Last year, on February the 12th, I was in Colorado, on top of a mountain, expecting a nice dinner and a scenic view.
What I got was a diamond ring, a heart attack, and a total loss of appetite (I don’t know if it was necessarily in that order…)
It was a fabulous surprise, we’ll just put it that way. And so, to celebrate our one year engagement anniversary (is that what they’re called?), we went to the Arctic Circle.
I know… not very traditional. But it was pretty exciting. We did what is called an “Aurora Fly-Drive” with a touring company out of Fairbanks. The idea is that you fly out of Fairbanks to Coldfoot, Alaska, which takes about an hour. Then you get in a van and drive back to Fairbanks, stopping along the way to see awesome things, which takes about 12 hours (not exaggerating).
J and I arrived at the little airport about an hour before we were supposed to take off. There, we met the rest of our group. There was another young couple along, from Taiwan. Their names were hard to pronounce, much less remember, so unfortunately I don’t know them. They did not talk to the rest of us very much… I think their English was pretty limited, so apart from things like “thank you” and “yes” or “no,” they kept to themselves.
There was Wayne, a rather eccentric older man from San Diego, California. He informed us all that he was a “city boy,” and had no clue how people survived in a place like Alaska. His friends all believed he was going on a life-threatening excursion involving dogsleds and temperatures reaching 30 below. He talked to himself a lot, and repeated himself often… repeated himself often.
And then there was Ian, a friendly man in his 30s who is from London. He used to work for an airline, so he could travel for cheap… he had friends in New York, so he would make day trips to New York on a regular basis. And thus began his “love affair” with the United States, as he put it. His goal is to visit all 50 states by the time he is 40… and he only has a handful left. He once believed Alaska would be his last state, but now he’s planning on giving Hawaii that honor (“it seems a better place to celebrate my accomplishments”).
So there we were, six of us total. As our guide gleefully told us, “we are family for a day!”
They sat us all down in the office and walked us through the entire day, step by step. We would be getting on a small plane at about noon and flying to Coldfoot, which is in the Arctic Circle. Our pilot would point out significant landmarks to us on the journey.
Upon arrival in Coldfoot, we could eat lunch (which we ordered before we ever took off, so it was waiting for us when we got there). Then we could explore Coldfoot for a while, get in our 12-passenger van at 3:00 and head back to Fairbanks. The goal was to be back in Fairbanks by 2:00 a.m. (it ended up being about 3:30). On the way, we would stop at several different locations, and a major goal was to see the Northern Lights. We would eat “heater meals,” which are very similar to MRE’s (something you know all about if you are in the military or have ever survived a major natural disaster).
Finally, the time came, and we marched ourselves out to the airstrip to board our plane.
The first glimpse of the plane excited me. The second glimpse worried me. By the time we had climbed on, I was having a full-blown freak-out session. It looked like a plane you would dig out of a cereal box. It held about 10 people, and we put our backpacks in a compartment in the wing. J picked seats at the very front of the plane… the very front. I was behind the pilot. If he were to pass out or something, I would the one that would have to take over flying the plane… there certainly wasn’t enough room for anyone else to get to the front to do it.
As I was running through my mind all that I know about flying planes (and coming up with nothing), we took off. We bounced our way down the runway and stumbled into the air. We flew off over a vast wilderness of nothingness and snow. Scenes from movies like To Brave Alaska and Lost in the Barrens flashed through my mind. I began to think about how I would much rather die on impact if we crashed than have to survive in that wilderness for who-knows-how-long.
I spent the entire flight praying (and watching the fuel gauge, which seemed to be dropping at an alarming rate). Just as I had made a deal with God that I would go along with His will if He saw fit to crash our plane, if He let me die on impact (painlessly, of course), our landing strip appeared.
The landing was not as bad as I expected, and once we were safely on the ground and had rescued our bags from the wing, I figured it was okay to breath again.
We were escorted to the Coldfoot Lodge… which, by the way, is technically a truck stop. You can read more about the history of it here: http://coldfootcamp.com/history.htm. Coldfoot is about 7 hours south of Prudhoe Bay, which is at the very very top of Alaska. That is driving about 35-40 miles an hour, which they say is average for that stretch of road.
After exploring Coldfoot for a bit (it only took that long), we all loaded into a 12-passenger van and prepared for our very long drive. We left at 3:00 p.m. and arrived back in Fairbanks at about 3:30 a.m. Before we left, headed south, we were assured that we were headed in the right direction by this sign:
Our tour guide was a really nice lady who has lived in Alaska for thirty years. She usually works at the school system in Fairbanks, but she does these tours on the side. She REALLY knew her trivia and history, and she was really excited to share it with us (!!!!).
We were driving down the Dalton Highway. The highway was created along with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, so that trucks could reach the remote places of Alaska that it needed to go. It was made available for public use in 1980. It’s definitely not a busy highway; most of the traffic is made up of truckers taking loads of equipment to oil rigs along the North Slope. The pipeline is over 800 miles long, and follows the Dalton Highway, so as we drove we could see it pretty much the whole way back to Fairbanks (part of it runs through Glennallen!). About half of it is above ground, and the other half is buried.
We made several stops along the way… the first one was to see the Pipeline.
You can learn more about the Pipeline here: http://www.alyeska-pipe.com/Default.asp. It is actually shockingly interesting, for a giant pipe.
The drive. was. gorgeous.
We made several stops along the way- you gotta pay attention to those “Scenic View” signs that indicate you should pull over and take pictures NOW! Unfortunately, we couldn’t always read the informative signs that explained what you were seeing… some of them were a bit buried:
One of the most exciting stops, of course, was to document crossing the Arctic Circle.
They had a mat laid out in front of the sign, marking the line where you cross into the circle. Super exciting. =)
Later, we stopped at the (frozen) Yukon River and we got to walk out on it. Yes, I was terrified. The scene from Little Women where Amy falls through the ice kept running through my head. But we made it out alive.
And then we tackled our heater meals. There were instructions on the box. No one understood the instructions. And there was water involved, which caused problems for me, because I spill things. But our guide excitedly led us through the process, and we figured it out. As soon as you activated the heating thingy (by pouring water on it), steam came pouring out of the whole thing and hit you in the face, making you WANT to jump out of the van and fall into the Yukon River.
We all spent some time trying to decipher it, while Wayne sat in the back and narrated (“so I just pour the water in here… pour it in here…”).
After the food was “cooked,” we ate it. I got a vegetarian lasagna. It was delicious, but probably only because I was super hungry. Ian ate the same thing, and was less impressed. Maybe they have a higher standard for lasagna in the UK, though.
After dinner, our next goal was to find the Northern Lights. And find them we did! J told me he spent the four previous days praying that God would give us a good show… and oh man, it paid off. The lights were BRILLIANT. So amazing.
Oooooh man. If I could bottle the Northern Lights and bring them back to Alabama, I would. But I don’t think it’ll work.
After seeing the Lights, our tour guide dug out a big pot of hot water and drink mixes for cider, hot chocolate, or coffee. We all eagerly filled our cups up (several times) and tried to warm ourselves from the inside.
The next day we went to North Pole, Alaska, where Santa Claus lives. Unfortunately, Santa Claus was not home, and no matter how much we knocked on his door, he would not answer. None of the elves even answered. I think they all take a long vacation after the holidays…
Anyways, North Pole is an adorable town. Pictures of it coming later!