We noticed that you're using an unsupported browser. The TripAdvisor website may not display properly.We support the following browsers:
Windows: Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome. Mac: Safari.

Trip Report - Christmas Week 2011

Atlanta, Georgia
Level Contributor
5,087 posts
16 reviews
Save Topic
Trip Report - Christmas Week 2011

Well, if I don't start on this trip report soon, I will forget everything that happened (and believe me, a *lot* of stuff happened!). Just let me begin by saying thanks again to everyone who provided advice and assistance on planning and executing this trip - it was truly the "experience of a lifetime" (at least until the next one! :-). I'd especially like to single out several folks (you know who you are!) for going "above and beyond" - could not have done it without you.

If anyone wants a little background on the trip and its preparations, then feel free to check out my previous TA threads on this forum (hard to believe we started planning this last May!):

tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g28923-i349-k44710…

tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g28923-i349-k45418…

tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g30940-i2296-k4893…

tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g28923-i349-k50073…

And finally a word of warning - my trip reports tend to be very lengthy and very detailed, so I hope I don't bore you all. The reports for my 3-4 day trips usually run on for a couple of pages, and this trip was 9 days, soooo ...

-JimG

USA
Level Contributor
9,465 posts
44 reviews
Save Reply
41. Re: Trip Report - Christmas Week 2011

I'm glad it's in segments- we can savor every bite.

Thanks Jim!

Sydney, Australia
Level Contributor
246 posts
5 reviews
Save Reply
42. Re: Trip Report - Christmas Week 2011

Thanks Jim, such a treat to read about your winter travelling tales. Just fantastic !

swarthmore, pa
Level Contributor
17 posts
Save Reply
43. Re: Trip Report - Christmas Week 2011

Jim - My husband and I are leaving for a week in Fairbanks in a week and two days, and I've been waiting with baited breath for your Fairbanks installment! Any chance of it arriving before we leave?

Anchorage, Alaska
Destination Expert
for Anchorage
Level Contributor
10,597 posts
200 reviews
Save Reply
44. Re: Trip Report - Christmas Week 2011

Jim's getting an "internet representative/management team" and he'll be posting future installments on a "pay-per-use" basis!!!!

Just kidding (I hope).

Scott

Atlanta, Georgia
Level Contributor
5,087 posts
16 reviews
Save Reply
45. Re: Trip Report - Christmas Week 2011

Folks, I am sorry for the delays. I foolishly agreed to do a "special project" this week for some extra $$$ and it is taking way more time than I expected. I will try to get at least one more installment up this weekend, since I know that several people are interested in where we stayed and what we did in Fairbanks.

-JImG

Anchorage, Alaska
Destination Expert
for Anchorage
Level Contributor
10,597 posts
200 reviews
Save Reply
46. Re: Trip Report - Christmas Week 2011

See.... I told you y'all.. read between the lines (for those that just see white space between the lines, I'm speaking metaphorically - I think!)...

- special project....

- extra $$$...

- the tickler, "...at least one more..."

Just more Wall Street greed.

I'm not going to leave my laptop until it's posted. I'll call it "Scott Occupies TA"

Healy, Alaska
Destination Expert
for Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Level Contributor
38,881 posts
44 reviews
Save Reply
47. Re: Trip Report - Christmas Week 2011

sdpryde - that is funny!! And you know, I would pay to continue reading! :)

Las Vegas, Nevada
Level Contributor
3,796 posts
11 reviews
Save Reply
48. Re: Trip Report - Christmas Week 2011

next time .... take a lap top so you can post daily to a blog !! carol

Atlanta, Georgia
Level Contributor
5,087 posts
16 reviews
Save Reply
49. Re: Trip Report - Christmas Week 2011

yescanada, if I have enough spare time on a trip to use a laptop for writing trip reports, then that usually means I am having a crappy trip. :-)

FYI, the next part of the report will be posted shortly.

-JimG

Atlanta, Georgia
Level Contributor
5,087 posts
16 reviews
Save Reply
50. Re: Trip Report - Christmas Week 2011

Day 4 PM - "A Man After Midnight"

We deplaned in Fairbanks about 9:45 PM, where the captain reported the temperature at -34F. We had to walk outside on the tarmac again to get to the terminal (sans hat and gloves, of course!) and then made our way down to baggage claim to see about our rental car. We had arranged for an AWD SUV (Chevy Equinox) from Dollar, and they already had everything in order when we got to the counter. The agent explained that the car was plugged in in the rental parking lot and that we should take the blue cord with us and use it in any time the temps were below -10F (which it basically was the rest of our stay in Fairbanks).

While my wife waited indoors at Baggage Claim with our luggage, I walked out to the rental lot to pick up the car (except this time I made sure to take my hat and a pair of heavy gloves!). I had a little trouble locating the lot, since the snow basically obscured all the signs and pavement markings. Eventually I discovered it all the way around to the left, where our car was parked exactly where they said it would be. It started right up, and I left the engine running (and the heater too!) while I removed the accumulated snow and ice with the supplied scraper. After about 10 minutes I was ready to try my hand at winter driving in Fairbanks, for the very first time.

