December 25 to 27. Sunrise 10:58 a.m. Sunset 2:46 p.m. Temperature -25. Wind Force 6.
Tolovana Hot Springs. Comfortable rustic cabins and outdoor, natural mineral hot spring bathing in Alaska’s remote interior. It sounds relaxing, doesn't it? But of our adventurous Fairbanks friends with frostbite stories, the majority happened at Tolovana Hot Springs — or, specifically, the trailhead, an exposed ridge where the wind virtually always blows at 20 knots and vehicles that have sat too long in subzero temperatures fail to start. We reserved a cabin for Christmas Day and were really hoping an experienced local or two would join us, but everyone was busy. Turns out the Californians would have to navigate this adventure on our own.
When we arrived at the cabin we'd rented, we found it occupied by a British man and an American women who were sort of from (or at least moving to) Santa Cruz, California — effectively our neighbors back home. They were originally going to ski the 11 miles into the cabin, but after nearly running out of gas on the highway and stopping in the village of Minto, they decided to pay some locals to shuttle them in on snowmachines — which was, from our perspective, one of the few smart decisions they made. Their outdoor clothing looked like the kind of fashionable downhill ski gear you'd find in Aspen on people who go out for a few runs and spend most of the day in the lodge. The woman admitted her rented cross-country ski boots did not fit well and her feet were still numb from the ride in, so they didn't even bother to go out for daytime skis during their time at the springs. Instead, they constructed an elaborate Christmas tree from a spruce that they apparently chopped down, and then duct-taped extra branches to the trunk to make it look prettier. They made ornaments out of bunched plastic bags, cardboard, tin foil, pine cones, and radishes that had frozen on the ride in, complete with a tin foil and cardboard star at the top of the tree. It was eight feet high and filled most of the small front room.
While they waited for their ride, they also cooked a massive dinner of rice, vegetables, and fire-roasted peanuts that they intended to share with their drivers. The snowmachiners finally arrived well after 6 p.m. — a Native man from Minto and his teenage son. The man predictably rejected the mushy vegan food, sat down at the table and pulled out a can of beer and a plastic water bottle filled with whisky. "Smooths the bumps," he explained. The woman started to put on her ski boots, and the Native man pulled out a pair of Sorels that he'd brought for her. "It's 25 below," he said, "you better wear these." She balked but eventually put them on. The Native man consumed the beer and a slug of whisky, and they set out in the darkness, leaving behind a large amount of uneaten dinner, dirty dishes, unswept floors, and of course the massive Christmas Tree. "It's just a bit more to carry out," the woman said rather unapologetically. I inventoried what they left behind — a plastic bag with about six pounds of fresh vegetables that had frozen and thawed to wilted slime, about two pounds of mushy cooked brown rice, a pound of cooked mushrooms and carrots, a half pound of coffee, some tea and sugar packets, a trash bag, and of course, the tree. I'm not sure why these people thought it was okay to assume three walkers towing sleds could carry out all of their trash, but they did come across as rather clueless. I ate the cooked carrots and mushrooms, and we stowed the plastic and foil bits, but opted to burn most of the rest of it. Liehann and Beat especially seemed to take pleasure in dismantling and incinerating a Christmas tree on Christmas Day.
After we'd completed most of the clean-up, we headed out to the springs for a soak. The hot springs sit beside a small stream that comes down a steep hillside. Small plastic tubs are fed by two pipes, one that funnels ridiculously hot water from the natural spring upstream, and one that brings in ridiculously cold water from the river. These springs are difficult to regulate. The outside temperature was minus 25 and the wind was still howling when we headed out and stripped naked. The water temperature inside the tub was on the ouch-too-hot side when we got in, so Beat redirected the cold-water pipe. I ended up at the far end on the tub, dipping my body further into the water as the wind blasted snow in our faces and turned my hair to an ice helmet. I was so preoccupied with head discomfort that I didn't notice how cold the water was getting. After about twenty minutes, my core temperature had dropped sufficiently that I started shivering, which was the first sign that alerted me to the fact this "hot" spring was actually cooler than body temperature where I sat. I was in a bad spot, because the cabin was a three-minute walk away and I'd have to expose my naked body to brutal windchill for several long minutes before I was dressed enough to walk back. I sidled over to Beat and Liehann's warmer side to try to increase my core temperature, but it didn't seem to work. My scalp was beginning to burn, and I was now as worried about head frostbite as I was about hypothermia. I jumped out, bare feet on glazed snow, and managed the clothing transition as best as I could before violent shivers took over, then hoofed back to the wood stove as fast as my wooden feet could muster. For the rest of the night, my scalp ached with minor frost nip. Needless to say, I did not find the soak at all relaxing, and I was not compelled to go back the following night. Beat and Liehann did, better equipped with hats that time around.