The Chena Hot Springs is a resort that seems to cater for all types of visitors; the inquisitive can marvel at intricate sculptures in the Ice Musuem, energy fanatics can visit and learn in the Geo-thermal centre and energy plant, the hikers can go walking up to granite tors, and the stressed can relax and unwind in the geothermal springs. The group that I went with (including myself) as tourists were interested in seeing a wide range of the resort's facilities.
After a pleasant car journey up there, we decided to start the day with a hike around the surrounding area, and so made our way with only an A4 hand-drawn map and our bearings to get around. It was enough, I'm pleased to say. Whilst the hike wasn't difficult and although we didn't make much in the way of altitude progress, what we did see was impressive. When I arrived in Fairbanks, avid blog readers may recall I walked the Chena River; it was great to see another section of its profile today.
On our walk, we cut through kennels, and were greeted by a chorus of woofs and howls. These dogs are used in sled-races amongst other winter activities, but I presume they are just as active during the summer, even if mushing isn't possible. One thing I did notice about these dogs is that some of them were perhaps a little skinny; it's a wonder how they manage to stay warm. Once again, a decade ago, you wouldn't have found me within ten miles of a place populated by so many dogs; today, I was the last to leave.
We soon realised our hike wasn't one of the official trails as set on the map, but we made our own loop and eventually headed back. Most of it was through spacious forest, alongside one of the tributaries to the Chena. Sometimes there would be a forest clearing and once again you could regain something of a panoramic view, before entering back into the monotony of snow-dusted forest tracks.
It was time to warm up, and lunch in the Chena Resort restaurant was the group decision. I have to say I had strong reservations about dining in such an establishment following reports I had heard. Indeed, 'ripping off' was on the daily special board. A small plate of hot caramel apple pie cost $8 and a hot chocolate $2.75. (I haven't spent that much on a lunch for a long time on this scholarship, and it seemed my frugal ways these last couple of weeks had been cancelled out by one single experience at the resort restaurant. Having read that back, maybe I'm being a tad unfair. The building interior tried to incorperate an old look with the contemporary. There was a log fire, which started up and died by an electric timer; the tables were constructed out of large tree trunks, but had been glazed and coated with plastic. These features didn't withdraw from the comfort; indeed, after hiking in 20 degrees F, a cosy restaurant stop was well needed.
Next on our plan was the Ice Musuem; the largest all year round ice musuem in the world. It's about 100m long roughly and about 20m or so wide. It's need of being an 'all year round' musuem means it requires a special cooling system, which when I was looking at the diagram, looked like an impressive feat of engineering itself. The contents inside though- the actual ice sculptures- were even more impressive.
Ice is an amazing material, and the people who constructed many of the sculptures in this building, had deservedly won many gold medals in competitions. Although some of these creations look more effective with light, let me tell you, the detail that's gone into the ice carving is something to be admired.
Apart from getting married in, which is just one of the many uses of the musuem, visitors can opt to stay a night, in the specially designed sleeping quarters. I'm still not sure whether I would do it or not. I took a look into one of the quarters; there is no bed, just a carpet, although I'm reliably told that you can request sleeping bags and rugs. One of the dorms has a staircase under construction, which suggests it's a popular resort.
The last feature of the ice musuem I haven't yet mentioned is the bar. Oh yes, a bar made out of ice, with Martini on the menu, served in special ice-carved glasses. You can take these away with you, although I'm not sure how far you can get with them!
So, onto the Hot Springs then! Well, after going out the ice musuem, and plunging into outdoor 20 degree F temperatures once again, it seemed like a great way of warming up again. The Hot Springs- the focal attraction here- were less costly than the ice musuem; just $10 to get in, on unlimited access, with free swim suit rental.
The whole set up is quite ingenious because you have to run from the changing areas, about 15m to the hot springs, making the temperature difference higher and ultimately the springs first feel much hotter than they actually are. Ah, but how lovely they are! Seriously, I rank this as one of the top things I've done on this trip so far. The comfort is indescribable; you're soaking in 40 degree C water, staring out to the snow capped mountains, with only a dense steam column between you and the stars.
There were also a few chairs, scattered here and there, for bathers to relax in. Sitting in one, alone for probably the first time in the day, immersed in the warm tranquility that Chena Hot Springs offers so generously, I realised once again how lucky I was, not just to be in Chena, but to be in Alaska and ultimately, to have this scholarship.