Almost immediately I encountered two problems. The first was that I was still wearing my pac boots (a pair of Baffin Eigers) from the Barrow trip. These are not really a good choice for driving because they are bulky and have relatively inflexible soles, and of course my other boots were in the luggage that we had left behind at Princess Lodge. It took me a bit to figure out how to apply the brakes without slamming them (which is a pretty important thing to know how to do in the snow!), but I eventually got the hang of it and was able to drive the car safely back to the terminal (just not too comfortably).

The second problem occurred as I was leaving the parking lot. The exit from the rental lot at FAI takes you through the short term parking area, and you actually have to stop at a gate and take a ticket to get out. That was all fine, but when I tried to raise the driver's window, the power mechanism jammed due to the cold and the window would not come back up! I basically had no choice but to drive the car with the window down until I could find a spot to pull over and raise it by hand. Trust me, that is not a lot of fun when it is -34F. I made my way through the short term parking lot and gave the ticket to the attendant. He waved me through (no charge for rental cars), and I eventually found a spot on Airport Way where I could pull over out of the traffic flow and fiddle with the window.

After a couple of tries with the power button, the top of the window poked up about a half inch, which was just enough for me to grab it with my fingertips and give it a good tug. After repeating that maneuver several times, I managed to get the window up far enough that I could kind of push it up gently with my palm, while applying the power button with the other hand. That did the trick, and I finally got the window all the way back up. Needless to say, we did not lower any of the windows again for the whole rest of the trip.

I swung back around to Baggage Claim to get my wife, where there was a huge traffic jam to get to the pickup area. My wife told me later that someone in the terminal had remarked to her that "everyone around here gets crazy when the temperature is this cold", so I guess even Fairbanksians (is what they're called?) have their limits. After I picked my way through the traffic and got my wife and the luggage into the car, we headed off to Princess Lodge to collect our remaining bags (and so I could change my shoes!). From there we drove to the Safeway on Airport Rd to pick up some groceries. We were staying two nights at Aurora Borealis Lodge (which has a full kitchen in each room), and decided we might save some time and money with store-bought groceries, plus we wanted some emergency food supplies for the car. Since it was such a short stay at Aurora Borealis Lodge we didn't really want to have to cook anything in the room, so got assorted breakfast pastries, sandwich fixings, canned sodas, and bottled water.

Safeway also provided us with our first cold weather challenge since there was no convenient place to plug in the car. I figured that a short stop would probably not cause any problems, but the rental agent had been insistent that we plug it in "any time it's below -10F" (which it certainly was!). I decided to let the engine idle in the parking lot while I shopped (which seems to be a common practice in Fairbanks), since my wife didn't really want to go into the store anyway. By the time I got done with the groceries it was after 11:00 PM, so we called Aurora Borealis Lodge and spoke to the owner (Mok), and told him we were on the way. He had previously told us he was running an Aurora tour that night, and that it would be no trouble for us to check in around midnight or even a little later. When we called him from Safeway, he said he would meet us personally when we arrived to let us in the room and show us around.

Aurora Borealis Lodge (which I'll refer to as ABL from now on) is about 20 miles north of Fairbanks, just off the Steese Highway near Skiland (in fact, it's the same turn as Skiland, you just go left instead of right when coming from Farirbanks). It is located on top of a ridge that runs east-west at an elevation of 2400 feet, and connects Pedro Dome with Cleary Summit, just west of where the Steese goes through a saddle between the two peaks. Cleary Summit is a popular spot for viewing the Aurora, and ABL has a just about identical view from the other side of the Steese. The lodge is in a very picturesque setting with virtually unobstructed views to both the north and the south.

ABL is owned and operated by Mok Kumagai and his family, and it serves as their year-round home. I know I have mentioned this in some previous TA postings already, but Mok and I actually grew up in the same town and even graduated from the same high school (albeit 7 years apart, so we did not know each other then). However, we did not make this connection until after I had already decided upon ABL and booked the room. I was curious how someone from metro Atlanta (where we actually *fear* ice and snow!) wound up running a lodge in Fairbanks, AK. Mok told me he always loved the outdoors, and just kept moving further west and north until eventually he wound up in Alaska.

He and his wife moved to Fairbanks and purchased the ABL property in the late 1990s, and for many years have run an Aurora "tour" where they bring visitors up from Fairbanks for an evening of Aurora viewing. Mok is Japanese, and caters to the many tourists from Japan who frequent Fairbanks during the winter. About 3-4 years ago, Mok and his wife decided to build overnight accommodations on the property, and added a second building with four guest rooms. The rooms are well appointed, with two queen beds, a full kitchen, 3/4 bath (shower but no tub). All rooms have a large north-facing picture window with a small seating area, from which you can view the Aurora in the comfort of your room. The second floor rooms also have a south-facing window, and open onto a wrap-around deck with a panoramic view of Tanana Valley.

