Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Return to the magical land of Tolovana

Like most people do around the holidays, Beat and I have adopted a number of annual traditions. And like most traditions, ours started as a matter of chance and solidified into the enjoyable activities that tug at sentimental heartstrings and reverberate with desire to return again and again. Some people drive around and look at Christmas lights or catch a production of "The Nutcracker." We hike to Tolovana Hot Springs.

Before last March, when the Alaska coastal village of Shaktoolik took over the distinction for me, Tolovana was the worst place I'd ever been. Thanks to a collision of geographic anomalies and resulting micro-climates, Tolovana is generally colder and significantly windier than the city of Fairbanks, which is only about 40 miles south. Weather forecasts are useless. On relatively pleasant days in Fairbanks, it's not uncommon to find temperatures of -25 and winds gusting to 40 or even 50 mph on top of the ridges. I've seen this weather before, encased in every layer I had with me, eyes wide and shoulders trembling as I plodded up the steep face of Tolovana Hot Springs Dome. It brings to mind documentaries I've watched about horrific mountaineering endeavors. Only in Alaska will people hike through this kind of weather not to reach a grandiose summit, but instead climb naked into a horse trough to soak in dirty, tepid creek water. Yet another reason to love Alaska.

2015 brought what I might consider middle-of-the-road Tolovana — a temperature of -12, and winds gusting to 25 mph. Still quite harsh, and my out-of-practice hands went rigid as I fumbled with my sled and extra layers at the trailhead. I was close to tears for the first two miles downhill, but gradually recirculated enough blood to feel capable, if not cozy.

You might wonder at the appeal of all of this, and I can assure you, for me, it isn't the hot springs at the end of the 10-mile trek that always manages to drain an entire day's worth of energy reserves. The hot springs are okay — they're not amazing. There's a small cabin we rent for the night, with a wind generator that powers lights and a propane oven, so we can make hot pizza and cookies and chat away the night with friends who also find pleasure in such a harsh trek. All of these amenities are great, and certainly make this place exceedingly more accessible. But for me, the appeal still lies out there, on the wind-swept ridge of Tolovana Hot Springs Dome, with all of its terrible beauty.

An early sunset from the ridge, where my balance teetered in the gusts and windchill sucked all the blood from my fingers in seconds, but I took photographs anyway. I value the keepsakes.

We had an enjoyable evening with our friends Eric and Jay. It took some coaxing to get me out to the springs, where luxury means a wooden horse trough with two hoses — one gushing with scalding spring water, and the other with 32.1-degree creek water. It's imperative to strip down fast, but only after ensuring you got the mixture right, otherwise you're going to have boiled legs and a frozen torso. The last time I went for a soak in the wind, I sustained frost-nip where ice-crusted hair pressed against my scalp. It was quite painful and has made me reluctant to return to an activity that I associate more with suffering than relaxing. I was going to make up an excuse and stay inside the cabin while the guys went for a soak. However, after hearty servings of hot chocolate, pizza and ice cream, the winds died down and I mustered up the confidence to venture outside. The water temperature was perfect as we watched trees sway in the breeze beneath an impressive meteor shower. I caught a glimpse of the brightest meteor I've ever seen — an orange fireball with a white tail, ripping through the moonlit sky. 

So you can see, can't you, why Tolovana is a magical place? There are always surprises. The next morning, the wind was gone, and even though a respectable cold (-20) still lingered in the valleys, calm air made me feel impervious to the chill. After making a wide arc through the long night, the nearly full moon set over the mountains while we marched up the dome and ran down the other side. I raised my arms and took large, loping steps — flying, or more like moonwalking, through the surreal landscape with its glistening ghost trees and lunar plains.  

It was an easy climb back to the trailhead — not much effort at all compared to the rewards. Frost-incrusted trees slumped over the trail like a crystal tunnel, sparkling in the early afternoon light. Simply magic. 


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