Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Still my perfect holiday

Our timing was impeccable. We stepped off a plane at 10:45 p.m., rented a car, grabbed a stack of frozen pizzas and trail snacks at Safeway, and even snuck in a long winter's nap at Corrine and Eric's house. Fewer than ten hours after arriving in Fairbanks, we hit the icy road north to the place where Christmas dreams come true: The Magical Land of Tolovana Hot Springs. 

How much do I love Tolovana Hot Springs? Let me count the ways. There's the frequent promise of an epic approach. The trailhead sits at one of the windiest, coldest spots south of the Yukon River. The 10.5-mile trail takes the most direct line to the springs, descending into a frigid valley before ascending 1,500 feet straight up the wind-blasted Tolovana Hot Springs Dome. Spindly spruce fade to open tundra. Spindrift buries the trail, often forcing 1mph post-holing into windchills of 60 below. Tolovana Hot Springs Dome is one of the most intense places I've experienced, second only to the sea ice across Norton Sound. It's surreally brutal. 

Except when it's not. Sometimes, you show up at the trailhead just a couple days after winter solstice, and it's 15 degrees above zero and eerily calm. You know the weather on the Dome will be similar, so you remove the many layers you nervously applied during the drive north, and step into the sunshine. It's a subtle sunshine, just barely peeking over the southern horizon at noon, which might be considered late morning here, about one hour into a 3.5-hour day. 

Tolovana carries the promise of a relaxing soak in thermal hot springs, a delicious feast of pizza and ice cream hauled in by sled, and a long winter's snooze in a wood-heated cabin. For these reasons, it's easy to convince friends to join in the fun. For the first night, we were joined by Corrine on skis, Eric with his kicksled, and fat-biker Steve, an Iowan in Fairbanks for an extended stay. We all left the trailhead within 20 minutes of each other. Bracing for what is usually a 4- to 5-hour strenuous slog, I was determined to be the slowest by only a small increment. (3:24 for the hike in. Woo!)

The miles passed with surprisingly little effort as the barely-risen sun began to sink behind Denali. From Tolovana Hot Springs Dome, in every direction, we viewed hundreds of miles of wilderness — swamps and rivers and domes and far-away mountains, almost unbroken by human interface.

Sunrise to sunset may only span three and a half hours, but lingering nautical twilight nearly doubles the length of a winter day at 65 degrees north. All seven hours are filled with pastel and golden light that renders the landscape in striking hues. For a beauty seeker, the fleeting daylight of the far-northern winter offers uninterrupted awe.

Our home for the next two nights was a two-room log cabin, one of three small structures at this privately-owned destination. The luxurious accommodations include a nearby cold spring for drinking water, a wood stove and stocked firewood, solar-powered electric lights, and a propane oven. I received complements for my masterful frozen-pizza-baking skills (I didn't drop the pizzas on the floor! Which did happen the first time we were here.) Then we were off to the tubs for a midnight soak, by which I mean it was about 8:30 p.m. Alaska time, six hours after sunset. Corrine teased us for donning our expedition down coats, which led us to coin the term "down shaming." It was our turn to smirk as we crawled out of the water into single-digit air and slipped on instantly warming outfits.

Several times during the night, I got up to walk outside in my underwear and booties and look at the sky. The first three times yielded no discoveries, but a chance 6 a.m. bathroom break elicited a gasp when I finally looked up. I thought 6 a.m. was too late for the Northern Lights! Quickly I rushed back inside to put on a down coat and pants.

For more than an hour I wandered through a maze of foot paths circling the hot springs, slipping and skidding in my down booties as I craned my neck skyward. At first I was looking for a good vantage point to take a photo, but my point-and-shoot camera wasn't really up to the task. All of these images were shot with long exposure and high ISO while attempting to hold the camera as steady as possible in my hands. Professional-quality shots were not going to happen, so after a few somewhat adequate attempts, I put the camera away.