Anyways, we made our way north out of Fairbanks on the Steese. The road was plowed and in good condition up until we made the turn at Fox. From there it was only two lanes, which were plowed but had a little accumulated ice and snow. We had no trouble though, just slowed down a bit and tried to maintain a steady speed. A few miles from Fox begins the slow steady climb to Cleary Summit. My wife (who had been monitoring our progress with a GPS that we had brought) started to get a little nervous as the "electronic" navigation device began telling us that we were getting further from our destination and should turn around. I almost always rely on the "analog" devices however (map + my internal compass), so we soldiered on.

More often than not when I have a disagreement with the GPS, it's the GPS that is wrong, and this time was no exception. We finally got up to the pass and the turn off to Skiland (signed to the right), so we turned left towards Pedro Dome. The road is narrow and continues to climb, and then when you reach the right turn to ABL, it gets narrower still. It was all plowed however, so did not really present any problems. Eventually we saw the sign that says "ABL" in large letters, and turned right into their driveway.

Mok had previously E-mailed me an annotated picture of the property taken from the vantage point of the driveway, so the overnight rooms were easy to find. We parked the car next to the building and extinguished the headlights (Mok had requested that we do this since he did not want the car lights to spoil the view for the other guests and visitors who were already there). They must have been watching for us from the lodge, because as soon as we got out of the car, I noticed a light bobbing down the path that connects the two buildings - it was Mok!

We made our introductions and Mok helped us carry our luggage up to the room (#2, which is the west room on the upper floor, and IMO provides the best views on the property). He also showed us where to plug in the car for the night - temperatures were quite a bit warmer than in Fairbanks, but still well below -10F. After we got everything from the car, he took us on a brief "tour" of the room, showing us how to operate the various amenities. He also explained a few of their policies with respect to the overnight accommodations. The property is intended specifically for people who want to see the Aurora with as little interference from artificial light sources as possible. To that end, they request that in deference to other visitors, that overnight guests should keep their shades drawn and/or room lights extinguished between the hours of 10:00 PM and 2:00 AM, when the Aurora is usually most active. ABL provides a small headlamp in each room with red "tac" lighting, for overnight guests to use during those hours if their shades are not drawn. My wife and I had actually brought a pair of tac headlamps with us, so we were pretty well fixed for portable lighting on our own.

There are a few other noteworthy things about the accommodations at ABL. Besides the aforementioned porch on the second floor, there is a small ground level deck on the north side of the building, where cameras and tripods can be set up to take pictures of the Aurora when it is overhead. This provides the overnight guests with a separate, quieter outdoor viewing area, away from the noise and bustle of the lodge. We never actually went out on the deck, since IMO the view from our room (#2) was just as good if not better.

As I mentioned, each room has a full kitchen with a sink, oven, microwave, dishwasher, small refrigerator, and (most importantly!) a coffee maker. ABL provides free coffee fixings with the room, but guests should plan to bring all other food items that they require. Our room had a few other non-perishables (mostly condiments - salt and pepper, soy sauce, etc), which we assumed were left by previous guests. There are also plenty of cups, plates, and cooking and eating utensils. There are no TVs or phones in the guest rooms, and communication with the lodge is accomplished via a pair of portable handheld radios. One is on a common frequency and is used to alert guests when the Aurora is visible. The other is on a private frequency, and can be used to call the main lodge if you need anything. They have free WiFi, and we also got pretty decent cell phone reception (Verizon) since we were so high up.

Curiously, ABL is also a "dry" lodge, which means that it does not have its own water supply on the property (or at least not one that will completely satisfy the demands of the lodge and its guests). All water for cooking, bathing, etc must be delivered, and they request that everyone be as conservative as possible with water usage (this is one reason why they have showers instead of tubs in the bathrooms). All the plumbing fixtures are low flow, and they have the most amazing high-tech toilets I have ever seen - basically a bidet toilet with a heated seat. Apparently these are extremely popular in Japan, and since ABL gets a lot of Japanese tourists, they cater a bit to those cultural norms. I never really figured out how to do anything beyond basic flushing however since the instructions were in Japanese, but it was a marvel to look at (sigh - so far in this trip report, I have written a review of a snowplow, an airport runway, and now a toilet - how sad is that?!).

After we got settled and put everything away in the room, we extinguished all the room lights and raised the window shades, waiting and watching the night sky for any signs of Auroral activity. It's amazing how quickly your eyes will adjust to the dark (and how much detail you pick up when they do), and we were glad that ABL was so particular about their "no lights" policy. Mok had pointed out a very faint Aurora when we arrived, which basically looked to us like a wispy cloud. The forecast for the next few days was for "low to moderate" activity, so we were hopeful that we would see something more before retiring for the night.

But alas, we were too exhausted from the day's activities to stay awake for too long. I crashed about 1:00 AM, and my wife actually fell asleep on the couch. I understand that the Aurora did not get any more visible than what we saw, but we still had two more nights in the area to try again. So finally we were in Fairbanks, anxiously hoping to see what we "really" came to Alaska to see (the Aurora), but with plenty of other activities planned in case we did not.

Tomorrow's installment: I actually use my Denali *in* Denali!

-JimG