Monday, January 05, 2015

The magical land of Tolovana

Oh, these high latitudes and their irresistible magnetic pull. Hold up any compass and the needle will point where I want to be, at any given time. Sure, I appreciate that I am not a compass and can set my path in any direction I please, and value my freedom to reside in one comfortable place and visit many others. But there's something alluring about North. I have yet to define what continues to draw me up here, or capture the specific sensations so I can carry them home. But that something clings to these places like hoarfrost, with an enchanting sparkle that never fails to incite happiness. I feel it when I walk across the Styrofoam snow of a friend's driveway at 20 below, or pass by the heat-blasting fans in the entryway of Fred Meyer, or pedal through a boreal forest in the 4 p.m. twilight. I may not live here; I might not have ever lived here. But I'm home. 

I have a wonderful, accepting family in Utah, and I think they understand why we go "home" for Christmas every year. We flew into Fairbanks late on Dec. 23, and arose not-early before the crack of dawn to organize our gear and head out to the Goldstream Valley to spend Christmas Eve with our friends Corrine and Eric and their young-adult children. Before dinner, Beat and I borrowed their fat bikes and set out for a five-hour excursion up Eldorado Creek and along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Temperatures were around -10 when we set out, and Beat had all sorts of new gear he wanted to try, so he loaded up his pack.

We didn't really choose to ride the pipeline; it's just where we ended up, having not done a whole lot of trail research before the trip. Although not exactly beautiful, the pipeline has its own interesting aesthetic, given you're riding along this 800-mile-long apparatus that carries crude from the North Slope to Valdez. You start to think "Wow, I could follow this all the way to the Arctic Ocean!" And people have done that, but it is not the most travel-friendly route. No, TAPS takes the most direct way possible, cutting straight down and then up every tear-inducing steep hill.

Oh, the gentle silence of Christmas Day. This quiet resonates through my childhood memories of the holiday. There was always that manic presents-and-food frenzy on Christmas morning, followed by the annual trip out to the grandparents' houses along quiet streets and shuttered businesses. Christmas is a wonderful time to be out and about, and Beat, Tom and I encountered close to zero traffic — save for a couple of North Slope-bound trucks — on the two-hour drive out to Manley Hot Springs Road. We'd hoped to gather a group of friends for an overnight trip to Tolovana Hot Springs, but only Tom was available to "ride out Christmas" far away from the grid. He skied in, and Beat and I packed sleds for the 11-mile hike.

As we descended into the Brooks Creek valley, a dense cold swept over my face and legs. Temperatures were actually quite nice for this time of year — 7 above with no wind  — but I'd dressed for "this is really warm" and it really sort of wasn't. One thing I am learning about myself is that I struggle to regulate my body temperature evenly when I am walking and running in sub-freezing conditions. Although it defies logic, I've actually had more success maintaining a comfortable equilibrium on a bike. On foot, different body parts are either too hot or too cold, often simultaneously. On this trip I battled cold knees and a completely numb butt (I had a pair of primaloft shorts in my sled, but I was being lazy about stopping and putting them on when there was a big climb coming up. As it turned out, my butt didn't come back to life until we crawled into the hot springs a few hours later.)

The climb up Tolovana Hot Springs Dome is often an ascent to the pinnacles of Hell. Last year, we experienced 25-mph sustained winds with a temperature of 25 below, for a windchill south of -50. These are typical conditions for Tolovana. For this reason, there's a special mystique to this place. Frost clings to alders, and rime builds in sparkling crystals on skeletal spruce trees. This delicate beauty contrasts the violence and austerity of the landscape — wind blows incessantly, streams of snow tear off the ridges, and burn zones reveal an unbroken expanse of equally inhospitable valleys and windswept mountains. Because my travels through the North are still limited, Tolovana Hot Springs Dome is one of the worst places I have ever been. The kind of place where if I stopped walking for even a moment, icy fingers would wrap around my neck and squeeze exhaustive gulps of warmth from every breath.

It was gratifying, although perhaps less exciting, to visit Tolovana on a day where I didn't think it was going to kill me at any moment. It was overcast, calm, and pleasant. Even with a cold butt, being able to stop and look around without turning my face into a powder blast of wind was nice. The trail was in great shape, with minimal snow drifts. Beat and I ran as fast as our sleds could coast down the steep descent, feeling weightless. We dropped off the inhospitable dome and into the valley where a magical spring draws warmth from the depths of the Earth. It was my fastest-yet trip into Tolovana, and I was surprised when we arrived at the cluster of three cabins — ours would be the only one occupied — well before dark. We exploded the generous contents of our sleds all over the tiny Frame cabin, and joined Tom for a pre-dinner soak. Sausage and couscous was our Christmas feast, followed by a post-dinner soak and hot chocolate before bed. Who could want anything more?

A thick fog settled in for the hike out, almost to the point of sensory deprivation, although I could feel a sharp burning in my hamstrings from pulling the sled up ~3,000 feet of climbing on this more difficult direction. The drive home fully broke the spell, with heavy snow and white-knuckle driving at 30 mph on the Elliot Highway. By the time we returned to Fairbanks, we'd have to unpack our gear, shop for resupplies, and re-pack what we needed for the White Mountains the following morning. It can be exhausting trying to cram all of my Northern love into a week here and there, and the trekking parts are often the easiest parts. But it's always worth it, always. 


  1. Great way to spend Christmas. Wonderful photos and journal.

  2. No hot tub photos?! Tolovana is a great place. Wish we could have joined you. Have fun this weekend and hopefully you do more riding than pushing your bikes!

  3. "Ride out Christmas," I love it. Those hot springs and cabins sound magical. Though there is something about being dangerously cold that reduces me to tears, so I don't know if I could handle the hike in. You do lead a great life.

  4. This was my first holiday season in Alaska in quite some time, due to circumstances. "Something clings to these places like hoarfrost;" well, in the words of Julia O'Malley, it's "the smell of concrete dust and desperation." (You can avoid most of that by not actually living here, of course.) Add to that the miasma of holiday ugliness and I have to bail for six weeks every year to escape it! This year I couldn't get away so it was a painful end of the year; not even a cabin getaway for us. You're super lucky to be the only ones out there - seems like there are people crawling everywhere up here on days off. Uninhabited cabins are nearly unheard of anymore!

  5. Out of all the blogs around I love coming here to check out your pictures most. Here's to many more epic adventures in 2015!

  6. Such a great post and lovely photos, Jill. Happy new year!

  7. always love your writing, especially when you're 'home'


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