The dead of winter is no time to visit Alaska.
However, I have relatives who live there, their everyday lives sounding chockful of adventure to someone like me who lived in the tropics.
My late brother Martin and his children used to work in Dutch Harbor. A cousin has been a resident for 15 years, working half of each year in a salmon processing plant in Dillingham's Cannery Row. Their stories have always fascinated me. So, the high adventure-seeker that I am, I put Alaska high on my list of places to visit before I die.
On the first day of February 2022, I headed out to join my host, my cousin Iso Montalvan. She, whom I thought to be a hardcore Alaskan native by now, actually surprised me with a confession that this trip was her first winter in Alaska! So bite the bullet, I thought, because I WILL have fun. I had decided to experience the cold as I had never known it before.
In all my travels, I embraced every moment of my Alaska adventure.
I came prepared for two weather conditions: freezing (-11°C/12.2°F) and extreme cold (-27°C/-16.6°F). So I felt that my timing was good enough to create a memorable holiday. And I no longer wondered why the American Santa Claus lived outside Fairbanks, which is generally referred to when people say the North Pole.
To prepare for this adventure, I packed long and short snow boots with spikes to walk in deep and icy, shallow snow and Australian-made Uggs winter boots. In addition, I brought cashmere shirts and trousers, waterproof pants, long-sleeved thermal T-shirts, thermal undergarments, plus I brought a down jacket I used in the Arctic. Little did I know, I would wear them all at once!
Alaska is the largest of the 50 states of America, but it is the most sparsely populated. There are only four main highways in the state. So it is not surprising that the postmaster is virtually the local hero in rural Alaska. Ease of travel and mail delivery is via commuter planes, but flights are weather-dependent. In this digital economy and online purchase era, Amazon Prime may take a month to deliver on this "pony express" route, as it all originates from "the Lower 48," referring to the US mainland. Whenever a parcel-bearing aircraft lands, the postal office suddenly becomes a social hall, with residents milling around, waiting for the main event — in this case, the mail. And, of course, with logistics like this, returns or exchanges of goods are non-existent in Alaska.
Alaska is genuinely all about rural setups. Located north of the 60th parallel, Alaska, America’s 49th state, is bordered by Canada in the south and with a maritime border shared with Russia. It is thus relatively easy to forget that it is a state of the USA.
Except for one direct flight from Los Angeles, most flights from the Lower 48 transit in Seattle. The nonstop flight arrives at midnight in Anchorage, and land transfer to Alyeska Resort in Girdwood is about 45 minutes.
We checked in at 1:00 in the morning to my first taste of freezing temperature at -11°C/12.2°F. Alyeska is a ski resort, and we might have been the only ones there with no skiing plans.
The cable car took us above the clouds to the mountain's peak overlooking seven glaciers. The vista was breathtaking: sunny with blue skies and spotlessly white with only the simple sound of skis on snow.
Lunch at the peak was an all-American Reuben sandwich that lasted us till dinner. Unfortunately, there are no taxis in Girdwood to take one to town. But there was one bus whose driver knew every resident along the stops. He asked me where I was going, and I said I just wanted to see where he was going.
There was nothing to see, as the concierge had apprised, except private cabins. However, through the grapevine, we heard of a famous ice cream shop called The Ice Cream Shop, known for its homemade and artisanal treats. I could not imagine how anyone would seek out ice cream in the dead of winter. After 45 minutes, we were back at the resort without disembarking. The next day our transport fetched us for a two-hour drive to Seward.
Alaskan residents are very personable. Driving our SUV was Jean of Bear Valley Road Runner Company. She brought along her husband, Dan, because they were in celebratory mode as it was his birthday the following day. Dan was an engaging personality. For six years in Whittier, he was a mayor and a fireman. Since he was hitching, he was our de facto tour guide, explaining what we saw from inside our vehicle. It was serendipitous and quite an honor to have a small-town mayor and his wife taking us to our destination.
In 1965, Seward was devastated by one of the most powerful earthquakes at 9.4 on the Richter scale. The outcome was a forest of dead trees caused by a shift in tectonic plates but preserved by the rich minerals in the marsh. Snow covered our route as we spotted the ecologically-extinct herd of bison in the forest.
We were excited to stay at the Harbor 360 Hotel Seward because it was nicely located facing the harbor. But the management informed us the night before that the hotel had to close temporarily due to maintenance issues. So instead, we transferred to a sister hotel, Seward Gateway Hotel. Restaurants close early at eight in the evening, and finding out too late, we bought cold salads and pasta at Safeway. Lunches were at a pub close by and we brought home leftovers for dinner. (But, not to disappoint you, there is one highly recommended seafood and steak restaurant in the middle of somewhere in the tundra of Fairbanks; that’s at the end of our trip.)