After skidding back to the cabin, I laid on my back on top of Beat's empty sled and watched the aurora dance in the sky. The temperature was just a notch over 0 degrees, perfect for comfortable reclining in my "down-shamed" puffy coat and pants. Waves of celestial light rippled across the sky, and I entertained childish musings about Christmas Eve and Santa's sleigh — after all, it was already Christmas morning across the International Date Line, just a couple of time zones to the west. I could have watched this astonishing ballet all night long, but around 7:30 a.m. the green light finally began to fade. Subtle hints of deep violet dawn outlined the southern horizon. Morning comes too early here in Alaska.

Our friends packed up to head out, and Beat and I set out for a Christmas Eve day-hike to what was still the most beautiful destination within range, the top of the Dome. I packed a picnic lunch of bagel sandwiches, piled with prosciutto and butter, and cookies. Usually on winter trips we eat trail mix and Mountain House meals, so this was high gourmet.

Beat took the opportunity to practice his trail-breaking snowshoeing skills, just long enough to remember how much this sucks.

The Dome was again warm and calm, stunningly so. Basking in the faint rays of the high noon sun, we plopped down on our sleds and gnawed on the thick bagel sandwiches that had already partially frozen. Although temperatures were relatively warm still, there was just enough of a breeze to drive down the chill. In the time it took to masticate the icy sandwiches, we started to shiver. Still, we had a picnic on top of the Second Worst Place in the World That I've Ever Experienced! On Christmas Eve! Yes, this place is magical.

We were back just in time to watch sunset from the upper pool. This pool was too hot, and many minutes of shifting the cold and hot water intake did not change the scalding temperature. We did most of our sunset-viewing sitting naked on the icy rim, submerged only below our knees. Somehow we managed to stay warm like this at 0F.

Christmas morning dawned, and all too soon, our revelry had to come to an end. Christmas Day is always a let-down. At least we had the hike out, which included two steep climbs instead of one. For having almost no sled-drag training this season, I felt strong. My hamstrings complained a little. But my breathing was good, and when my breathing is good, everything else comes for free (to an extent, I suppose.) Still, just 3:55 for the hike out. Woo!

Down in the valleys, temperatures had dropped to -5F. Just enough to take a frosty-face photo, without feeling the more crushing effects of deep cold. Perfect in every way. I'd call the perfection of this trip a Christmas miracle, but I think it's just the magic of Tolovana. 


  1. It was an amazing, awesome trip to Tolovana!

  2. Oh! I'd like to go there! Sounds like nobody else had rented the other place or maybe there's only one party at a time? I love the combination of cold, hot springs and northern lights!

    1. This trip was actually the most crowded I've ever seen Tolovana. At one cabin there was a couple who skied in, and three Russian guys at the other. The cabins are just barely within sight of each other, though, and it's rare to see the other parties. There are even three tubs, so you could theoretically soak 24-7 and not encroach on anyone else. Tolovana is definitely worth the trip, but I mean it when I say that the weather for the hike in can be brutal. I know local Fairbanksians who refuse to book Tolovana this time of year, for that reason.

  3. This sounds and looks incredible. And a small gathering in the middle of nowhere with easy food and as much activity as you want sounds like a glorious way to spend Christmas.

    Plus I had a touch of Buddy the Elf: "Steve!! I know him!!"

  4. Wow Jill...makes me want to go do that! And then I remember that I HATE cold (I'm more of a tropical guy...Christmas in Hawaii would suit me better...we did Thanksgiving in Kona this year, it was AWESOME!). Still, it does look magical! Well done, and glad you felt good...that is magic in it's own right!

  5. Beautiful! Every time I read one of your books (I've read all 6 - loved them all) or one of your blog posts, I am transported to the experience by the beautiful photos and the wonderful descriptions of the places. When I see a new post, I can't wait to read to find out where it will take me next. Thank you Jill for sharing your adventures!

  6. Great photos, write-up, and trip! Thanks for putting in your times. I was faster than you on the way in (3:12 to 3:24) but slower on the way out (4:02 to 3:55). That's because the kicksled rocks on the downhills, especially steep, narrow downhills. Flats and uphills, not so much. But the dang thing weighs 19 pounds empty. Can Beat make things with carbon fiber yet?


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