears, I was so overwhelmed.
“I can’t believe it! There it is!” Annette screamed. Her eyes glistened and we grinned.
We grabbed ahold of each other, hugging, screaming, crying and leaping around like we’d won the $100,000 Pyramid. Then we stood transfixed as the lights streaked and curtained across the sky.
“So cool” I breathed. The frigid air licking my bare ankles. I hadn’t stopped for socks.
“It doesn’t seem real.” Annette answered…”I am so cold, I just threw stuff on.”
“Me too…let’s run back in…layer up and come back out.”
Quick Change McGee-Racing for the Aurora
We bolted down the hall to our room and yanked on our battery socks, layers of pants and more gloves. I’d been averaging 3 pairs at a time. As we were frantically tossing outerwear, the hotel phone rang.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Oh hi…this is the front desk, you requested the Aurora call so I wanted you to know it is starting out back. We also have a heated glass viewing area off the banquet hall you are welcome to use.”
“Ok…Thank you…” I hung up and we raced back out the door…a number of other light watchers joining our frenzied dash for the door.
Back outside, the glowing green lights would streak a neon line across the sky. Then, like it was painted with too much paint, the color would drip like long curtains from the line. Streaking and dripping. It was around -12° and our outdoor time was limited.
We went in to try the glass viewing area. We waited for a bright streak to flare from the black starry sky. When it started, we would burst out the door for the best but coldest view. There were a few other watchers with us…all of us shrieking with delight with every shooting green and purple light and retreating back to the warmth when the sky darkened.
Alaska Aurora Party is Over…Back to Bed
After around 20 minutes of total darkness…it was after 1 a.m., we were sleepy but excited. We grabbed a cookie and made our way back to our room.
I messaged the cab driving cowboy.
“Hey Tom, thank you so much for the heads up about the Aurora…that was one of the main reasons we came up here.”
“No problem,” he texted.” I know you girls were looking forward to it so I thought I’d give you a jingle. Hope you enjoy the rest of your trip.”
I thanked him again and Annette and I sleepily talked about the Aurora and looked at our pictures from the day. We planned our ride back out to Chena Hot Springs the next day and said goodnight.
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