The next day was our scheduled cruise of the Kenai Fjords in Resurrection Bay. It was cold and snowing. We boarded a small aluminum boat from Seward Ocean Excursions, navigated by a young lady from Louisiana, Elena, who stayed in Alaska after one summer program. As expected, it was the wrong time of the year to search for wildlife. The humpbacks and dolphins had migrated to Hawaii.
Nevertheless, we saw seven sea otters and two American bald eagles, a delightful find. However, nothing could beat the breathtaking scenery — mountains covered with lush coniferous and boreal forests blanketed in snowfall. Visibility was not very good, but Elena compared Seward to a bad boyfriend, to sympathize with us. Everyone could relate to bad days like that. But the day was too good for the cloudy skies to matter.
We took an early flight to Fairbanks from Anchorage.
From -11°C/12.2°F, we transitioned to -24°C/-11.2°F. Fairbanks is the largest city and the coldest. It has the longest snow season in America, lasting from October to February. We came prepared for the cold, and on hand, just in case we got stuck on the snow, we brought chains for the tires of our rented SUV, which we did not need to use. We were battle-ready if the temperature dipped to -34°C/-29.2°F, which was the case the week before. I had traveled to the Arctic in Europe; hence, I had the right gear. Snuggled in my fully insulated clothing, I took a moment to acknowledge that I was relishing yet another item on my bucket list. Yes, it was time for me to be in Alaska, in extraordinarily freezing weather, to remind me to be grateful for the options that are kept open in my circumstances. And to witness the Northern Lights that I first saw in Greenland and Iceland while on another trip.
We stayed for four nights to be sure that, at least on one of the nights, we would witness the beautiful display of the Aurora Borealis.
After buying our meals in Frank Meyers for our four nights in a cabin 45 minutes away from the center of Fairbanks, our first step was to go to the Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks to view a film on the Aurora Borealis. There was more that I learned this time than with my first experience of the Aurora on a luxury boat between Greenland and Iceland.
Its brochure states that Fairbanks' location is ideal for Northern Lights viewing and is one of the best locations because it is under the "Auroral Oval," a ring-shaped zone over the far north where aurora activity is concentrated. The season starts on Aug. 21 and lasts till April 21 with clear skies and within the new moon period.
We booked a cottage on a five-acre property called Wildmoon Home, 45 minutes from the city lights of Fairbanks. It had great reviews on Booking.com. The moment we received confirmation, I received a call from the owner. Ruby Duce is one of us: a Filipina from Isabela, she married Phil, whom she met online, and started welcoming guests in 2017.
Chasing the Aurora Borealis was exciting, especially when Filipinos in the grocery store showed us photos taken the day before we arrived. It was Kp 5, or level 5 in the system that measures conditions for viewing the Aurora. The range goes from 0-9 with 0 being calm, 1 very weak, to 9, representing a major geomagnetic storm with visible intense Auroras. A Kp 5 and above is a geomagnetic storm. Ruby likewise showed photographs taken by a guest of the northern lights above her property. It was all new and exciting. But it was not our lucky day. Despite Kp 5 conditions and a new moon, the sky-covered clouds broke into snow daily. So now that we’d gone through the chase, we moved onto the next on the bucket list: mushing.
We eagerly looked forward to another exciting activity — a one-hour cross-country dog mushing tour led by Musher Chris of Paws for Adventure.
Dog mushing is a recreational activity for tourists who pay to sled on snow powered by 10 Alaskan huskies attached with two lines. It is also a sport, and there are international dog sled races, like the Iditarod. These dogs are intelligent. The lead dogs steer the rest of the pack, while behind them are the “swing” dogs who swing the rest of the crew. Nearest the sled are the wheelers. They guide the sled on tight curves.
Just gearing up with four layers with an external shell of down trousers and my arctic jacket was part of the adventure. In addition, I wore a balaclava and a warm cap lined with the fur under the hoodie to protect my head, ears and face from the cold wind.
I held chemical packs over my gloves and the mittens and placed them inside each boot.
When the tour ended, my eyelashes were frosted, and it felt like my nose and toes were about to fall off from frostbite. Hot tea beside the boiler capped the dog-sledding adventure as we thawed.
In all my travels, I embraced every moment of my Alaska adventure. I relished the time of rare leisure and the surprises that the destination had for our picking. I want to explore more as I continue to chase the Aurora and feast on their Alaskan King crab again!